|His first public lecture to a paying audience was in 1874 at the Midland Institute in Birmingham, a venue he returned to on many occasions. The lecture was a 2-parter - The Transit of Venus and A Night at Lord Rosse’s Telescope.
The Institute was later given charge of a collection of apparatus designed and made by Willis, which was to be used for practical demonstrations during lectures. It turned out that the only person who knew how to use the apparatus was Ball. They persuaded Ball to come over to Birmingham and stay for a week, to teach others how to use it. He agreed provided he could give two lectures on Astronomy. Years later Ball was invited to give the inaugural lecture at the new hall in 1881 and was elected President of the Midland Institute in 1891.
This was the start of regular visits to the Midlands, and he lectured in Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Walsall as well as Birmingham. During my research I came across the programs of the Walsall Literary Institute from the 1880s till 1906. Ball lectured here on 9 occasions, and was the Institute’s President in 1898. His first lecture in the town did not go smoothly. Whilst Ball was describing the glories of the Midnight sky, the lanternist must have had serious trouble with his equipment. The local paper reported “The enjoyment of the Literary institute lecture by Sir Robert Ball on Wednesday last was much interfered with by the incompetent mis-management of the gas. The members of the Institute must look to Mr Alfred Stanley as responsible for this. Never did an audience, however, behave better under prevailing circumstances.. May Walsall audiences ever conduct themselves without any approach to panic, under whatever circumstances may arise”.
He only ever missed one lecture, and that was in Walsall; he had been due to speak at 8.00pm, 30 Oct 95, but at 5.00pm Mr Robinson, the Institute Secretary (himself a member of the RAS) received a telegram which read “Our train has just returned to Cambridge. Line washed away. Impossible to reach Walsall tonight. Very sorry for inconvenience….Ball.”
The chairman told a disappointed audience that “ the stars in their courses had fought against the astronomer”. Ball was to have stayed with the local vicar, who at less than an hour’s notice, agreed to lecture to 1100 people on English church architecture. Ball returned to the town several more times and had the honour of being the first person to lecture in the new town hall.
At many of his lectures he relied on slides and apparatus of various sorts to enliven the proceedings. In those days many lecturers cursed the lanternist, who would frequently mix up the slides or show them before the lecturer was ready, or as described earlier, have problems with the gas. Ball was more philosophical, saying that you could not expect from the lanternist who was paid only a few pennies for an/evening’s work, what you would expect from the lecturer, who if he was someone of Ball’s stature commanded high fees, and expenses.
There were often complaints about his high fees, some venues even thought he should impart his knowledge for free. His stock answer was that he had a wife and 5 children to keep, and had no intention of travelling half way across the country unless he was well paid.
He organised things very well, and would use his network of friends and associates to ensure that, after an evening’s lecture, he could dine and get accommodation, not at a hotel, but at the home of some noted dignitary, where he could be assured of good food and company.
Ball was an expert, he never used notes, and was able to captivate his audience with his subject matter. To give you an example of the way he would get the attention of his audience, here is the start of one of his lectures.
I try in these lectures to give some account of an exceptionally great subject a subject, I ought rather to say, of sublime significance. It may, I believe, be affirmed without exaggeration that the theme which is to occupy our attention, represents the most daring height to which the human intellect has ever ventured to soar in its efforts to understand the great operations of nature. The earth’s beginning relates to phenomena of such magnitude and importance that the temporary concerns which engage our thoughts must be forgotten in its presence.Our personal affairs, the affairs of the nation, and of the empire, indeed of all nations and all empires; nay, even all human affairs, past, present, and to come, shrink into utter insignificance when we come to consider the majestic subject of the evolution of the solar system, of which our earth forms a part. We shall obtain a glimpse of what that evolution has been, in the mighty chapter of the book of Nature on which we are now to enter.
On one occasion, a lecture to workers in Goole had been arranged. As was his custom, Ball arrived at the venue 20 minutes prior to the lecture. He found the hall surrounded by a large crowd. When he tried to get in, he was told that the hall was already full (1000people), and no more were being admitted. Eventually he got to a side door where some people were still being let in. The doorman asked him for his penny, to which Ball replied “But I’m the lecturer”. The doorman laughed and said “ I’ve heard that one before, now move along!” He was finally allowed in and lectured to the capacity crowd on “Other Worlds than ours”.
He was sometimes accused by persons in the front row of his audience that he spoke too loudly. He would say that he did so and I quote " in case there was a deaf old man in the back row. He had paid his penny and he was entitled to hear what he had to say ".