Tag Archives: astronomy

Solar System Cycle Track, York to Selby, England

By Carolyn Dougherty

Pluto on the Solar System trail, York to Selby
Pluto on the Solar System trail, York to Selby

The casual walker or cyclist exploring the portion of the Trans Pennine Trail between York, Bishopthorpe and Selby (travellers starting in York can find an entrance to the trail diagonally across from the southwest corner of the new York College campus on Tadcaster Road) might be surprised to encounter the Sun on a tripod.  This 2.5m diameter sculpture marks the beginning of the Solar System cycleway, a 576 million to 1 scale model laid out along about 10km of old railway right of way.  One can walk the solar system at three times the speed of light, or cycle it at ten times the speed of light; you’re guaranteed to return from your journey younger than when you set out!

Walking or cycling from planet to planet is a wonderful way to appreciate in a physical way how much closer the inner planets are to the Sun than the outer planets.  The first four planets are only a few meters along the path, but the distance from Jupiter to Saturn is about the same as that from the Sun to Jupiter, and the distance from Saturn to Uranus is about the same as that from the Sun to Saturn.

If you make it as far as Pluto, you can enjoy a well-deserved drink at the Greyhound Pub in Riccall.  If you can’t quite make it to the Pub at the End of the Solar System you can stop at the Naburn Station outdoor cafe just past Saturn, which boasts a 1/3 scale model of the Cassini Huygens spacecraft.  When it’s open, you can get homemade snacks and drinks; when it’s closed the ‘Trust Hut’ stocks milk, water, juice, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and sometimes biscuits in the tin.  A shower, toilet and tap are available 24/7.

One evening years ago a friend and I cycled to Bishopthorpe (just outside the inner planets), stopping at each planet to read the information plaques to each other.  ‘Oh,’ said the friend when we stopped at Mars, ‘I didn’t know Mars had moons.’  ‘How could you not know Mars had moons?  Where have you been, under a rock?’ ‘Not to Mars, obviously.’

Website: http://www.york.ac.uk/solar/


Space town, Kiruna, Sweden

By Fredrick Backman

Kiruna is a municipality and population centre the far north of Sweden known mostly for the large iron ore mine, the traditional Saami culture and the sublime nature, but also for the recent space physics research and space technology, and it is even referred to as ”Space Town Kiruna” by officials, media and the public.

Because Kiruna is situated in the auroral zone (aurora borealis or northern lights), it is an ideal location for doing scientific studies of the aurora. The first research station was established in the early 1900s by the lake Vassijaure close to the Norwegian border west of Kiruna. The building soon burned down and the scientific activities were later moved to a building in Abisko, further east along the railway line. Here, the activities continued into the 1940s, when it was decided that a new research station was needed. However, Abisko is still today a natural research station, with a focus on arctic science in general.

Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was established in 1957, about 8 km east of Kiruna town centre, by the E10 road close to the airport. KGO has been in operation ever since (auroral measurements actually started in 1948 at the same place). KGO has expanded and changed name to the Institute for Space Physics, also known as Kiruna Space Campus, as they are also doing teaching at university level. The institute is open for visitors. They have a restaurant and a little shop in the reception where you can buy souvenirs. You can reach it by bus from Kiruna town, alternatively rent a car or a bicycle.

In 1966, the Esrange sounding rocket range was inaugurated about 45 km east of Kiruna. Esrange is a service facility where scientists and engineers can go to perform experiments with rockets and balloons, or do satellite communications. There is a hotel there. Esrange is civilian and mostly open for the public, but a large part of the area is off limits when they do rocket launches, and an area around near the launch site is permanently fenced.

The rocket impact field is very large (5,600 sq. km) and covers the entire north of Kiruna municipality to the Norwegian and Finnish borders. You should not go there unless you are certain there is no rocket launch going on, but there are 19 security shelters scattered around the field where people can go to be protected in case there is a rocket launch going on. The area is not inhabited but the Saami people use it for their reindeer husbandry, and hunters and fishers are sometimes in the area. There are almost no roads there, but the area can be reached via the E10 and E45 roads.

The Esrange launch site
The Esrange launch site, by Gaelen Marsden. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
One of the security shelters at Esrange.
One of the security shelters at Esrange, by Gerrit. Image licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The main site of Esrange can only be reached via the E10 road, and the road to the north-east via Jukkasjärvi. It is a bit complicated to get there, because there are no public transports, so either you must rent a car or go by taxi, alternatively if you are lucky you can book a bus ride with Kiruna’s tourist information, but they only drive if there is a minimum amount of travellers. I recommend that you also phone Esrange in advance to make sure they can receive you. They have a small museum and a souvenir shop, but you must book in advance to get entrance and be guided there.

There are also other facilities in the “space town”. Some are easy to reach but others are more hidden. Scattered around in the municipality (and outside) are a number of radar antennas and large parabolic antennas. The large EISCAT dish is clearly visible from the E10 main road. The ALIS auroral imaging system consists of a number of sites around Kiruna and neighbouring municipalities.

In Kiruna town you can find a rocket monument close to the bus station. You can also find the secondary “space school” (“Rymdgymnasiet”) and a building known as the Space House (“Rymdhuset”) which also has a history of relevance to the Space Town. Just outside Kiruna town you also find the Bengt Hultqvist Observatory.

If you want to see the northern lights, Kiruna is an ideal place but keep in mind that the aurora can only be seen during the dark nights, and Kiruna has very bright summer nights (because of the midnight sun) so you must go there in the autumn, winter or spring if you want to see the aurora. In Abisko, you can find the Aurora Sky Station but the auroras can be seen from anywhere, depending on the weather and the solar magnetic activities.

While in Kiruna, you may also be interested in visiting the LKAB mine (south-west of the centre) or the Ice Hotel (on the road to Esrange). If you like wildlife or hiking, you may also be interested in the 400 km King’s Trail (”Kungsleden”) hiking track which starts in Abisko. Kiruna is a paradise for wildlife experiences.

Of related interest to historians of science and technology are also Kronogård and Nausta in Jokkmokk municipality. This is where the first rocket launch was done in 1961, with further experiments until 1964. Be warned that this is close to a military missile test range and sneaking around in the forest with a camera may not be a good idea. You don’t need to worry about this in Kiruna (other than falling rocket debris).

Further reading

Fredrick Backman, Making Place for Space : A history of “Space Town” Kiruna 1943-2000. Dissertation in History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University, Sweden, (2015).

Wormbs, Nina and Källstrand, Gustav, A Short History of Swedish Space Activities, ESA report HSR-39, Noordwijk : Eur. Space Agency, 2007.

“Swedish Space Corporation 25 years, 1972-1997”, http://www.zenker.se/Space/Jubilee/jubilee-a.shtml [2013-06-29]

Kew Observatory, Richmond

By Lee Macdonald

Side view of Kew Observatory
Side view of Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory is close to the River Thames in the Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey. It is not open to the public, but can be viewed through the metal gates to its enclosure from the end of a road leading to it through the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club. (Beware of flying golf balls!) In the middle years of the nineteenth century Kew was a major centre for research into Sun-Earth connections, geomagnetism and meteorology and from 1900 to 1902 it was briefly the first home of the National Physical Laboratory, now at Teddington.

On 3 June 1769 the second transit of Venus of the eighteenth century occurred. This event was partially visible from the UK and King George III commissioned the building of the observatory in the Old Deer Park. On 3 June the sky cleared just in time for the transit. The King, Demainbray and a small group of others successfully observed the ingress of Venus onto the Sun’s disc. In the 1770s Kew was the site of the successful testing of John Harrison’s marine chronometer that enabled sailors to find their longitude at sea.

In 1841 the government decided to stop maintaining the observatory and offered the use of the building to the Royal Society. In March 1842 the Royal Society turned down the government’s offer, but by then the Royal Society had a rival in the form of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), who quickly made moves to acquire it. Under the BAAS, Kew Observatory was soon re-established, initially concentrating on meteorology. The main mover and shaker behind the scenes at Kew under the BAAS was the geophysicist and Royal Artillery officer Edward Sabine. As well as meteorology, in the 1840s he gradually introduced geomagnetic research at Kew as the BAAS’s limited budget allowed.

The Sun and its influence on the Earth

Soon after Kew was acquired by the BAAS, German amateur astronomer Heinrich Schwabe discovered that the number of spots seen on the Sun varies in a cycle of approximately 10 years. In the early 1850s Sabine discovered that Schwabe’s sunspot cycle exactly matched a 10-year cycle of variations in Earth’s magnetic field. Astronomers quickly became interested in observing the Sun. In 1856 the printer, chemist and amateur astronomer Warren De La Rue designed a ‘photoheliograph’, a special telescope for recording photographic images of the Sun. This was used at Kew to take daily solar images from 1859 until the early 1870s. Solar activity was measured by working out the total surface area of the Sun covered by sunspots on the photographs.

In 1859 Kew played an important role in discovering a connection between what are now known as solar flares and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. On 1 September of that year the magnetometers at Kew recorded a brief but very noticeable jump in the Earth’s magnetic field at exactly the same time as a flare was observed by two amateur astronomers.

In 1860 the photoheliograph was briefly removed from Kew to a site in Spain, where De La Rue used it to take some of the first good pictures of a total solar eclipse. He used these images to show that prominences are part of the Sun and do not, as some believed, belong to the Moon.

Meteorology and the National Physical Laboratory

Ever since it was acquired by the BAAS in 1842, meteorology was a major part of the observational programme at Kew. Systematic records were kept of the main meteorological phenomena such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity and experiments were made in using automatic instruments to record the weather.

Meteorology itself underwent major changes in the years after 1852. In 1854 the Board of Trade established a ‘Meteorological Department’, now known as the Met Office, initially to provide weather information to ships at sea. From the earliest days of the Met Office, Kew was vital to its work. It became the Office’s central observatory, from which its best observations were obtained. Instruments to be used on board ships were sent to Kew for testing, to ensure they all complied with the same standard of accuracy. The testing of instruments became a major part of the work at Kew, especially towards the end of the century. From the 1870s instruments verified at Kew bore a distinctive monogram, which became an international symbol of instrument quality.

Meanwhile, the BAAS was finding Kew an increasingly expensive drain on its limited finances and so in 1870 it was taken over by the Royal Society. In the 1890s calls intensified for a national physical laboratory for calibrating instruments on a large scale and establishing standards of measurement. Kew Observatory, with its existing calibration programme, was the obvious location and the National Physical Laboratory was officially established there in 1900. However, the building soon proved to be too cramped for the purpose and local residents objected to new buildings going up in the Old Deer Park, so a new site had to be found. In 1902 the laboratory was moved to new premises at Bushy House, Teddington, the headquarters of the NPL today.

Kew Observatory in the 20th century and beyond

The solar programme was moved to Greenwich in 1873 and geomagnetic observations were discontinued in 1925. In 1910 the observatory was taken over by the Met Office and it remained a major observatory and research station in meteorology for much of the twentieth century. Sadly, government cutbacks forced the Met Office to close down operations at Kew at the end of 1980. Until 2011 the building was leased by the Crown Estate (its original owner) to the holding company of Autoglass, who used it as offices. Now (2013) it is about to be converted and modernised inside, before being sold as a kind of millionaire’s dream property. As a listed building, however, its external appearance cannot be significantly altered.

Further Reading

Cawood, John, 1979. The Magnetic Crusade: Science and Politics in Early Victorian Britain. Isis 70, 492-518.

Clark, Stuart, 2007. The Sun Kings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howarth, O J R, 1922. The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect. 1831-1921. London: BAAS. (A second edition was published in 1931.)

Jacobs, L, 1969. The 200-Years’ Story of Kew Observatory. Meteorological Magazine, 98, 162-171.

Magnello, Eileen, 2000. A Century of Measurement: An Illustrated History of the National Physical Laboratory. Canopus Publishing.

Scott, Robert Henry, 1885. The History of the Kew Observatory. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 39, 37-86.

Walker, Malcolm, 2012. History of the Meteorological Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Muzeum Techniki, Warsaw

By Charlotte Connelly

The formidable and controversial Palace of Culture and Science – a gift from Stalin to the people of Warsaw – looms over the city as a reminder of the soviet era. Within the building is a viewing gallery, lots of conference space and the subject of this entry, the Muzeum Techniki. One benefit of the enormous building is that it makes finding Warsaw’s technical museum pretty easy.

Stalin’s gift to Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science houses the Muzeum Techniki.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

The museum is spread over three floors and houses historic technology collections including transport, mining, communication, computing and cosmology. There is also a temporary exhibition space where the display regularly changes. The displays are traditional and do not benefit from modern digital interpretation techniques. Indeed the whole experience is in very stark contrast to Warsaw’s most highly lauded museum, the Chopin Museum, which recently reopened with high levels of digital and interactive display. However, what the Muzeum Techniki lacks in elaborate display techniques it more than makes up for in rich displays of objects.

One of the strongest collections on display is of mechanical music technologies, perhaps this is not surprising as many leading manufacturers were based in Central Europe. Music boxes, self playing pianos and other musical treats are on open display for visitors to explore.

The mechanical music collection is one of the strengths of the Muzeum Techniki.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Other strengths are the computing collection, which includes early Polish computers and Poland’s first differential analyser, as well as some examples of soviet computing. There is also an extensive communications collection that includes Polish manufactured equipment as well as plentiful examples from better known manufacturers, particularly those in neighbouring Germany.

One room which is a little less densely populated with objects and housing very few original artefacts is the space gallery. Nicolaus Copernicus is one of Poland’s national heroes, and his cosmological work is presented in juxtaposition with high quality models of technologies from the soviet space programme. Copies of Copernicus’s equipment are displayed alongside some archive material and text panels (in Polish) that describe the cosmological system he proposed. Visitors can round off their exploration of space with a short planetarium show.

Copies of instruments used by Copernicus sit alongside displays about space exploration.

Photo by Charlotte Connelly and free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence

Visitors who don’t speak Polish will find a limited amount of labelling available in English, but interpretation is generally is in short supply even for Polish speakers. For visitors who want more information there are tour guides available for a fee, and it is possible to arrange an English language tour. For those who already have an interest in the history of technology the displays are rich and varied enough to be engaging. However, visitors with little or no background knowledge are likely to struggle to make sense of the enormous numbers of objects they are faced with. Despite that caveat, the Muzeum Techniki is well worth a visit, not least as an insightful contrast to other contemporary museum displays that make extensive use of digital and interactive technologies to interpret the history of science and technology.

Other local points of interest

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Museum – this museum is very light on objects, but rich in images and text about Marie Curie’s life and particularly her early life in Warsaw. The Museum is housed in Curie’s former home in Warsaw’s New Town.

Copernicus Science Centre –  the science centre opened in 2010 and amongst other things aims to explain the science behind Copernicus’s work.

Copernicus Monument and the Polish Academy of Science – Warsaw’s monument to Copernicus is outside Staszic Palace, home of the Polish Academy of Science. On the ground alongside the monument is a nicely realised diagrammatic representation of Copernicus’s model of the solar system.

International Museum of Horology (Musée International d’Horlogerie), Switzerland

By Justine Cook

Musée International d’Horlogerie
Musée International d’Horlogerie, by Schwizgebel. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The International Museum of Horology (Musée International d’Horlogerie) is situated in the picturesque Swiss Jura Mountain city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the canton of Neuchâtel. The area is famously known as the ‘Watch Valley’ which stretches approximately 120 miles from Geneva to Basel in the north-western region of Switzerland.

Starting life as a small collection of time-pieces in the city’s Horological School (École d’horlogerie) in 1865, the intricate workings of a selection of watches and clocks were carefully studied and analysed by apprentice watch-makers and their teachers only. The ever-expanding collection, however, soon required a larger purpose-built space. Any endeavour to maintain restricted access to the collection proved ephemeral as it was deemed of worldwide horological interest.

Publicly recognising this fact in 1963, Professor Georges-Henri Rivière, Director of the International Council of Museums (Conseil international des musées, or ICOM), boldly declared: ‘La Chaux-de-Fonds is the world’s horological capital; its horological museum must be the most beautiful in the world…’

International prominence ensued five years later, when the collection completed its transition from meagre School status to monumental Musée international d’horlogerie, enhancing the collection’s original pedagogic purpose; this time, accessible to a wider (public) audience. Relocating to Rue des Musées, in 1972, gave a new-found significance to the collection; strengthening its synergy with the nearby Natural History and Fine Arts Museums and boosting its historical prominence.

Musée International d’Horlogerie entrance
Musée International d’Horlogerie entrance, by Tomleighmartin. Image licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

The building’’s eye-catching avant-garde architecture – largely underground – proves a remarkable arena for creative museography. Visitors are drawn in by the enticing entrance, eager to explore this intriguing cave-like space. Adding to the novel architectural design, a portico sculpture commissioned for the museum’s 25th anniversary (1999) – known as the ‘Porte magique’ (‘Magic Door’) – welcomes visitors to the museum broadcasting the time in French, German, and English.

Scientific work conducted here – bolstered by the creation of the ‘Man and Time’ Institute (Institut l’homme et le temps) in 1989 – offers an insight into ‘the role of time and timekeeping instruments in society’. The Institute runs a publishing house, by the same name, to communicate its research findings. Integrated within this establishment is the Centre for the Restoration of Antique Horological Pieces (Centre de restauration en horlogerie ancienne) and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (Centre d’études interdisciplinaires du temps). The former carries out conservation work under the watchful gaze of museum visitors, whilst the latter houses the most comprehensive specialised horological library in Switzerland.

A vast majority of didactic models and kinetic sculptures are exhibited to demonstrate the development of horological techniques over time. Displays chronologically arranged from 4000BC to the present-day allow people to walk through the history of time; learn how it was studied, measured and made.

A Marine Chronometer, designed by John Arnold & Son, London (1793)
A Marine Chronometer, designed by John Arnold & Son, London (1793), by Rama. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license.

Once inside, visitors begin their journey by traversing the passerelle (footbridge). Their attention is drawn up to the monumental collection of local clocks – the first types of mechanical clocks invented – hanging above. Sundials and water clocks from Antiquity, a full-scale model of Giovanni de Dondi’s Astrarium (a planetarium from the Middle Ages), musical clocks and marine chronometers of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and the wristwatch and atomic clocks of the twentieth century await curious museum-goers. It is, however, the smallest and most remarkable hand-made works which captivate the imagination, artistically stationed within spherical bubbles ingeniously suspended from the ceiling.

Reconstructions of watchmaker, engraver, and enameller workbenches are displayed equipped with all the (original) tools of their trade – from pin punchers and precision screwdrivers to lathe machines and their components – bringing the watch-maker to life. Any occupying thoughts of how such intricate items were made, where, and by whom, are instantly answered. Evolutionary mechanisms and decorative clock case designs, symbols of the technological advancements made in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century watchmaker’s workshop, all highlight the talented and artistic flare requisite in the watch-making trade; formulating a vista of historical craftsmanship.

The museum’s unique ‘Vivre l’heure’ exhibit – a giant clock-face embossed on the floor with spotlights above – allows visitors to interact with time itself. Standing in the centre, their shadow becomes the hands of a clock, projecting an accurate image of the time onto the floor below.

A segment of the TPC from the ALEPH particle detector
A segment of the TPC from the ALEPH particle detector (following the Large Electron Positron Collider’s (LEP) dismantling in 2000).

Upstairs, the ‘belfry’ houses a temporary exhibition dedicated to CERN – ‘Echo of the Sky’ (L’Echo du ciel) -which showcases a segment of the time projection chamber (TPC) from the ALEPH particle detector, given to the museum in 2001. This gallery also displays high precision timekeeping devices used particularly in observatories. It houses a magnificent meridian telescope from the early twentieth-century, as well as the latest in Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

The exterior carillon completes the unique architectural design of the museum. Standing in the grounds, this iconic twentieth-century structure, with fascinating aesthetic qualities, represents a futuristic time-piece that is both a kinetic clock and musical instrument. Its twenty-four tubular bells liven up every fifteen minutes with a tune, which changes depending upon the season, accompanied by seasonal colour-changing shutters, which move in time to the music.

The museum personifies the continuously evolving measurement of time. It depicts fascinating stories of how our ancestors kept the time, as well as how advancing technological innovations will continue to time-keep for generations to come. Showcasing delicately intricate as well as larger complex time-pieces from around the world, the museum displays the numerous values time-pieces have embodied; be they ornate symbols of wealth or daily (fashion) accessories. More significantly, the exhibitions present the ways time-measuring technology has influenced and developed other technologies – GPS, for instance, – for occupational as well as personal uses.

This collection confidently justifies its title of horological capital of the world’.

Further Information

Musée International d’Horlogerie Website

Press Release (PDF File)

Landes, David S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 2000) [Revised and Enlarged edition]

Royal Observatory Greenwich, London

By Rebekah Higgitt

Aerial photography of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Aerial photography of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. © National Maritime Museum.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is part of Royal Museums Greenwich, also comprising the National Maritime Museum (NMM), The Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Each reveals the royal and maritime influences on Greenwich, and each has elements of interest to historians of science. The buildings, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, with many more recent additions and alterations, border and are contained within a Royal Park and the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.

The science associated with Greenwich was very largely done for maritime purposes. It was practical, utilitarian and concerned with precision, accuracy and standards rather than the production of new knowledge. Few scientific discoveries can be associated with the Observatory, but its importance to the history of astronomy, timekeeping, navigation and cartography is demonstrated by the fact that, ultimately, the world’s standard reference point for time and position – the Prime Meridian – came to be the meridian on which the ROG’s chief instrument was set.

The Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 with the remit of improving astronomical tables in order to aid maritime navigation, specifically to support the lunar distance method for finding longitude (east-west position). Predicting the motions of the moon turned out to be an even harder problem than anticipated, and it was not until the 1760s that the ROG fulfilled its remit, when observations began to feed into the Nautical Almanac.

A complementary method of finding longitude at sea, using a timekeeper that could keep time at a regular rate over the course of a long voyage, matured at the same time. Once sea watches, or chronometers, became sufficiently numerous and affordable, the Astronomer Royal was charged with testing, rating and distributing them for the Royal Navy. Thus both the astronomical and timekeeping methods of finding longitude were supported by the work of the Observatory.

The ROG was a leading institution in the development of precision, meridian astronomy. The Astronomers Royal commissioned London’s top instrument and clock makers, the Observatory’s equipment and routines were hugely influential and its output was generally accepted as the most thorough and reliable. The work of John Flamsteed, James Bradley and Nevil Maskelyne was seen as core to Britain’s reputation in practical astronomy.

In the 19th century work at the ROG began to diversify. Magnetic and meteorological observations were begun, the distribution of time for civilian purposes became increasingly important and new techniques, particularly photography and spectroscopy, were introduced. Despite some new research, Greenwich largely focused on providing services for navigation and astronomy and on long-term programmes of data collection.

The buildings of the ROG, much extended and altered over the years, reveal this history. The oldest is Flamsteed House, the first floor and basement of which was home to the Astronomers Royal and their families until the institution moved to Herstmonceux in Sussex after the Second World War. On the first floor is the Octagon Room, built to house and test the going of Thomas Tompion’s experimental clocks, but thereafter largely used for storage and as a meeting room.

The real observatory was the series of buildings that housed the meridian instruments. Flamsteed’s original meridian observatory, which housed his mural arc, was built over several times, so the series of buildings that exists today is that begun by Bradley in the 1740s to house the quadrants, transit telescope, clocks and assistant astronomer. These buildings were extended several times as new instruments and additional work space was required. Some additions were removed when the Observatory was transformed into a Museum in the 1960s.

Greenwich Observatory
Greenwich Observatory by heatheronhertravels. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Many of the original instruments of the Observatory survive and have been set up largely in their original locations, providing a timeline toward the Airy Transit Circle (1851), which defined the international Prime Meridian.

Adjoining the meridian buildings is the Great Equatorial Building (1857), today housing the second of the two large equatorial telescopes that were mounted there in the 19th century. It marks a clear development of the Observatory’s work away from an exclusive focus on meridian astronomy. Below the telescope are rooms in which the Navy’s chronometers were tested and stored. Today they contain the office and workshop (visible through a glass wall) of the Museum’s horologists.

The Observatory’s site continues southwards from here, towards an area added in the 1830s. Until the end of the century, this contained the Magnetic Observatory, which was later moved out into an enclosure within Greenwich Park and, in the 1920s, to Abinger. The buildings that remain date from the 1890s: the Altazimuth Pavilion, originally containing an altazimuth telescope, and the South Building. Originally called the New Physical Observatory, this housed three large telescopes, darkrooms, record and instrument stores, workshop and the office space for a much enlarged staff.

Today, the displays at the ROG fall into three categories. Firstly, the Astronomer’s Apartments and the Octagon Room in Flamsteed House have been dressed to suggest their original 17th-century appearance, while the Meridian Building displays the remounted 18th- and 19th-century instruments. Secondly, there are galleries that focus on the history of timekeeping: the story of longitude, the Navy’s chronometers, the dissemination of Greenwich Mean Time, and personal timekeeping. Thirdly, the South Building houses galleries dedicated to interactive exhibits and modern astronomy and adjoins a purpose-built planetarium.

As well as many of the Observatory’s original instruments, the ROG’s displays benefit from astronomical, navigational and cartographic collections acquired by the NMM from the 1930s onward. Descriptions of all objects and artworks in the collections are available online. The archives of the ROG itself are now held at Cambridge (which is where the institution ended up before its closure in 1998) but the Museum’s Caird Library and Archive contain relevant books and manuscripts, including the Airy Collection of rare books formerly belonging to the Observatory.

Further reading

A brief introduction to the history of the ROG can be found on its website, but the most thorough history is the three volumes by Eric G. Forbes, A. J. Meadows and Derek Howse: Greenwich Observatory. Howse is also author of the very useful Greenwich Time and Longitude. For an illustrated snapshot of what the Observatory was like at the end of the 19th century see E. Walter Maunder’s The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a Glance at its History and Work.

There are four important catalogues showcasing some of the most significant scientific instrument collections: Astrolabes, Sundials, Globes and Sextants. A fifth, dedicated to Chronometers, is in progress.

The Monument, London

By Chiamaka Nwagbara

Inside the Monument, London
Inside the Monument, London, by Nick Garrod. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

The Monument is an undeniable exhibition of architecture merged with seventeenth century science. It offers spectacular views of London and was built to preserve the memory of the devastation caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666. This outstanding two hundred and two feet high Doric column with cantilevered stone staircase of three hundred and eleven steps leads to a viewing platform. It was stipulated in the London Building Act of 1667 for a column or pillar made of brass or stone to celebrate the rebuilding of London. Hence, Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General to King Charles II was commissioned to design and build the structure.

As the Surveyor of the Kings Works, Christopher Wren was in charge of the Royal Commission for Rebuilding London including the City Churches, the most notable being St Paul’s Cathedral. Hence, it is through no fault of his that he was initially credited for the design of the Monument. The general attribution changed after the publication of the diary of Dr Robert Hooke, a close friend and colleague of Wren, which had numerous references on its construction.

Hooke and Wren had known each other since their days at Oxford where they began collaborating in scientific experiments. Their friendship continued in the newly formed Royal Society where both were active members and Hooke had been appointed Curator of Experiments in 1662.

Illustrated drawing of the Monument
Illustrated drawing of the Monument. Image available in public domain.

Wren submitted the first proposed model of the Monument for consideration but the one that closely resembles the Monument was the design submitted by Robert Hooke. He recorded in his diary saying ‘perfected module of Pillar’ (as he often called it) and ‘At the Pillar in height 250 steps’. This shows how involved Robert Hooked was with the planning and construction of the column.

He also noted some structures which he thought should go on top of the Monument; from a large Ball of metal gilt to a large statue of the King. He went on to even propose a ball of copper and a phoenix which he had made and attached to a wooden model of the pillar. He later rejected it after he felt it would be expensive, misunderstood and dangerous if the wings were detached by wind. But what sits at the top of the Doric column is a flaming brass urn and whose idea of it is unknown.

A lesser known fact about the Monument is that it was purposely designed to serve two functions: as a memorial landmark and as a scientific instrument. Fuelled by their interests in astronomy and microscopy, Hooke and Wren decided to build a structure that would serve as a giant, vertical zenith telescope. A place where the movement of the earth round the sun can be observed for an extensive period of time and an opportunity to continuously observe the night sky.

Their effort is something to be greatly admired as they went on to build an underground laboratory (twenty feet deep with openings that allows access to air) which was intended to be used by the experimenter for experiments and to store his equipment. It is directly beneath the vertical shaft and the spiral staircase, and is offered a clear view of sky through the ornamental urn with a hinged lid. It is here that Wren and Hooke believed they would comfortable measure the tiny shifts in the position of the stars in the sky from their zenith telescope which they had failed to do in two previous attempts.

To veer ones thoughts away from the challenge of climbing three-hundred and eleven steps, you can imagine Robert Hooke climbing these steps to perform experiments, from measuring the pressure at different points (while climbing down the steps), to determining the height of the Monument (the distance from the upper platform to the floor of the underground laboratory). The latter would allow him to resume the pendulum and Torricellian experiments that were halted by the Great Fire. He also noted performing other experiments in his diary saying ‘At Fish Street Pillar (Monument) tried mercury barometer experiment … it descended at the top about one-third inch’. He was even known to have conducted several experiments at the Monument for the Royal Society including continuing an experiment previously started by Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle that later led to him developing a wheel barometer.

As I cast my gaze towards the rest of London at the top of the Monument, I cannot help but revel in the majestic yet complex nature of this seventeenth century structure. It is hard not to be impressed by the intricate use of science in creating a unique monument that unquestionable had become very important in Robert Hooke’s life. To move experiments from Gresham College (home of the Royal Society) to the Monument showed his belief in his vision. Hence, it must have been disappointing when the Monument failed to fulfil its intended function as a zenith telescope. They were never able to prove the movement of the earth around the sun as the vertical shaft was not stable enough to allow the level of accuracy needed for the measurements.

The Monument, London
The Monument, London, by Roland Turner. Image licensed via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Today, the Monument remains a popular tourist attraction with an extensive view of the London Skyline with the underground laboratory empty and closed off from the public. It has undergone restorations and repairs including the addition of a computer-controlled digital camera that provides live images and views from the top of the Monument for visitors including those that are not able climb the steps.

It is sad to know that their hope of utilising it as a large-scale scientific instrument was never fully achieved; however, the Monument allowed the vision of both Wren and Hooke to come to life and celebrates their innovations and contribution to the history of science.

Further Information:

Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren (Harper Collins, 2002)


Torun, Poland

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Copernicus Statue, Torun

The birthplace of Copernicus is a picturesque town on the Vistula River and provides some of the best examples of Gothic urban architecture in Central Europe. (And it’s famous for its gingerbread, too.) The tower on the Town Hall dates from 1274 and is the oldest in Poland. The house in which Copernicus was born is now a museum, devoted to his life and work.

Further information on Nicolaus Copernicus House Museum: http://www.visittorun.pl/301,l2.html

Frombork, Poland

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds


Frombork (the former Frauenburg, east of Gdansk) was home base for Copernicus. It is the city in which he held the position of Canon of the Cathedral. The old, fortified cathedral still stands on a hilltop, surrounded by stone walls from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and it has a remembrance tablet (from 1735) to the famous astronomer in the nave. The tower in the northwest part of the courtyard, built in the late fourteenth century, is named for Copernicus, and the sixteenth-century Bishop’s Palace in the south-west corner contains the Copernicus Museum. Here one finds old copies of De Revolutionibus and other memorabilia of both the man and the times.

Copernicus travelled extensively in the execution of his canonical duties, and the Polish Tourist Office publishes a map and guide to the region around Frombork listing nearly every village and town that Copernicus ever had occasion to visit. Making a circuit of 125 miles (200 km), we are directed to Braniewo (once Braunsberg and an important city of the Order of Teutonic Knights), then to Pieniezno, the village that used to be the seat of the religious Chapter of the See of Warmia-Copernicus lived here for two years. We then proceed to Orneta, where Copernicus was sent to receive oaths of loyalty (and taxes!) from the local serfs and from there to Lidzbark Warminski, where his uncle, the Bishop, had his home-Copernicus, among his other activities, served as the Bishop’s secretary and medical advisor. Lidzbark Warminski has a fine medieval Gothic castle, well-preserved and now housing a museum. Finally we are led to Olsztyn, a city with a popular folk museum, where Copernicus is said to have been put in charge of the defences against one of the invaders of the early sixteenth century. Our “monk” emerges as versatile man!

Paris Observatory, France

By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

Paris Observatory

The Paris observatory dates back to the ambitious days of Louis XIV and his chief minister Colbert. It was completed in 1672; its four walls are oriented precisely to the four points of the compass; the southern wall defines the nominal latitude of the city and a perpendicular line through the center of the building defines the “Paris meridian.” The actual numerical coordinates, relative to other places on earth, were established with the aid of the Danish astronomer Ole Remer, brought here by Colbert because he had inherited the mantle of Danish expertise that had been established a century earlier by Tycho Brahe. Remer remained in Paris for several years and it was here that he accomplished his main scientific achievement, the measurement of the speed of propagation of light, in 1676~ The event is marked by one of the official city plaques placed on the observatory wall. Christiaan Huygens from the Netherlands was here for several years in the same period and was the first to see the rings about the planet Saturn.

In front of the observatory entrance is a statue of the French astronomer LeVerrier, effectively the discoverer of Neptune, the eighth planet of the solar system. The seventh planet, Uranus, had first been sighted by William Herschel in England in 1781, but irregularities in its orbital motion suggested the existence of a more distant planet beyond. LeVerrier in 1846 predicted its orbit on the basis of mathematical calculations and the prediction, of course, included its “present” location. A German observer O. C. Galle) found it where predicted on the very next day-the instruments at the Paris observatory lacked the requisite precision. (This was probably the first discovery of an object in sky on the basis of calculation, which has now become commonplace.)