Category Archives: Ireland

National Science Museum, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland

By Adrian James Kirwan

Opened in 1934 the National Science Museum, located at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, holds one of the largest collections of historic scientific instruments in the Ireland. St. Patrick’s College was founded in 1795 as a catholic seminary in an attempt to stop Irish clerics travelling to revolutionary France for ecclesiastical studies and, it was fear, radicalisation. The campus contains many stunning nineteenth-century buildings, some of which were designed by the famous architect Augustus Pugin. Also located at the entrance to the College is Maynooth Castle which was built in the thirteenth century by the Kildare branch of the Geraldines, who for centuries were one of the most powerful families in Ireland.

Large electro-magnetic used by Nicholas Callan

The museum has multiple displays of various scientific and technological instruments but its central focus is the work of Nicholas Joseph Callan. Born on the 22 December 1799, Callan entered Maynooth College in 1816 and spent most of his life in that institution. It was here that Callan studied natural and experimental philosophy under Dr Cornelius Denvir. Following his ordination in 1823 Callan briefly studied aboard, before returning to Maynooth in 1826 to assume the chair of natural philosophy. Callan performed many experiments and to help in conducting these he was to produce his own, relatively cheap, cast-iron battery, later marketed as the ‘Maynooth Battery’. However, Callan is best known as the inventor of the induction coil. The coils built by Callan were of considerable power producing sixteen-inch sparks. As there was no equipment available to test the current produced, Callan instead used that most abundant of natural testing apparatus: his students. According to long established tradition, this was stopped when he managed to render a future arch-bishop of Dublin unconscious and Callan was forced to rely on chickens for testing current from thereon. Callan was for many years a largely forgotten figure however he was recently awarded the Blue Plaque by Institute of Physics and Bronze Plaque by Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. The museum displays several of Callan’s induction coils and electro-magnets. The largest of the electro-magnets on display is 1705cm high and 775 cm in width and was made by the local blacksmith. Alongside these are other instruments used by Callan for his experiments, in addition to a variety of electrical instruments that the museum has accumulated. There is a complementary collection of scientific writings as well in the college archive in the Russell Library, much of which has been catalogued electronically. While the Callan display is the central feature of the museum there is also much more for those with an interest in the history of science and technology.

Induction coil
Callan Medium Coil, capable of producing 200,000 volts

The museum has a collection of historic instruments used for experimentation on light, many of which are of French origin. In addition are displays of instruments for the study of meteorology, pneumatics, hydrostatics, heat and a collection of early telegraphic and telephonic apparatus. Worth a special mention is the fine display of cartographic instruments including circumferentors, clinometers, compasses, land chains, levels and other such instruments. These are of particular importance due to the value of estate and ordnance survey mapping records to Irish historians. The display demonstrates the broad range of instruments used in these important endeavours, allowing historians of technology and cartography as well as the general public a rare chance to view such instruments. The fact that a large proportion of the instruments on display were produced in Dublin gives an insight into the thriving scientific instrument industry in the city in the nineteenth century. The collection would be a good starting point for an investigation of this much understudied area and the insight that it could provide into wider scientific and commercial networks.

                Electrostatic Generator, c.1877

Due to the nature of the founding institute –a Roman Catholic seminary- the museum was originally opened as a museum of ecclesiology, it was due to the appointment of numerous curators from the Departments of Physics and Chemistry and the legacy of Nicholas Callan that the National Science Museum developed alongside the Museum of Ecclesiology. It is for this reason that both museums are contained within the one building. While the National Museum of Science is a relatively small affair when compared to its British counterparts, it is important in an Irish context containing as it does a significant repository of historical scientific instruments that are rarely accessible in Ireland. As 2014 is the sesquicentenary of Nicholas Callan’s death the museum presents a great opportunity to view the work of this important Irish scientist.

The museum has limited opening times which can be viewed at the museum website. Group visits and visits outside of the set opening times can be accommodated by contacting the curator Dr Niall McKeith. Further information is available at

See also, the Russell Library at

Address: National Science Museum, Saint Patrick’s College, Main St, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Further information

Charles Mollan and John Upton, The scientific apparatus of Nicholas Callan and other historic instruments (Maynooth, 1994).

Marian Lyons (ed.), Pugin at Maynooth (Maynooth, 2012).

Niall McKeith and P.J. Breen, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Museum of Ecclesiology (Maynooth, 1995).

P.J. McLaughlin, Nicholas Callan : priest-scientist 1799-1864 (Maynooth, 2000).



Valentia Island, Ireland

By Ciaran Toal

A monument celebrating the cable at site of the original Telegraph Station at Valencia, Foilhomurrum Bay.
A monument celebrating the cable at site of the original Telegraph Station at Valencia,  Foilhummerum Bay.

Valentia Island lies just off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland. With less than a thousand inhabitants, today the main industries are fishing and tourism, but in the nineteenth century the island played a pivotal role in what The Times called ‘the most wonderful achievement of this victorious century’: the laying of the transatlantic cable, linking the US and Canada to Great Britain.

In an initiative supported by both the US and British governments a private company, the Atlantic Telegraph Company, was formed in 1856 to undertake the venture. Over two thousand miles of cable had to be laid, and the Company faced both the technical challenge of sub-marine cable laying, and the turbulent conditions of the North Atlantic – RMS Titanic would succumb to its icy waters in 1912. The cable had to be specially manufactured to withstand the stresses of deep-sea laying.

In North America, the cable entered the waters of the Atlantic just off Newfoundland Island, while the geography of Valentia Island made it the ideal spot to land in the United Kingdom. As one of the westernmost points in Ireland Valentia shared a similar latitude to Newfoundland Island and was close to the busy, and well-stocked, port of Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork. Five attempts were made to lay the cable. The first, in 1857, failed. The cable snapped three days after the Niagara left Valentia Bay, in the north of the Island. A second attempt in June 1858 met similar problems, although two months later the cable was successfully laid allowing Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan to exchange congratulatory telegraphs. However, on the same day the Niagara was welcomed into New York City with a ‘salvo of 100 guns’ at Battery Park, and banners celebrating how the cable ‘divided the Atlantic but united two hemispheres’, it failed. The cable had operated for less than 27 days.

It was seven years until the next attempt – a lack of capital, the onset of the American Civil War and technical redesigns held up the cable’s progress. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, lamented the delay, as instead

of telegraphic work which, when it has to be done through 2400 mules of submarine wire, and when its effects are instantaneous exchange of ideas between the old and new worlds [he had] only the dull and heartless business of investigating the pathology of faults in submerged conductors.
– Thomson to Joule, 1858.

He was a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and in response to the technical challenge of the project developed the Thomson galvanometer. He was often stationed on Valentia overseeing operations.

In 1865 the Company tried again using Brunel’s Great Eastern, crossing two-thirds of the Atlantic before the cable failed. Crucially, previous attempts had landed the cable in the more exposed, northern end, of the Island, but in 1865 and 1866 a new site, Foilhummerum Bay, in the south was chosen. Less than a mile long with a flat sandy bottom and high cliffs that sheltered it from waves and wind, the bay had been specially dredged to accommodate the cable. A trench linked the beach to the cliff top and the Telegraph Station. This tall wooden building had comfortable living quarters, and a telegraph room full of ‘Thomson’s mirror-speaking instruments, banks of batteries, magnets’ as well as the ‘latest innovations in telegraphy’. The Atlantic cable entered one side of building, with the telegraph to London, via Knightstown, exiting the other.

Inside the Telegraph Station at Valencia
Inside the Telegraph Station at Valencia, taken from Dodd, G. (1868). Railways, steamers and telegraphs; a glance at their recent progress and present state. London, Chambers, 300. Image available in the public domain.

It was from Foilhummerum Bay that the successful expedition of 1866, under the control of the newly-formed Anglo-American Telegraph Company, set out, arriving in Newfoundland Island on July 28th. Celebratory telegraphs crossed the Atlantic, with the Mayor of Vancouver messaging his counterpart in London: ‘The infant colony, Vancouver, eight thousand miles distant, sends telegraphic cordial greetings to Mother England’. As The Newfoundlander reported, with laying of the cable ‘Science has at length accomplished its greatest wonder-work in the union of the two Worlds’. A few days after the successful completion of the line, the failed cable of 1865 was rescued and repaired.

Capitalising on Valentia’s telegraph connection to London Robert Fitzroy, as part of his work with the Board of Trade, established an observatory on the Island to relay meteorological data to the capital in 1860. Under the guidance of the Kew-trained Rev Thomas Kerr the work of the observatory expanded in the mid 1860s, and was used as a testing ground for new meteorological instruments. Established at Revenue House in the south of the island, close to the telegraph, the observatory moved to the mainland in 1892

More Information

Valentia’s museum features an exhibition on the cable, as well as the prehistoric history of the island. For an overview of the cable in Valentia, including videos, see also the Telegraph Field. Finally, a more detailed history of the observatory is available at the Irish Met office website

For the history of the Transatlantic Cable:

The most comprehensive source for Cable material is the excellent The Atlantic Cable.

Dibner, B. (1964). The Atlantic cable. New York, Blaisdell Pub. Co. (With thanks to Bill Burns for this recommendation).

Hearn, C. (2004). Circuits in the sea: the men, the ships, and the Atlantic cable. Westport, Conn, Praeger

Mercer, D. (2006). The telephone: the life story of a technology. Westport, CN, Greenwood Press.

Seel, P. (2012). Digital universe: the global telecommunication revolution. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith, C., & Wise, M. (1989). Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.