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Astronomy In Edinburgh, 1776-1990

The Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) is a leader in astronomical research and has a long and interesting history as I learned from a visit there in mid-1990.

The history of the ROE dates to 1776 when the foundation stone was laid at Calton Hill on the site of what is today the City Observatory. The observatory was founded by Thomas Short, an optician from Leith, who acquired a twelve foot telescope and various instruments from his brother and began exhibiting them for a small fee. A fund for construction of the observatory had been set up some 30 years earlier and Short was able to gain control over its expenditure and obtain a 90 year lease on half an acre of land on Calton Hill on condition that he made his telescopes available to students at the University for their astronomical studies.

The original plans for the observatory were drawn up by James Craig. He envisaged the building as a magnificent edifice, like a fortress with octagonal towers. However, due to lack of funds and disinterest from the town council, only a small tower was built which Short used as a residence, and a small observatory was built nearby. In 1788 Short died and the lease passed to his grandson James Douglas who at once began observing sessions. This precipitated a family feud over ownership of the equipment in the observatory. The feud was serious and, at one stage, a full scale siege broke out resulting in the arrest of several people! This proved too much for Douglas and, almost penniless, he went to sea. In 1807 the observatory was abandoned as an astronomical facility and instead put to use as a gunpowder store.

In 1811 the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh (which has the distinction of being the first true astronomical society formed in the British Isles) acquired the abandoned buildings on Calton Hill with the aim of building a functioning observatory in Edinburgh. The observatory was to comprise three main facilities:

  1. A scientific observatory to improve knowledge in the sciences of astronomy and navigation.
  2. A popular observatory for amusement and instruction.
  3. A library for members.

The new observatory was built to the plans of the architect William Playfair and completed in 1818. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 he bestowed the title The Royal Observatory of King George IV. Initially there was difficulty financing the expensive equipment needed for the observatory but the matter was resolved by a government grant in the early 1830s.

With the title of Royal Observatory secured, Edinburgh was on a par with Greenwich, so a post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland was created. Thomas Henderson (1798-1844) was appointed first Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1834. He worked at the observatory, measuring the position of over 60,000 stars, in the ten years before his death in 1844.

Henderson's successor was Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900). It was shortly after Smith's succession in 1846 that the Institution was wound up and the observatory was placed under control of the Treasury. At this time, the observatory was badly neglected and Smyth was hardly ever present, choosing instead to work away most of the time. The instruments were outdated and many simply didn't work. However, the time service provided by the observatory was maintained. In 1854, a time ball, similar to that at Greenwich, was erected on top of the Scott Monument overlooking the Firth of Forth. In 1861 the famous time gun, situated in Edinburgh Castle, was added, fired by electrical signals from the observatory.

Unfortunately, the condition of the observatory continued to deteriorate and, in 1876, a Royal Commission examined the situation. The Commission made recommendations for new instruments but these were ignored and, in 1888 Smyth, frustrated at the lack of funding, resigned his post. The government threatened to close the observatory and, on hearing this, the Earl of Crawford, James Ludovic Lindsay, donated the entire collection of instruments, books and telescopes from his private observatory in Dunecht to enable the founding of a new Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. The new facility was constructed on Blackford Hill, south of the city centre, in 1896 and the observatory on Calton Hill was handed over to the town council, becoming the City Observatory.

A new Astronomer Royal for Scotland was appointed; he was Ralph Copeland, former Chief Astronomer to the Earl of Crawford. Copeland was active in all fields of astronomy and firmly established the observatory's time and meteorological services. When he died in 1905, Frank Dyson was appointed fourth Astronomer Royal for Scotland, holding the post until his retirement in 1910. Dyson was succeeded by Ralph Samson (famous for his study of the motion of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter) who installed a 36" reflector in the East Dome and further improved the timekeeping service with the installation of a short pendulum clock. Samson retired in 1937 and, in 1938, W M H Greaves was appointed sixth Astronomer Royal for Scotland. With the threat of war looming, Greaves was asked to provide a backup time service to that provided by Greenwich. The backup service was maintained throughout the Second World War. After the war, work began to install a 16" Schmidt camera in the West Dome; this was completed in 1951.

H A Bruck was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1957. He started the task of improving the facilities at the observatory, necessitated in part by the need to process the mass of information contained in the plates from the new Schmidt camera. He constructed a new control unit for the Schmidt camera and built new office accommodation. The improvements were completed in 1963.

In 1965 the Observatory ended its association with the Scottish Office and came under the auspices of the Science Research Council [1]. To mark the occasion the Queen and Prince Phillip visited the Observatory.

Expansion of the city of Edinburgh brought with it industrial pollution and light pollution: seeing conditions at the observatory were steadily deteriorating and, in 1970, it was decided to open the observatory's first outstation at Monte Perzio, near Frascati, in Italy. The outstation houses a Schmidt telescope which is still in working order. Also in 1970, the GALAXY (General Automatic Luminosity And X-Y) plate measuring machine came into use to process plates from the Schmidt camera.

In 1972 the Crawford Room opened. This provided a venue specially adapted to keep the Crawford Collection perfectly preserved at the appropriate temperature and humidity for generations to come. Bruck retired in 1975 and the eighth Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Dr V C Reddich, was appointed. Among his duties, Reddich was project manager of the United Kingdom Schmidt Telescope at Siding Springs in New South Wales, Australia. Also in 1975, the COSMOS (COordinates, Sizes, Magnitudes, Orientations and Shapes) measuring system replaced the GALAXY system.

In 1979, the 3.8 m United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) was officially opened. It is situated on Mauna Kea, a huge, dormant shield volcano in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is 4,200 m high and benefits from clear nights and a stable atmosphere, providing the best site in the world for infrared astronomy. Also in 1979, plans for the International Northern Hemisphere Observatory were finalised - the choice of location was Roque De Los Muchachos on La Palma. When it was built, ironically the Roque De Los Muchachos Observatory was not far from where Piazzi Smyth first carried out his mountain astronomy experiments over one hundred years earlier.

The ninth Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Malcolm Longair, served from 1980-1990; he was the first Scot since Thomas Henderson to hold the post. Under Longair's guidance the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) was opened on Mauna Kea. The JCMT is designed for observations at millimetre and sub-millimetre wave bands and is a joint British, Dutch and Canadian venture.

Nineteen eighty-eight saw the centenary of the Earl of Crawford's gift of instruments, books and telescopes. This was commemorated by the building of an extension of the Crawford Room, which was opened by the 29th Earl of Crawford on 23 September 1988. On 04 July 1989, the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Observatory and Professor E W J Mitchell, Chairman of the Science and Engineering Research Council [1], opened the new South Building.

After more than two centuries since the laying of the foundation stone at Calton Hill, the ROE has come a long way from small beginnings. Let's hope that the next two centuries is every bit as succesful!

ROE.jpg The ROE.



The Science Research Council became the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1981 and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in 1994.

Joe Walsh