Contemporary account from 1849


Date: 1849
Author: GM
Title: Visit to the Royal Observatory
About: Published in The Visitor or Monthly Instructor, (London, The Religious Tract Society, 1849) pp. 233–236, this account was written by one of the magazine's regular authors. As well as being littered with biblical and poetic references, the account indicates the author as someone with little grasp of scientific matters who was in awe of those that had.
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As the Royal Observatory, sometimes called Flamstead House, in Greenwich-park, is visited by few, a familiar account of an hour or two spent at the place may not be unwelcome to some of my readers. Like many others, I had often looked with wonder at the building, and as often wished to become initiated in the astronomic and magnetic mysteries passing within its walls.

Permission having been obtained by a friend from the lords of the admiralty, for three of us to visit the Observatory, with a view of witnessing, through the powerful telescopes of the place, the deep cavities near the edge of the moon, there appeared a reasonable prospect that we should soon gaze on this interesting spectacle; but earthly hopes are proverbially uncertain and fallacious. In consequence of a communication from the astronomer royal to the admiralty, setting forth the inconvenience that would arise from the occupation of the telescopes, the permission given was courteously and reluctantly withdrawn. As, however, there was no obstacle in the way of our visiting the Observatory by day, we gladly availed ourselves of the opportunity.

I left London by the railway, in sufficient time to be at the Observatory by twelve o'clock; but owing to my ignorance of the locality of the appointed place of rendezvous, I had nearly an additional mile to walk, under circumstances by no means agreeable. Knowing the extreme exactness with which the ball at the Observatory falls at one o'clock, and having heard that some of the chronometers at the place hardly varied the hundredth part of a second in a year, I thought to myself, what if professor Airy should practise this extreme exactness in his daily affairs, and we should arrive half an hour after time! Why, unless he be a very patient man, he will be more anxious to keep us on the outside, than to admit us to the inside of the Observatory. I afterwards found, to my great relief, that no exact time had been fixed for our arrival; we were, therefore, enabled to recruit our strength and spirits with a hearty lunch, at the hospitable residence of one of my accompanying friends.

The day was a splendid one! The sun shone, the sky was bright and blue, and the avenues of' trees and the antlered deer in the park, together with the view of Greenwich, the hospital, the shipping in the river, and London in the distance, presented a goodly spectacle. We stopped more than once to gaze around us and enjoy the scene: at length we arrived at Flamstead House.

Most likely my readers are aware that the spot on which the Observatory now stands was once occupied by Greenwich Castle, a very picturesque building, used both as a fortress and a prison. It was also a residence for the younger branches of royalty, and sometimes as a banqueting-house its walls rang with revelry and mirth. There were merry doings at the castle when the eighth Henry turned Blackheath into a tournament-yard, and held his festivities in the palace. An old poet says, in rather grotesque rhyme:

"Behould by Prospect, with what Art
Fayre Greenwich Castle pleasantly,
A House of Banquet, neare and part
Of Thames and London, How they ly."

As it wanted but little of one o'clock, we stood, with our watches in our hands, awaiting the ascent of the great ball. It crept slowly up the pole, half mast high, and at five minutes before one ascended to the top. Precisely at one, it fell part of the way down. I had watched it so intently, fearing that if I removed my eyes, even for a moment, it would fall, that I felt tremulously excited. Hardly need I mention the well-known fact, that at the moment the ball falls, the captains and mates on board the ships in the river correct their watches and chronometers.

The court-yard of the place was in confusion, on account of the new building in course of erection; workmen were passing to and fro, and stones, bricks, and mortar lay in heaps; but the bright sunshine, the blue sky, the verdant laurel and laurustinus, the pleasant prospect, and the exciting sound of the band that struck up at a distance, spread a general air of cheerfulness around.

While looking on the Observatory, a strange feeling of mystery came over me. It was the place whence the longitude was reckoned for the whole world, and where observations and calculations of the most intricate and important kind were made with extreme care and correctness. There the heavenly bodies were accurately observed, and magnetism, electricity, and meteorology pursued on the broadest scale. I had in my mind a mingled confusion of monster telescopes, forty feet reflectors, and all kinds of astronomic instruments, and the very shades of Flamstead, Halley, Newton, and Herschel seemed to be moving round me, to say nothing of the talented astronomer royal himself, whom I expected shortly to see. To our great regret, we soon learned that this latter personage was in Edinburgh; this to me was a very great disappointment.

On entering the Observatory, under the guidance of a courteous conductor, we saw a variety of clocks, meting out time into fractions in different ways, together with barometers, thermometers, and various instruments.

Every hole and corner seemed to be occupied, and everything had such a learned look, that 1 felt half afraid I should commit myself if I opened my mouth to speak.

Our attentive guide took us into a large circular room, where four or five persons were seated, busily occupied in calculating and recording what recent observations had been made. A telescope occupied one part, with other instruments around it, while here and there were paintings or prints of astronomers royal, astronomical instrument makers, and others, with a library, and seemingly endless manuscript volumes of the transactions of the Observatory. I felt myself marvellously ignorant, and thought that all around me were marvellously wise.

Hardly can I imagine an astronomer pursuing his avocation without an occasional burst of adoration to his heavenly Father.

"These are thy glorious works, thou Source of good!
How dimly seen, how faintly understood!
Thine, and upheld by thy paternal care
This universal frame, thus wondrous fair;
Thy power Divine and bounty beyond thought;
Adored and praised in all that thou hast wrought."

Willingly would we have pored awhile over Flamstead's " Scheme of the Heavens," in the folio vellum-bound manuscript where it is unfolded; or pondered over his memoirs in the other folio calf-bound manuscript, in which he mentions his cause of quarrel with sir Isaac Newton; hut we had much to see, and as the learned heads around us, with all their astronomic lore, could not, like Joshua, command the sun to stand still for us, nor bring back the shadow as it was brought backwards ten degrees, "by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz," so were we obliged to forego one gratification, that we might not rob ourselves of another.

Mounting a staircase from a large circular room, we visited the upper apartments, all of them appropriated to some useful purpose. One of them was fireproof, and in this the records of the Observatory are kept, that should a fire take place, the results of the labour of years may not be involved in the general destruction.

As we proceeded onwards along a passage, there was pointed out to us, hanging against the wall, a large, lumbering old quadrant, that most likely Halley, or Bradley, or Maskelyne had turned to some account; but its day was gone by, and more improved instruments had cast it into the shade, and made it obsolete. "Oh I" thought I, " there are many of us old quadrants in the world, who will soon be laid by, that our places may be supplied by more efficient instruments than ourselves."

On the roof of the building we saw more distinctly the large ball, which is formed of wood, and covered with black leather, the hoist that raises it, the trigger and discharging gear for setting it at liberty, and the clock, regulated by observation, for giving the precise moment of time required.

As I looked down on the quiet and retired premises of the astronomer royal, a blackbird flew across from one bush to another. The place presented a sweet picture of seclusion. Descending from the roof, we proceeded to visit the larger telescopes.

It had always been a puzzling problem to me, how it could be possible for the telescope to command the whole field of the heavens, without the observer being exposed to the inclemency of the atmosphere; but this problem is solved in the most simple manner imaginable. The dome-like room has a slit of light let into it from above, by the withdrawal of a shutter, and through this slit the heavens are surveyed. The whole roof being movable, it can be turned round at pleasure, and the slit brought opposite any of the heavenly bodies that are to be surveyed. "I see," said I to myself, "there are much wiser people in the world than old Humphrey."

The transit, and the equatorial, the altitude and azimuth instruments awakened our wonder. Though the sizes of the telescope glasses were much less than I had expected to see; the largest glass not being, I believe, more than about six or seven inches in diameter. The ease with which these large instruments are managed is very striking to a stranger. There is a beautiful arrangement by which, when the telescope is once directed, the motion of the earth is equalized, or, in other words, the telescope moves one way while the earth moves the other; so that, without any readjustment, the glass is always pointing to the same object.

As I looked on the different instruments, the old tale of the astronomer seeing, as he supposed, a monster in the sun, with a large head, six long legs, and an enormous pair of wings, which turned out in the end to be nothing more than a common fly between the glasses of his telescope, came into my mind, and I thought, supposing for a moment the narration to be true, the astronomer had really quite enough to alarm him. When we begin to magnify, either with telescopes or with imagination, we soon make a fly into a monster, and a molehill into a mountain.

It was a circumstance rather singular, that the first telescope through which our intelligent conductor had ever looked, belonged to one of my accompanying friends. This was accidentally mentioned in the course of conversation. I had heard that a well was once used at the Observatory, for the advantage of discerning stars by daylight; but forgot to make inquiry whether such was the case. The poet says,—

"Wise men in deepest pits see best by fat
The sun's eclipses, and count every star
When sight's contracted, and is more intent:
So are men's souls in close imprisonment."

The mural circle, for observing heavenly bodies at the meridian, and other instruments, set us thinking about things that were too high for us, and we were obliged to refrain.

In one room we saw piles of government chronometers, in their small square boxes. There is a humorous story told of a carpenter, who was once employed at the Observatory. The man's wife could not at all understand how it was that her husband was kept there so late at night, when he, to pacify her, gave her to understand that the falling stars came down so fast, that it was quite as much as they could do to make wooden boxes fast enough to put them in. Without stopping either to inquire into the truth of the story, or to censure the want of veracity in the carpenter, I will venture the remark, that had his wife put her head into the chronometer-room, she would have seen enough to have strengthened her conviction of the truth of her husband's relation, in the number of chronometer-boxes presented to her view.

If my readers have never heard of the amazing perfection of our English chronometers, they will evince no little surprise at being told that one chronometer, No. 679, varied only ninety-eight hundredths of a second in a year; that another, No. 665, varied only eighty-nine hundredths of a second; and that a third, No. 675, varied only eighty-six hundredths of a second. Such extreme accuracy as this could hardly be believed, were not the rates taken by accredited persons, rendered competent both by knowledge and continual practice. The importance of the knowledge of the exact time of the day to nautical men when at sea is incalculable, as it enables them to discover both their latitude and longitude, and the part of the ocean in which they are.

As we moved about from one part to another, two or three times I fell in with Mr. Rogerson, of the Observatory establishment, whose "Brief Astronomical Notices," and " Notices of Animated and Vegetable Nature," have for years afforded me both pleasure and instruction.

In visiting the magnetic and meteorological Observatory, we had a fresh conductor, who appeared to be perfectly familiar with everything around him. The pole in front of the building, used for electrical purposes, is as much as eighty feet high; the lamp at the top is always burning; the building itself is in the form of a cross, and in it are instruments of the most complicate and curious kind. Among these are the declination magnet, the horizontal force, the magnet, the vertical force magnet, the three telescopes, by means of which the variations of the positions of the magnets are observed, the mean-time clock, the barometer, the sidereal clock, the check clock, and the alarum clock. The electrical instruments are numerous, and there is an opening in the roof in the astronomical meridian.

In stealing an occasional glance around, both in the magnetic and the other department of the Observatory, I saw among the wise heads employed several that took my fancy, though I could not help thinking, after all, that learned astronomers looked very much like other people.

Our conductor explained to us what, without explanation, would have been as unintelligible to us as Arabic. It was always a high treat to me to listen to one who, having the gift of words, and uniting a thorough knowledge of the subject on which he treats with some degree of enthusiasm, pours out a redundant stream of profitable information. I could listen by the hour, under such circumstances, without weariness, and I did listen on this occasion with much satisfaction. My two friends played well their part, in keeping up a conversation with our intelligent conductor, and thereby left me at perfect liberty to see, to hear, and to reflect.

I ought not to omit the instrument for measuring the rain, which we saw; nor the wind-meters, if such I may call them, for calculating and recording the motion of the air. One of these latter instruments determined the exact direction of the wind, another its power, and a third its speed, recording the whole with pencils, in the most correct manner, so that afterwards there might be read the direction, the force, and the velocity of the wind throughout every hour.

While admiring one of the instruments which was then being described to us, I observed that a spider had woven his web across it, just as if he had done so on purpose that he might say to us, "Judge ye which are most worthy of your wonder, the works of man, or the works of a spider!" I pointed out the web to our conductor, who observed that spiders were friends to astronomers, for that the latter often crossed the glasses of their telescopes with spider's threads, as they were so much thinner than the thinnest wire they could obtain. The spider is not only, as Solomon says, "in king's palaces," but also in the halls of learning and science.

Among the many things to which the attention of the Observatory is directed, are the heavenly bodies, the magnet, the barometer, the wet and dry thermometer, electricity, the direction, power, and speed of the wind, the currents in the atmosphere, the clouds, meteorology, the dew-point, the aurora borealis, halos, coronae glories, solar and terrestrial radiation, and the intensity of the sun's rays. Great is the labour of the observations made, but immeasurably greater the calculations they afterwards require.

After receiving the most courteous attentions, we withdrew, and hardly do I ever remember having been more deeply interested. My companions were, perhaps, as much impressed by our visit as myself; for a note just received from one of them says: "My mind is still revelling on what we have seen; the equatorial instrument, the transit instrument, and the instrument for measuring the motion and force of the air, open a wide field for reflection. The magnet department is very gratifying; the mode of collecting the fluid, its action of traversing, and the method of registering its oscillation are wonderful. The horizontal and vertical cylinder, its motion to receive the impress of the light, and the chemical process to render that impress more manifest, indicate the great and untiring energies of the human mind in searching out the wonders of the Almighty in his works."

My only source of regret on leaving the Observatory, save that of a painful sense of my own ignorance, was my disappointment in not having seen the astronomer royal. He was, however, nearly four hundred miles distant from the place, and therefore to see him was out of the question. All that I could do was, to desire for him that, after living a long and useful life below the stars, he might spend a glorious eternity above them. I know that I am not expressing myself as an astronomer in using the terms below and above the stars; but no matter, the wish is the same. After awhile there will be no stars.

"The Stars shall fade away; the Sun himself Grow dim with age, and Nature sink in years."

The heaven to which we look, and hope through mercy to attain, has no need of the sun, neither of the moon, nor the stars, for the glory of God and the Lamb are the light thereof: "There shall be no night there; and they need no candle;—for the Lord God giveth them light, and they shall reign for ever and ever," Rev. xxii. 5. G. M.