Observatories: Midlothian


Calton Hill Observatory (1818- ) Observatory House in 1776 was the first observatory to be built on this volcanic hill in the centre of the city, by Thomas Short – a Gothic round tower with short wing. This was followed in 1818 by the City Observatory built in Greek temple style, by public subscription for the new Astronomical Society of Edinburgh. In 1822 was granted the title of Royal Observatory, but no money. In 1846 the government had to take it over, but a long period of under-funding ensued. By 1888 it was run down and threatened with closure. Government funded astronomy in Edinburgh was saved by Lord Lindsay offering the equipment of his Dun Echt Observatory, and the new Royal Observatory was built upon Blackford Hill south of Edinburgh. The Calton Hill Observatory gained a large new City Dome in 1895 (but to house the 22-inch With refractor of 1862 purchased for £700 in 1889 from Buckingham’s Wandsworth Observatory), and reverted to municipal status.
Although listed, the buildings have lacked sufficient security and maintenance, vandals have done considerable damage, and although some of the original instruments are in situ, the Edinburgh A.S. has been obliged to withdraw while the Council considers complex restoration plans from many interested parties (February, 2012). See the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh’s site http://www.astronomyedinburgh.org/ for a detailed history (see Howse 1986).


Henderson, Thomas (1798-1844), born in Dundee) in 1834 was appointed first Astronomer Royal for Scotland. A first-rate mathematician, but with poor eyesight and a weak heart, he and his assistant Alexander Wallace made 60,000 observations, but later the it was found that the pillar mounting of the Fraunhofer transit instrument were defective.

Smyth, Charles Piazzi (1819-1900), was born in Naples, the son of Captain William Henry Smyth who settled in Bedford and established a private observatory there with a powerful refractor. There he received his first lessons in astronomy. At the age of sixteen he became an assistant to Sir Thomas Maclear at the Cape of Good Hope. In 1846 he was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland, based at the Calton Hill Observatory in Edinburgh, and professor of astronomy in the University of Edinburgh. Dr John Lee of Hartwell in 1851 loaned him “a large quantity of instruments and apparatus” to enable him to test the teaching of practical astronomy, neglected by his predecessors, but he had difficulty attracting a class (Memoirs RAS, 20, 1851, 213-4).
Shortly after his appointment, the observatory was placed under the control of Her Majesty’s Treasury and suffered from a long series of under-funding. He was also appalled by the climate there. Because of this, most of his notable work in astronomy was done elsewhere. Here he completed the reduction, and continued the series, of the observations made by his predecessor, Thomas James Henderson. In 1853, Smyth was responsible for installing the time ball on top of Nelson’s Monument in Edinburgh to give a time signal to the ships at Edinburgh’s port of Leith.
In 1865 he took a 7-inch refractor on an expedition to Teneriffe to test the effects of height and refraction. Successfully and skillfully pursued, his consequent report made Piazzi Smyth the pioneer of the modern practice of placing telescopes at high altitudes to secure the best observing conditions.
Smyth also achieved good science in spectroscopy and meteorology. But after initial enthusiasm he failed to pursue his teaching duties at the University, and fell foul of colleagues there. Airy made a withering criticism of the Calton Hill Observatory, and in 1888 Smyth responded by resigning in protest at gross under funding. This brought matters to a head, and when the Westminster government announced its intention to close the Observatory, Lord Lindsay stepped in and offered the contents of his modern observatory if the government built a new observatory. The Royal Observatory on Blackwood Hill duly opened in 1896.

Wallace, Alexander (1834-80), assistant astronomer who worked at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (see website and 1881 census for Scotland ).

Williamson, Peter (1827-fl.1860s), assistant astronomer who worked at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (see website and 1861 census for Scotland).

The Royal Observatory, Blackwood Hill, Edinburgh – ROE (1896- ), completed in 1896 on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh at a cost of £34,000, to house the instruments from Lord Lindsay’s Dun Echt Observatory, and his large and valuable library. He also contributed to the construction of the Observatory.
Its equipment was the 15-inch Dun Echt refractor with a superb micrometer, and a very powerful Zöllner astro-photometer with which Copeland detected helium in the M42 nebula, and the 8.6-inch transit circle, as large as any in the world. There were laboratories for astrophysical work. Altogether in 1898 the ROE was a first-class astrophysical facility by the standards of the day.
In 1932 a 90-cm reflector was installed as the new principal instrument, to determine the energy distribution in stellar spectra by photo-spectroscopy. This marked the Observatory’s shift to modern astrophysics.
In modern times the Observatory was allocated control of and challenged to measure and evaluate the very high quality photographic plates generated by the 1.2-metre Schmidt camera at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. The ROE team collaborated with industry and developed two types of fully automatic plate measuring and analysing machines – GALAXY and COSMOS (coordinates, size, magnitude, orientation, shape). The Observatory was responsible for the design, construction and from completion in 1978 the working of the 3.8-metre UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea. After the closure of the ROG at Herstmonceux, the ROE benefited by becoming the home of the UK’s residual capability for telescope design and operation.

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