The Armagh Observatory, as it sits nestled in trees on a hill, has an air of history about it. The building has been home, workplace and sanctum to directors, their families, astronomers, staff of all stripes and students over its ongoing history. The history of AOP now resides in our ever-expanding collection of historical objects and material. Allow me to take you on four short stories through our history, as told by the objects that have survived since.  

‘Opticks’ by Sir Isaac Newton, 4th Edition - Rare and Antiquarian Book Collection

Isaac Newton, born Christmas Day 1642, was an intensely gifted scholar who was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1672, thirteen years after the society's inception. Newtons contributions to science and especially astronomy are well documented.  

Opticks’ was originally published in 1704 and looks at the fundamental nature of light through reflection and experiments with lens and prisms. Today, it represents a major turning point in historic science and created considerable debate when it was first published. 

This fourth edition was published in 1760 and was bought by Reverend Thomas Romney Robinson, the third director of the Armagh Observatory. This copy is annotated with his own notes and observations and provides an insight into the scientific mind of Robinson, one of our most accomplished directors.  

This book forms part of a larger collection, the Rare and Antiquarian Book Collection, which contains the rarest and oldest manuscripts and letters in our collection and dates back to the 1600’s.  These books were collected and purchased by the early directors and the patron of the Observatory, Archbishop Robinson. You can read the some of the notes made by Director Robinson for yourself, though the language may not be what we’re used to today! 

Gilkerson & Co. Orrey – Scientific Instrument Collection
Image Credit: Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
Image Credit: Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

Scientific instruments rarely garner admiration for their beauty in today's day and age, but in the early years of the 1800’s it was a different matter. The Observatory was under the directorship of Rev. James Archibald Hamilton, its first director. Hamilton had some personal wealth, and it appears he invested it into some equipment for the observatory, not least of all this Orrery, made in Tower Hill, London, by the Gilkerson & Co company, a small workshop that turned out many reliable scientific instruments for the observation of the weather, or the universe.  

This brass orrery has a clockwork mechanism and a crank handle for setting the planets and their moons in motion. This also includes a tellurion, a complex clock that depicts the relation between day, night and the seasons and the orbit of the earth around the sun. There is finally a smaller version, a lunarium, which is just the earth and our moon.  

The clockwork Orrery was barely a century old when this example was made and purchased for the observatory. Today it remains a beautiful example of Georgian craftsmanship. Its place in our collection not only highlights the beauty of older scientific instruments but also shines a light on the personality of Hamilton, who had a genuine curiosity about the universe and was eager to acquire interesting and useful instruments for the observatory.  

Eyepiece - Scientific Instrument Collection
Image Credit: Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
Image Credit: Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

The smallest objects sometimes tell the biggest story, and this eyepieces story begins on December 11, 1863, across the Atlantic in Delaware, with the birth of Annie Jump Cannon. Annie’s mother, Mary, was the first to encourage the young girls love of astronomy and taught her from an old textbook to identify stars and constellations.  

Annie lost most of her hearing at some point in her childhood, most likely to scarlet fever. However, this didn’t stop her and at 17 she was sent to Wellesley College to study physics and astronomy. She graduated at 21 and returned to Delaware where she became an adept photographer and travelled Europe. In 1896 she was hired by Edward C. Pikering as an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory. 

Here our little eyepiece enters the story. Annie was responsible for measuring the brightness of every star in the sky, as part of the Henry Draper Catalogue. This eyepiece was used by Annie and she quickly garnered praise for her accurate, and speedy work; 

“Miss Cannon is the only person in the world- man or woman- who can do this work so quickly.”  Edward C. Pickering, director of Harvard Observatory.  

Annie's work and her classification system were incredibly important in astronomy, and she published her first catalogue of the stars in 1901, and in 1911 she became the Curator of Astronomical Photographs for Harvard. But how did this eyepiece come to reside in our collection at Armagh Observatory? 

The answer lies in the replacement for Pickering after his death. The new director was Harlow Shapley, a highly regarded figure in 20th century astronomy, who arrived at Harvard in 1919. Harlow Shapley was gifted the eyepiece and forged a friendship with the future director of Armagh Observatory, Eric Lindsey. In 1959, late in his career, Harlow visited Armagh for a short three month stay to study alongside the astronomers. During this period, he acted as director while Lindsey recovered from an illness. During this period the eyepiece was gifted to the Observatory and it was used to introduce many young enthusiasts to astronomy! The legacy of Annie Jump Cannon reverberated across the sea and years all the way to Armagh where it is still felt today.

Sheet Music - Ernst Julius Öpik Collection

What does some sheet music have to do with the Observatory in Armagh you may ask? Well, quite a lot, it tells an important part of our history in the twentieth century and throws some light on a figure whose story is one of the most interesting in our legacy.  

Ernst Öpik was born while Queen Victoria was still on the throne of Britain. He was born in Estonia, in 1893, and studied in Moscow and Tartu. From 1930 to 1934 he was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University and was a thesis examiner for a young astronomer from Northern Ireland, none other than the Eric Lindsey.  

As the Second World War raged and Eastern Europe was upending, Ernst Öpik and his family fled to Hamburg Observatory by horse and cart. Following the end of war, a refugee amongst the rubble of Europe, Öpik’s situation reached the attention of Dr. Lindsey, now director of Armagh Observatory. In 1947 Öpik came to Armagh at fifty-four years old, as Research Assistant.  

To say that Öpik possessed a uniquely insightful mind would be an understatement. He was diligent and remained up to date on the bleeding edge of scientific thought across a wide array of topics throughout his career. He carried with him a small notebook, which was filled with tiny writing detailing every paper and journal article he read, organised by topic.  

Distrustful of machines, and computers he performed his calculations manually, informing his colleagues that the time spent working on these equations freed the mind to wander and explore other topics.  

However, a surprising talent of his was music. He wrote, sang and performed music with a talent that Patrick Wayman, another titan of Irish Astronomy, thought could have formed the basis of quite a successful career had he not turned to astronomy instead. In 1975, when Öpik was eighty-two, he was awarded a gold medal for his work by the Royal Astronomical Society. When he was asked to say a few words after the dinner, he sang for the guests and was heartily congratulated for his talent.  


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