Matthew McMahon – Museum Collections Officer

Armagh Observatory and Planetarium holds 249 books that have been designated as part of a specific Rare and Antiquarian Book collection. There are many more books in the historic collection that are also very old, however these 249 manuscripts represent over four hundred years of astronomical knowledge from all over Europe. They form the cornerstone of our reference library, a much more substantial collection of thousands of texts. Today I will be pulling some of these books off the shelves to show you and point out some interesting little details. 

The books range from the very earliest examples of printed texts to pioneering manuscripts that changed our understanding of science and the universe. Some are much more personal, having been compiled by our staff and families over the years from their own writings, or are the rough and tumble drafts of their work before it went to the publishers. Many of these books have come from personal collections and contain beautiful book plates and annotations.  

 ‘Tabulae Rudolphinæ’ Johannes Kepler (1627) 

 Johannes Kepler may be one the most recognized names of the long Rennaissance in the sciences in Europe. He is a central authority in the scientific revolution which occurred in the 1600’s and his work was fundamental to the development of astronomy as an independent field of research.  

Armagh Observatory and Planetarium has a volume of the ‘Rudolphine Tables’, a beautiful and detailed catalogue of the stars and planets for consultation by astronomers and scientists. The name comes from Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, who had been a patron of both Kepler and Brahe. Tycho Brahe is another incredibly important figure in the history of astronomy, and it is his observations that form the bulk of the catalogue.  

The tables were awaited by many scientists across Europe and even as far afield as India. The publication was fraught with controversy and Kepler was forced to pay for printing himself, after a year of chasing down payments owed to him by various courts of Europe. After four long years, the first one thousand copies, of which this is one, were printed.  

The frontispiece is a fascinating picture of the history of astronomy and there are quite a few familiar faces hiding in the engraving, and special attention must be paid to on whose head the coins fall, as this reflects Kepler’s view of who received imperial funding and who did not, and perhaps, who deserved more!  

Fig 1. The frontispiece of ‘Tabulae Rudolphinæ’


‘Historia Coelestis Britannica’ John Flamsteed 1725 

Fig 2. The engraving of John Flamsteed inside ‘Historia Coelestis Britannica’

John Flamsteed was the very first Astronomer Royal appointed in Britain. He holds his own fair share of firsts, having made the first observation of the planet Uranus (which he unfortunately did not realize was a planet, instead listing it as a star). He also laid the very first stone of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. 

He was sixteen years old when he fell in love with astronomy, having read the work of Johannes de Sacrobosco. He observed his first astronomical event that same year, 1662. At nineteen he wrote his first astronomical paper.  

This book which Armagh holds in its collection was published after his death. It was edited by his wife Margaret Flamsteed and was a catalogue that fell just short of 3,000 stars. Interestingly it is not the first edition of this catalogue! In 1712 Sir Isaac Newton obtained Flamsteed’s unpublished data and observations. With this he published his own pirated copy of the catalogue. Flamsteed was outraged, as he considered the work unready for publication and he gathered three out of four hundred copies and had them burned.  

 ‘The Collected Works of Dr Robinson’ Dr T.R. Robinson 

This particular volume has quite the story behind it. It is a relatively unassuming manuscript, with various cuttings, excerpts and handwritten notes bound into a single volume. The handwritten index is in the familiar writing of our third Director, Dr Thomas Romney Robinson. The volume also features his bookplate, a common feature in many of our books from the 1800’s. Dr Robinson curated this volume himself and as a result it runs the gauntlet from theological sermons to fiery political attacks, to science. 

However, in the early 1900’s this volume was not in the collection of Armagh Observatory. Instead, it had somehow found itself on the other side of the world in a Melbourne, Australia. How long it had lain in that second-hand bookstore we do not know. In the spring of 1919 Dr Osbourne of Melbourne university was browsing the bookstore and noticed this volume. He was aware of the importance of Armagh Observatory and formally presented the book back to Armagh in July of that year. Since then, this book has been an invaluable resource shining light on Dr Robinson’s work.  

Fig 3. The inscription noting the books return. Below it is Dr Robinson’s bookplate.





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