Jun 222019
 

Chambers St, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF

The large black and yellow Schmidt camerascope on display at the National Museum of Scotland

Royal Observatory Edinburgh’s 16/24-inch (0.4/0.6 m) Schmidt camerascope on display at National Museum of Scotland (© National Museum of Scotland)

The Astronomy Technology collections of the National Museum of Scotland contain a variety of artefacts, from orreys (mechanical solar system simulators) to a refracting imaging telescope. One of the larger artefacts on display is the Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array, or SCUBA, an instrument to take images of radio-frequency light emitted from dust in nearby galaxies. This red cylindrical device was installed at the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii between 1997-2005 and produced some of the most impactful astronomy results at the time, surpassed only by the Hubble Space Telescope. This including significantly imporving the understanding of how galaxies are evolving and how new starts are being formed. One of the key partners in the consortium developing SCUBA, and its successor SCUBA-2, was the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, which is based at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh on Blackford Hill.

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Image of SCUBA mounted at JCMT at Mauna Kea

SCUBA mounted at JCMT at Mauna Kea (© Royal Observatory Edinburgh)

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Jun 222019
 

Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG

The One O'Clock Gun positioned in the Half Moon Battery within the walls of Edinburgh Castle

One O’Clock Gun (© Roger Cornfoot via Wikimedia Commons)

Because of the poor Scottish weather, the notorious haar (sea fog), and smog, the time ball at the top of Nelson Monument on Calton Hill was rarely visible to the ship navigators in the ports along Leith and Newhaven who needed to accurately adjust their clocks. As such, in 1861, an 18-pound muzzle-loading cannon from the Half Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle was commissioned into “Time Gun” service. Its present-day successor is still fired every day at precisely 1 o’clock, except for Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. However, as the speed of sound is 343 metres per second (770 mph) and docks were about 2 miles (3km) away, the navigators had to account for about 10.5s delay when they set their clocks. This can be seen on the “Edinburgh Time Map” prepared by the 1 o’clock gun’s proposer, Charles Piazzi Smyth. Interestingly, the gun has also seen an instance of military action, as it was fired on 2 April 1916 at a German Zeppelin conducting an air raid during WWI.

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Black and white illustration of the Half Moon Battery within Edinburgh Castle

Half Moon Battery and firing mechanism in 1861 (Wikimedia Commons)

The time signal delay map designed by Piazzi Smyth

Time signal delay map designed by Piazzi Smyth (© Alastair Bruce)

Photograph of Edinburgh Castle showing the smoke after the One O'Clock Gun was fired

Smoke from the One O’Clock Gun (© Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 222019
 

32 Calton Hill, Edinburgh, EH7 5AA

The Time Ball at the top of the Nelson Monument

Time Ball on Nelson Monument (© Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1853, the second Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth, secured the installation of a time ball at the top of Nelson Monument. This tower, which looks like an “upturned telescope” and is clearly visible from most of Edinburgh, was designed by the architect Robert Burn and erected in 1815. While an interesting curiosity these days, the time ball used to be vitally important to ships in the port of Leith in adjusting their clocks for navigation, as it was  raised and dropped exactly at 1 o’clock each day, a tradition that continues. The ball, constructed of wood, covered in zinc, and weighing 90 kilograms, as well as the operating mechanism were made by Maudslay, Sons and Field of Lambeth, who also made the time ball mechanism for the Greenwich Observatory. It was installed by James Ritchie and Son (Clockmakers) Ltd, who still maintain it to this day on behalf of Edinburgh’s City Council. (There is an untrue myth that the original ball was much heavier, at 762 kilograms, in part perpetuated by Smyth himself!)

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Nelson Monument – Museums and Galleries Edinburgh

Photograph of the National Monument, Nelson Monument, and City Observatory on Calton Hill in the background

National Monument, Nelson Monument (tall tower) and City Observatory from the North (Wikimedia Commons)

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Jun 222019
 

1 Hillside Crescent, Edinburgh, EH7 5DY; marked with a blue plaque

Photograph of 1 Hillside Crescent with the blue plaque commemorating Thomas Henderson above the door to the right

1 Hillside Crescent (with a blue plaque)

Thomas Henderson (1798-1844) became the first Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1834. He was also appointed Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and worked at the nearby Calton Hill Observatory until his death. His scientific achievements include the calculation of the parallax of a fixed star (the angle describing the difference in the position of a star on the night sky as measured six months apart), leading him to be the first person to measure the distance to Alpha Centauri, one of a group of nearest stars to the Sun. Unfortunately, delaying the publication of his results led to German astronomer Friedrich Bessel and Russian astronomer Friedrich Struve receiving credit for first measuring stellar parallaxes. Throughout his time in Edinburgh, he lived at 1 Hillside Crescent and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard (very near the memorial in stop number 13 on this tour).

Black and white photograph of Thomas Henderson

Thomas Henderson

Photograph of Thomas Henderson's memorial and grave at Greyfrairs Kirkyard

Thomas Henderson’s memorial/graveside at Greyfriars Kirkyard

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jun 222019
 

Colin MacLaurin Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3DW

Black and white photograph of Mary Brück looking through a telescope

Mary Brück

This building at the University of Edinburgh Kings Buildings science campus honours the astronomer and historian of science Mary Brück (1925-2008), who graduated with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1950. She returned in 1962 with the appointment of her husband, Hermann Brück, to the post of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. She carried out research into stars, the gas and dust between stars and the Magellanic Clouds, while also doing historical research on women in astronomy and the history of astronomy in Scotland and her native Ireland. She published articles in several different journals and collaborated with her husband on a biography of the 19th-century Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth. In 2018, the Mary Brück building was opened on Colin MacLaurin Road, itself dedicated to an 18th century champion of Astronomy in Edinburgh (whose memorial is visited as stop number 13 of this tour).

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Mary Brück Building and Brucks’ Cafe

Mary Brück Building and Brucks’ Cafe

Images credit: The University of Edinburgh / Royal Observatory Edinburgh

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Jun 212019
 
Photograph of 53 Northumberland Street

53 Northumberland Street (© Stephen C Dickson via Wikimedia Commons)

53 Northumberland Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6JQ; marked with a blue plaque

Mary Sommerville (1780-1872) is often described as the “queen of science in the 19th Century.” A writer and polymath, she wrote the ground-breaking interdisciplinary book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), combining the latest scientific advances in astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, and geology. Though she wrote extensively on a variety of subjects and was the first person referenced as a “scientist” (in a review of her work in 1834), it is her contribution to Astronomy that is particularly notable: Mary Sommerville was one of the first people to propose the existence of planet Neptune. She was also one of the first two women to be elected members of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835) and co-signatory of John Stuart Mill’s 1866 petition to Parliament to give women the right to vote. Born in Jedburgh in the Borders and growing up in Burntisland, Fife, Mary Somerville lived at 53 Northumberland Street between 1813-16.

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Portrait of Mary Sommerville by Thomas Philips

Portrait of Mary Sommerville by Thomas Philips (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover page of The Connexion of the Physical Sciences

Cover page of The Connexion (1834)

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Jul 252016
 
The Royal Observatory.

The Royal Observatory

Blackford Hill View, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ

A new observatory for Edinburgh was opened in 1896 on top of one of the Braid Hills. It was made possible by the largesse of James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford and 9th Earl of Balcarres, a keen and extremely wealthy amateur astronomer, who left his instruments and library to the Scottish nation – now forming the world-renowned Crawford Collection. The situation of the observatory gives it spectacular vistas over the city, Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. The observatory is still in use and is home to the University of Edinburgh’s  Institute of Astronomy and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (an establishment of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council), Higgs Centre for Innovation (a business incubator and innovation facility), several spin-off companies and a Visitor Centre.

It is possible to visit the observatory, but only by prior arrangement. You can find out how to book from the link the the observatory’s website below.

Caricature of James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford

Caricature of James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford (1847–1913)

Detail of the observatory buildings

Detail of the observatory buildings

Star design on the brackets for a downpipe at the Royal Observatory

Star design on the brackets for a downpipe at the Royal Observatory

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Jul 252016
 
The Camera Obscura at the top of the Royal Mile

The Camera Obscura at the top of the Royal Mile

549 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2ND

Edinburgh is home to the oldest camera obscura in Britain, which first opened in 1853. The original proprietor of this popular tourist attraction was Maria Theresa Short, who came from a family of Edinburgh scientific instrument makers and had previously run a Popular Observatory on Calton Hill, before this was closed by the City Council in 1851. The camera obscura allows visitors to view scenes of the surrounding streets, projected onto a large table in the viewing room. Nowadays the other rooms in the tower are given over to a variety of exhibitions on optics.

The Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is open to the public on purchase of a ticket. See link below for times and prices.

Detail of the Camero Obscura tower.

Detail of the Camero Obscura tower.

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Jul 252016
 
Entrance to College Wynd

Entrance to College Wynd

College Wynd, Cowgate, Edinburgh EH1 1JH

It was close to here that James Gregory, the University of Edinburgh’s first professor of Mathematics, lived between his appointment in 1674 and his death in 1675. Gregory had invented the reflecting telescope in 1663. Although the design predates Newton’s reflecting telescope of 1668,  a successfully functioning version was not constructed until several years later. The largest working optical telescope in the UK, constructed in 1962 by the University of St Andrews, was named the James Gregory Telescope in his honour. It is still used by the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

No public access.

Portrait of James Gregory.

Portrait of James Gregory (1638–75)

Black and white illustrated map from 1647 showing College Wynd. A horizontal street at the top is the Cowgate. There are three vertical streets; the middle one is College Wynd.

College Wynd from a map of 1647 by James Gordon of Rothiemay. The horizontal street at the top is the Cowgate. The middle of the three vertical streets is College Wynd, the main approach from the town to the University.

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Jul 252016
 
Photograph of 15 Royal Terrace where Charles Piazzi Smyth lived

Photograph of 15 Royal Terrace where Charles Piazzi Smyth lived

15 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB

Charles Piazzi Smyth, Scotland’s second Astronomer Royal, was appointed Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh in 1846. Perhaps inspired by the poor observing conditions at the Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory, he proposed building an observatory on the peak of Mount Teide on Tenerife. However, the construction of an observatory on this mountain had to wait until 1964. While Piazzi Smith did important work on spectroscopy, he is perhaps better remembered for his eccentric theories regarding the pyramids, the dimensions of which he believed had a religious significance. Sadly, these speculations did much to tarnish his reputation.

Portrait of Charles Piazzi Smyth

Portrait of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900).

Piazzi Smyth's pyramid-shaped tombstone in the Sharow Churchyard, Yorkshire.

Piazzi Smyth’s pyramid-shaped tombstone in the Sharow Churchyard, Yorkshire.

Title page of "Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids" by Piazzi Smyth

Title page of “Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids” (1874) by Piazzi Smyth.

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Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Space and Time, Charles Piazzi Smyth

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