Jun 222019
 

Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG

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

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

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

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Jun 222019
 

32 Calton Hill, Edinburgh, EH7 5AA

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 762 kilograms (1,680 lb), 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.

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Nelson Monument – Museums and Galleries Edinburgh

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

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Jun 222019
 

Colin MacLaurin Road, Edinburgh, EH9 3DW

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

Images credit: The University of Edinburgh / Royal Observatory Edinburgh

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Jul 252016
 

Charles Piazzi Smyth's house.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 (1819–1900).

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 Piazzi Smyth, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids (1874).

Title page of Piazzi Smyth, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramids (1874).

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

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