Silent harmony: astronomy at the Royal Society

Discover how innovation in telescopes and other optical instruments changed the way we see the universe.

By The Royal Society

The Orion Nebula (2017-11/2017-12) by Bernard MillerThe Royal Society

Peering into the cosmos

Fascinated by the heavens, scientists over the ages have gazed further and further into the universe, using ever more ground-breaking instruments to generate new knowledge about the origins of life and the cosmos.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1800/1900) by UnknownThe Royal Society

The new astronomy

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of the first to explore the solar system using a telescope. His work directly built on famous predecessors such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who set out to model a heliocentric universe - one in which the sun is at the centre of the universe - and theorise the motion of planets. 

Illustration of a constellation from Galileo's Siderius Nuncius (1610) by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)The Royal Society

Galileo’s Starry Messenger was the first published work to incorporate scientific observations made using a telescope.

The treatise contains descriptions of lunar landscapes, new stars in well-known constellations and the major satellites of Jupiter.

Galileo's telescope (Inv. 2428) (late 1609 - early 1610) by Galileo GalileiMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Galileo designed and built one of the most powerful telescope of his generation.

His own instrument, a thirty-power magnifier, preserved at the Museo Galileo in Florence.

Simon Marius: Mundus Iovialis Anno M.DC.IX.Bavarian State Library

Galileo was part of a generation of scholars who changed astronomy by using newly developed telescopes and disproving the geocentric model held since antiquity.

Simon Marius (1573-1625), portrayed here, observed the four moons of Jupiter.

The Moon in its First Quarter (1635) by Claude MellanThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first known lunar observation through a telescope is attributed to Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), on July 26th 1609 in London.

There is no known astronomical publication by Harriot, although there are surviving drawings.

The lunar engraving presented here is a later work by Claude Mellan.

Telescope at Gresham College (1664) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

The Royal Society telescopes

The Royal Society’s home at Gresham College in London was the site of many scientific experiments. In the 1650s, instrument-maker Richard Reeve (~1640-1680) made large refracting telescopes used by Christopher Wren (1636-1723) and other scientists. Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the Royal Society Curator of Experiments, installed one such telescope at the College and later had a 60-foot instrument commissioned for the Society.   

Views of Greenwich Observatory (1676) by Jonas Moore (1617-1679)The Royal Society

The temporary installation of instruments at Gresham College gave way to a permanent home for astronomy with the creation of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Greenwich became the home of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed FRS (1646-1719).

The original Royal Observatory building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and completed the following year.

Today, the building has been renamed Flamsteed House and is part of the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Drawings of Saturn and a solar eclipse Drawings of Saturn and a solar eclipse (1675) by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687)The Royal Society

Centre for astronomy

The Royal Society also became the centre of a network of astronomical observations. For example, in the letter from which this drawing of Saturn is taken, the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) informed the Society of a solar eclipse viewed at Gdansk in 1676. Robert Hooke questioned the accuracy of Hevelius’s work, leading to a visit to Poland by the English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1741) in 1678, who verified the quality of instruments and data.   

Reflecting telescope (c. 1760) by James Short (1710-1768)The Royal Society

Later, the Royal Society commissioned many instruments to observe the Transit of Venus events of 1761 and 1769.

Some were made by the instrument-maker James Short (1710-1768) who encouraged the development of the achromatic reflecting telescope.

Reflecting telescope, designed and made by Isaac Newton (c. 1671) by Isaac Newton (1643-1727)The Royal Society

The Royal Society also owns a reflecting telescope attributed to Isaac Newton.

Leviathan Telescope (otherwise known as Lord Rosse's Telescope) at Birr Castle, Ireland (c. 1857) by Mary Rosse, Countess of Rosse (nee Mary Field) (1813-1885)The Royal Society

Victorian giants

Nineteenth-century telescopes were built to enormous sizes and the Royal Society helped to design and fund such instruments. Two new technologies, photography and spectroscopy, began to dominate astronomy. Photography enabled the capture and recording of solar eclipses and phenomena such as sunspot activity. Astronomical spectroscopy allowed scientists to examine the chemical composition of stars.

Spectroscope (1867) by Troughton & SimmsThe Royal Society

The instrument-makers Troughton & Simms made telescopes, mural circles - telescopes mounted on circular frames - and many other astronomy tools.

Spectroscopes, like this one, allowed astronomers to deduce the chemical composition of stars by studying their spectral lines.

Leviathan Telescope (otherwise known as Lord Rosse's Telescope) at Birr Castle, Ireland (c. 1857) by Mary Rosse, Countess of Rosse (nee Mary Field) (1813-1885)The Royal Society

In 1845, a giant reflecting telescope was built at Parsonstown in Ireland by Royal Society President William Parson, Third Earl of Rosse (1800-1867) - standing in the aperture in this photo.

The telescope was known as Leviathan, and was the largest in the world until 1917.

Leviathan had a 72-inch aperture and was particularly suited to light-gathering, for the observation of very distant objects.

The telescope revealed the spiral structures of what we now know to be other galaxies.

Scientific content for the Illustrated London Almanack, edited James Glaisher (1845/1857) by James Glaisher (1809-1903)The Royal Society

The Victorian era saw astronomy become popular with the burgeoning middle classes.

James Glaisher FRS (1809-1903), a meteorologist and astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, edited various books to popularise astronomy, and was heavily criticised by his chief, the prickly Astronomer Royal George Airy FRS (1801-1892).

Kew Observatory sunspot notebook (1864) by Warren de la Rue (1815-1889)The Royal Society

Observing the Sun

Kew Observatory was managed by the Royal Society until 1900, and used for astronomical and magnetic observations. It became a centre for solar observation, and where astronomical photography pioneer Warren de la Rue FRS (1815-1889) described sunspot activity.

Solar Prism (1928)The Royal Society

Solar prisms allow for the safe observation of the sun by refracting most of the light out of the optical path.

This reflecting prism was purchased with the support of a Royal Society grant.

It was used with a spectroheliograph by the astronomer John Evershed FRS (1864-1956) for solar observations at his private observatory in Ewhurst, Surrey.

The prism was then employed at the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceaux Castle in 1953.

Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919 by Frank Watson Dyson (1868-1939)The Royal Society

Traditional astronomical expeditions continued to be valuable into the twentieth century. Photographs of star positions during the 1919 solar eclipse taken on Principe Island by Arthur Eddington FRS (1882-1944) and Frank Dyson FRS (1868-1939) provided key evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Ariel 1 satellite (1962)The Royal Society

The Radio Age

By the second half of the century, professional astronomy was moving into new wavelengths and even off the planet. Post-war radio telescopes that could detect radio-waves, infra-red light and radiation, would allow astronomers to peer even deeper into space. And small satellites with basic instrument packages were the forerunners of today’s orbital observatories.

LIFE Photo Collection

The Hubble Telescope, soon to be replaced by the James Webb space telescope (expected late 2021), has provided breathtaking images of our universe that Galileo could never have imagined.

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