Have you ever wondered how 18th and 19th century scientists explained the universe?
The NMM has recently published on Collections Online a new section called Popular Astronomy, which reveals through our collections how genteel ladies, gentlemen and even the general public were learning about the heavens. It was hoped that teaching such topics might encourage individuals to turn away from more frivolous occupations and toward a contemplation of the sublime nature of the universe and its Creator.
Urania’s Mirror or a View of the Heavens (AST0049)
Many new objects are online for the first time, including orreries, lecture slides and wall hangings. We hope you enjoy viewing these fascinating items.
As a great film fan, I’ve had enormous fun over the past couple of years trying to spot telescopes in the movies, and have been able to call it research for the book the Museum recently published on the history of the telescope.
Pair of stills from ‘As Seen through the Telescope’
One of my favourite is an early film called As Seen Through the Telescope, directed in 1900 by George Albert Smith. It’s a simple tale in which a dodgy old man uses his telescope to have a good look at a couple across the street. It’s also interesting as an early example of action cut across successive shots, with the viewer sharing what he sees: the young man’s hands caressing the woman’s foot and ankle, shown within a circular mask to mimic the telescopic view. In case you’re worried, the voyeur doesn’t go unrewarded – at the end of the film the younger man punches him. Perhaps that’s why it was called L’astronome indiscret in France.
For those with time to spare, here are some of the telescopic films I’ve enjoyed:
Rear Window – A classic Hitchcock which explores the ethical issues raised by our irrestistible urge to peek at our neighbours
A Short Film about Love – Krzysztof Kieslowski takes on the same issues with less laughs
Notorious – another great Hitchcock. Check out the scene at the races – a witty touch with the binoculars
Storm over Mont Blanc – Leni Riefenstahl falls in love with a meteorologist, saves his life and abandons her large telescope for the kitchen
Contact – Jodie Foster wrestles with science, faith and telescopic evidence
The Dish – you’ll believe a radio telescope can be a film star
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – not the greatest film, but it does use telescopes for some really unsophisticated humour
For those interested, I’ll be talking about some telescopic film stars in a couple of weeks at our conference, The Long View: 400 Years of the Telescope.
Looking at the collection of telescopes in the Royal Observatory, it’s notable just how many hand-held instruments we have. This is mainly because although we usually think of the telescope as an instrument for astronomy, most of those ever made were for far much more earthly purposes. And to their makers and sellers they were above all commercial products.
Portable telescope by George Willdey, about 1710 (NAV1522)
This now slightly damaged telescope is one of our decidedly commercial examples. It was made in about 1710 by a London maker called George Willdey. With its black shagreen barrel, gold-tooled green leather draw tubes and ivory fittings, it was obviously a luxury item for the rich and fashionable of the metropolis.
This point becomes even clearer when you look at the range of stuff Willdey sold, shown in one of his advertisements from the same period.
Advertisement for George Willdey’s shop
At the time, all these different items would have been classed as ‘toys’, meaning not children’s playthings but small fashionable items for adults, such as fans, snuff boxes, writing tools and game pieces. Willdey’s advert shows quite beautifully that the telescope could be not just a tool of science, but also a firmly commercial luxury item.
You can hear more about George Willdey and his telescopes at our forthcoming conference, The Long View, in July.
Today, I’m pleased to say, sees the publication of a new book I’ve written on the history of the telescope. The book has been brought out in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 and to mark the 400th anniversary of the invention (or at least the announcement) of the telescope in 1608.
I’ve tried to tell as broad a story as possible. So I’ve talked about the development of telescopes for astronomy and their huge impact in changing our conceptions of the universe but I’ve also looked at the more humble story of the hand-held telescopes and binoculars used for all sorts of things on land and at sea. If you think about it, after all, most of the telescopes ever made were for these more mundane purposes. Another aspect I’ve included is the cultural impact of the telescope, whether as a symbol in art and literature, or as an inspiration for science fiction and other writers and film-makers. So as well as Galileo, Newton and Hubble, you’ll find Alfred Hitchcock, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf. And don’t forget to look out for Tom Swift and his megascope space prober.
For those wanting to look even deeper into the telescope’s history, you may also be interested in a forthcoming conference, The Long View, this July.
This month is the telescope’s 400th birthday. Well, sort of. We know that in September 1608 an optician called Hans Lipperhey announced that he had invented a new device and asked for a patent from the Dutch States-General. Before then it all gets a bit murkier. It’s more than likely that someone (or some people) came up with a similar idea in the decades before, but Lipperhey was certainly one of the first to try and exploit the instrument’s potential.
Portable telescope, dated 1661
The National Maritime Museum has a great collection of telescopes of all sorts (including this rather unusual trumpet-shaped one), so to mark the anniversary we’ve been putting together a display in the Royal Observatory, opening on 15 September, and a web exhibition. We’re really trying to get over two points. Firstly, the invention was important because it was the first time someone had produced an instrument to extend one of the human senses. Thanks to the work of people like Galileo Galilei (who, incidentally, did not invent the telescope) it changed how people did science. Secondly, most of the telescopes ever made were actually for more mundane things than astronomy – for soldiers, sailors and pleasure-seekers, and not just astronomers. But don’t worry, we’re not forgetting that astronomical telescopes changed the way we think about the universe.
So come and have a look at the new display at the Royal Observatory – or the web version – and let us know what you think.