Monday, 8 May 2017

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Blackheath Avenue
London SE10 8XJ

Thursday May 4 2017

The planned schedule had us down to visit the World of Rugby at Twickenham, which on closer inspection is having a makeover so we were spared from what was probably our least anticipated visit. As an easy substitute we therefore headed south to the fertile area of Greenwich for today’s trip to the Royal Observatory.

 Having climbed the steep hill we sat theoretically to enjoy the view – one of London’s best – but today in spite of a cold wind the air was grimy with a mixture of mist and pollution. We also thought we would wait while the youth of Europe milled around taking photos of themselves astride the Meridian Line.

However once you pay your entrance fee and pass behind the original observatory building you enter quite an oasis with a small neatly planted courtyard garden laid out in the style of the Stuart building. The original  building went up in just over a year and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was in fact the first purpose built  project for scientific purposes with the possibility for the Astronomer Royal to ‘live over the shop’ and Flamsteed was the first to take up this post.

I had imagined the Observatory to be full of dusty old planet diagrams of the Solar system but in fact at least half of it is presented as a ‘family house’ with snippets of biographical detail of the   ten Astronomers Royal (Astronomer Royals?) who lived here. Maskelyne was the first to bring his family – one daughter only – but we were charmed to see details of Margeret’s developmental milestones: weaned at 8 months and walking at thirteen and even immunised against smallpox as a toddler . The exhibits are sparse with one cabinet containing herbal remedies for ‘upset stomachs’ with ginger being well promoted.

Others show simple explanatory charts as might appeal to children. The portraits include Herschel and his sister Caroline, discoverers of Uranus and eight comets respectively, who would have visited the Maskelynes. I particularly liked Maskelyne’s bespoke ‘stargazing’ outfit – a mixture of linen, wool and silk fibres (his sister had handily married Clive of India and sent him the fabric) with little flaps to go over his feet. Looking at the Heavens involved quite a lot of outdoor standing and peering, and potentially freezing...  

The next but one family in contrast had nine children, not all surviving. Airy was a great organiser and put the Observatory back on a more scientific basis with a keen eye for data collection (after all the purpose of the Observatory had been to help the navy navigate better) but this top flight mathematician also established the 0 meridian with such accuracy that it was accepted by the rest of the world in 1884. The ‘family’ rooms dedicated to him reflect the man and his many honours rather than domestic life.

From here you climb a narrow staircase up to the Octagon Room – from the outside I had thought this something of a vanity project as of the kind architects sometimes indulge in, Sir Christopher Wren being no exception. However when you get into the Octagon Room, and Jo and I had it to ourselves, you can see the design for what it is – eight tall narrow windows allow for telescopes to be trained in all and any directions. Between the windows built into the panelling are a series of Tompion clocks.

One of our earliest Museum visits had been to the Clockmakers' Museum, (since that time moved to the Science Museum) complete with this Londoner's time pieces.  
  Tompion clocks were very accurate for the times and the pendulums are hidden in the panelling. This is a beautiful room mainly because it combines form and function so well with breath taking views.

Going down the other staircase you descend into the exhibition which gives the context to explain time and the Longitude meridian.

Take a deep breath – the reason navigators needed to know accurate time at both Greenwich and where they were was to establish Longitude or rather how far East or West they were. Inaccuracy at sea spelt disaster as the 1707 Shovell Disaster so clearly showed.

Such huge loss of life stirred both the public and the Crown into offering a substantial reward for anyone who came up with a solution to accurate measurement of Longitude . Time pieces during this era were heavily dependent on pendulums. As   anyone who has ever tried to move a pendulum clock knows they are remarkably sensitive  to displacement and sulk very easily. Being aboard a ship was almost wholly incompatible and you can see why sailors relied on the sun during the day and sand clocks overnight. Mr Harrison of Lincoln decided to have a go and spent the next 45 years designing various models referred and preserved in the Museum as H1, 2, 3 & 4 The early one is a brass fantasy in a ship shaped stand but by the end  it was actually a watch that permitted the required level of accuracy and portability. The Crown had changed hands and there was some demurring about awarding Harrison his prize but he finally received it and a place in history. The best account of his obsessive pursuit is in the book ‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel which lets you understand the underlying science at the time you read it even if it is difficult to retain.

The rest of this gallery is devoted to other time pieces – early sundials (not much use in the UK or aboard ships), sand clocks and of course the development beyond clockwork instruments.   With the development of the railways and later air travel both national and  International time-keeping   had to be agreed on and maintained to a high standard,. In the 1940s quartz began to be used as a substitute for pendulums and now of course most time keeping is digitally managed. The great era of public clocks is no more (hence my fondness for them when riding London buses) as everyone carries a time piece with them. 

As you leave the Time and Meridian exhibition you recross the small courtyard and enter a part of the exhibition devoted to some of Halley’s work.  Apparently when he arrived to take up his post of Astronomer Royal he found Flamsteed’s widow had stripped the observatory of her husband’s instruments. This building houses the larger exhibits many of which were purpose built by successive astronomers as they pursued their individual interests (not entirely what the post was about)   There was a note to say that Halley in spite of his lasting fame was a bit ‘sloppy’ with is recording of data… still his fame lives on.  

Not quite understanding the purpose of the various instruments on display, and for my part a limited interest in planetary motion (it comes of being very short sighted and living in a light polluted city when you only see the moon in London ‘once in a blue moon’ so to say, let alone anything else) we did not linger long here.

This last section apart we enjoyed the Observatory, its location, its building and its contents. The Greenwich websites are excellent and virtually anything I tried to check was available and linked to their range of quite unique exhibits.  Living locally you take them for granted which should not be the case.

PS Some debate but consensus seems to be that the plural of Astronomer Royal is Astronomers Royal…

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