The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh 1896 building by night.
Photo Credit: Royal Observatory, Edinburgh


  For anyone who has been in Scotland during the almost permanent rainy season, one might suspect that no Scot has ever seen all the phases of the moon in the course of a lifetime, so you will be surprised to learn that there is a long history of astronomy in Edinburgh.

  Edinburgh's association with astronomy dates back to the foundation of the "Tounis College", now the University of Edinburgh, in 1583. In 1776 work began on Edinburgh's first observatory on Calton Hill. Unfortunately construction absorbed all the funds set aside for the project leaving none for the astronomical instruments.

  In 1811 a group of scientifically minded citizens founded the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, the first Astronomical Society in Britain. Its main task was to press for the establishment of an observatory for both scientific and public observing. Work on the observatory began in 1818 on a site next to the existing building on Calton Hill, and by the time it was ready for use in 1824 it had become the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.

 Only 64 years later, in 1888, the government proposed to close the observatory because light pollution from the surrounding city made the conditions for observing very poor.

 Lord Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, who had a fine private observatory in Aberdeenshire proposed to the government that he would give his collection of antiquarian astronomy books and instruments to the nation provided that a new observatory was built in Scotland to house them. The government accepted his offer and agreed to construct a replacement for the Calton Hill observatory on Blackford Hill further away from the city centre. The new Royal Observatory was operational with instruments from both Calton Hill and the Earl of Crawford in 1896.

  The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh is a fascinating place to visit. The Visitor Centre is open to the public Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 17:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:00 noon to 17:00.

  In addition there are public viewing nights on Friday evenings, with a spectacular view of Edinburgh as well as the sky - if it is clear. Once a year the entire observatory is open to the public as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Last year there were almost 2000 visitors during the weekend of the Open Days.

  Although professional observing is no longer viable in Edinburgh the East Tower of the Observatory still contains a 36 inch reflector telescope - the second largest in Scotland (the largest is at St. Andrews and is a single inch larger!). This telescope has not been used since the 1970s but the Observatory hopes to be able to restore it to working order in the near future so that it can be used by the public.

  In addition, the observatory is visited regularly by groups of school children and is about to pilot a teacher training program for those teachers who are required to teach a science component in their classes but are not specialists in this area. It also has a inflatable Starlab Planetarium which it is able to take to local interested groups.

 However, the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is much more than just a Visitor Centre and historic building. On the same site there are the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), and the Institute for Astronomy.

 Researchers at the Institute for Astronomy, which is part of the University of Edinburgh, have a special interest in understanding the evolution of the universe. They use observations of the sky, statistics and computer modeling to study how stars and galaxies are formed from clouds of stardust, and where stardust itself comes from. As well as research the Institute also runs introductory courses in astronomy for students of any discipline at first year level, Honours Degree courses in Astrophysics, and research degrees leading to the award of a PhD.

  The UK ATC is a scientific establishment funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Astronomers and engineers at the UK ATC work with partners from all over the world to build instruments such as cameras and spectrometers that are sent to telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, the Canary Islands and Australia.

 Modern astronomical observation is carried out using mountaintop telescopes where the air is thinner and clearer. The idea of mountaintop observatories was pioneered by Scottish astronomers. The temperature in these locations can vary dramatically and equipment built to be used there needs to be tested for extreme temperature changes. Metals expand and contract as temperatures vary, which could cause serious problems in the alignment of sensitive equipment. There is a special cold room in the UK ATC laboratories where temperatures can be brought extremely low.

 In addition, telescopes must be able to move to look at any part of the sky and also to track the movement of heavenly bodies as they travel across the night sky. As a result, the instruments affixed to the telescope are put under different strains as the telescope moves. There is specialist equipment at the UK ATC to simulate these movements to make certain movement of the telescope won't cause the precise optical pathways to go out of alignment.

  Scientists at the UK ATC have just waved goodbye to 5 years work as UIST, the latest instrument to be completed, was shipped off to Hawaii.

  UIST, the UKIRT Imaging Spectrometer is being installed on UKIRT, the UK InfraRed Telescope, which is situated at an altitude of 4194m near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. It will replace two less powerful instruments, combining their capabilities.


  The UK Infrared telescope, Hawaii - UIST's new home.
Photo Credit: Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

  The design and manufacture of UIST presented demanding technological challenges to the scientists and engineers at the UK ATC. In order to avoid interference from the heat that is emitted by the telescope the mechanisms of the instrument must be cooled to about -200 degrees C using a cryostat. It is expected that UIST will see first light in late September.

  The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is moving to the forefront of developments in European astronomy. In July the UK formally joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO) giving British astronomers access to some of the most powerful astronomical instruments available. The UK will contribute significant intellectual and technical resources, not least from scientists and engineers in Edinburgh.

  The UK ATC is involved in the planning of some very exciting projects for the development of both new instruments for ESO's existing telescopes, and even bigger and better telescopes for the future. One such super telescope that is being investigated by ESO is called OWL, the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope.

  Astronomers at the UK ATC hope to be involved in the detailed design of the telescope and its instruments. Over the next six months the UK ATC will be seeking both industrial partners and funding from the European Commission's 6th framework program. The ATC hopes to be the UK centre for work on OWL type very large telescopes. Four ATC staff recently attended an international meeting in Finland at which the project was discussed in some detail with other scientists and potential industrial partners.

  When it is built the moving part of the OWL telescope will weigh about 12,500 tons (as much as a small ship) and will be pointed much more accurately than a sniper's rifle. OWL will have a mirror 100 meters across and have more collecting power than every telescope ever built throughout history. Since it is impossible to make a single piece of polished glass this large, OWL will be made of hundreds of smaller mirrors joined together like carpet tiles. Computers will control the array of mirrors to ensure that they all point in the same direction and keep the telescope in focus. This huge mirror will make the OWL so powerful that it would be able to see an astronaut standing on the Moon, detect individual stars in very distant galaxies, or a planet like Earth going around another star.

Eleanor Geer
Public Relations Officer

Royal Observatory, Edinburgh
Blackford Hill

  Click here for a slide show of The Royal Observatory at Edinburgh






  IN six months in 1783 not one but two different lighter-than-air technologies were successfully applied to realise the ancient human dream of flight, and what had been impossible suddenly became a craze.

  On 5 June, Jacques-tienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier launched their hot air filled 30-foot "Globe Arostatique" at Versailles. Less than six months later, on 21 November, the first manned flight took place when Jean-Franois Piltre de Rozier and Franois Laurent, Marquis d'Arlandes climbed into the circular gallery of a 70-foot high aerostat at the Jardin de la Muette in the Bois de Boulogne. They rose on the heated air and smoke from a fire fuelled by straw and sheep's wool for a 23-minute flight that took them to 3,000 feet and landed them almost 10 miles away.

  And on 1 December, the French physicist Professor J. -A. -C. Charles (formulator of Charles' Law stating the temperature-volume relationship of a gas) and Nicholas-Louis Robert got a hydrogen-filled balloon of varnished silk airborne from the Tuilleries Gardens for a flight of two hours. The balloon descended near Nesle, some 27 miles northeast of Paris and Robert clambered out. The lightened balloon rose again and carried Charles another few miles. The first successful balloon flight in Britain was made by James Tytler, in Scotland. His hot air balloon took off from Comely Gardens near Holyrood in Edinburgh on 27 August 1784, and travelled half a mile towards Restalrig. Jame Tytler, born in Fearn, near Tain in Easter Ross, in 1747, was a journalist, surgeon, publisher, printer and serial debtor who had most recently been employed as editor of the 10-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Educated at Edinburgh University, James Tytler was undoubtedly clever and courageous. But he also was eccentric and unlucky.

  He certainly failed to impress Robert Burns who described him as "a poor devil in a skylight hat and hardly a shoe to his feet _ who drudges about Edinburgh as a common printer".

  Tytler had hoped to launch his paper-lined cloth "Edinburgh Fire Balloon" to maximum effect during the first week in August, the week of the Leith races.

 Strong westerly winds prevented the flimsy craft from being inflated until the Friday evening. Then, when Tytler fired up his iron stove, the balloon's wood and wicker gallery caught fire and chains securing the stove parted. The attempt was called off.

  A calmer Saturday tempted Tytler to try again but this time, just as he was about to step into the damaged gallery, a gust of wind collapsed the semi-inflated balloon. Spectators and helpers, by what Tytler described as their "continual pulling and tearing about, attempting to inflate it when it was evidently impossible, and other injudicious proceedings" left the balloon a wreck. Tytler decided to remove the paper with which he had lined the bag and seal the fabric with varnish instead. This was done, but "a proper composition could not be afforded" and the varnish was inferior. Moreover, the gallery was gone and, with it, went Tytler's plan to carry a 300-pound stove aloft to pump out the heat that would keep his balloon aloft.

  In the face of the public expectations he had kindled, Tytler was desperate. "I now came to the resolution of suffering myself to be projected into the air by inflating the balloon to the utmost, and being appended to it without any furnace, like a log or piece of ballast," he later wrote. "You will easily see that this was the resolution of a madman_ . A fire balloon in this situation is a mere projectile, and must undoubtedly come to the ground with the same velocity that it ascends from it, unless the person has a considerable quantity of ballast to break his fall as he descends, by throwing it out." It was in this frame of mind that William Tytler got out of his bed on 27 August a "fine and favourable morning" and decided to try to get airborne.

 The balloon, "new varnished, and very tight" was set over a hotly burning stove for nearly an hour until people holding onto the ground-lines could scarcely restrain it. Tytler, perched in a small wicker basket used for carrying earthenware pots, and without ballast, was secured to the balloon and released.

 "The balloon set off from the ground with the swiftness of an arrow" _ but came to a sudden halt, jammed against a rope stay for the balloon's mooring mast. "When freed from this, it flew with such rapidity that several of the spectators, terrified at the unusual sight, endeavoured to drag it downwards till the rope was forced from their hands.

 "Thus my career was stopped, and I arose only a very small way, some say 350 feet, others 500," recalled Tytler. "For my own part, I had scarce time to taste the pleasures of an aerial journey, and during the little time I was in the air, I amused myself with looking at the spectators running about in confusion below.

  They seemed less than delighted: "My reception from the ground was much more rude than I expected and, though insufficient to hurt, was enough to warn me to proceed no more in this way."

  In fact, James Tytler boldly went on to carry out several experimental flights and then to announce a serious flight attempt on 29 September.

  "My character was now somewhat restored," Tytler wrote. Moreover, his balloon had a new stove and gallery, and he approached the day with supreme confidence. Edinburgh's weather intervened. Rain fell day by day until the day of the attempt when, having been moved from its exposure to westerly weather, the balloon was now buffeted from the east. Nevertheless, the stove was lit and the balloon began to inflate_ . Then the mooring mast snapped. That was it.

  The next opportunity came on 11 October but the balloon could not be induced to lift. It was then that Tytler discovered the new, smaller stove had been made even smaller that he had specified. It was simply too small to heat enough "rarefied air" a lift-off.

  The failure made a laughing stock, and worse, of Tytler. "I was obliged to hear my name called out wherever I went, to bear the insults of every black-guard boy, to hear myself called cheat, rascal, coward and scoundrel by those who had neither courage, honesty, nor honour. I was proscribed in the newspapers, and pointed out by two of the Edinburgh news-mongers as a public enemy_ . All of this I bore with patience; I knew that popular opinion, founded on ignorance, varied as the wind, and that a single instance of success would be sufficient to turn the tide in my favour."

 It was not to be. Tytler had a new stove made but bad weather cancelled test after test, and then he was arrested for damages, "the greatest part of which had never been done by the balloon, or anyone belonging to it. Nothing came of the charges, but Tytler fell ill with a fever. It was the following July before the balloon was repaired and serviceable. But then, on its first trial, it was caught by a savage gust and overturned. The bag was badly damaged and the stove was "dashed to pieces."

 Tytler gave up, despairing of his own lack of power, his friends' lack of knowledge and the public's impatience. It was at this point, in September 1785, that an elegant young Italian arrived in Scotland: Vincenzo Lunardi, personal private secretary to Prince Caramanico, Neapolitan Ambassador at the Court of St James's in London.

 Elegant in his colourful regimental uniform, a suave showman and urbane daredevil, Lunardi had an immediate impact on the young ladies of the Scottish capital, and they on him: "I love them all," he declared. "Ah! What glory to ascend my aerial chariot in their view! to be the object of their admiration! to have all their eyes turned towards me! all their prayers and wishes breathed for my safety! and to hear their united acclamations! Oh Heaven!" Lunardi also had won the assistance of a number of influential Scots, including the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch.

 Helped by Dr George Fordyce, an Edinburgh University medical graduate, he had constructed a successful hydrogen-filled balloon and made the first balloon flight ever seen in England (from London on 13 September 1784). He went on to conduct a string of successful balloon ascents in England and then headed north.

 Where Tytler had so recently been ridiculed by the mob and ostracised by society, Lunardi was feted and acclaimed. That is not to say that his way was without obstacles. There was, for example, his encounter with an Edinburgh plumber, W. Chalmers, who contracted to deliver two 14-foot cisterns and other equipment by noon on the following Tuesday, 4 October 1785.

 Writing to the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, Lundardi complained that the plumber, having turned up four hours late for a meeting on the site on day before delivery was due, had then announced he would be doing the work because "his men were _ making pipes for the New Street." Lunardi was furious:

 "I could not believe that he was serious, till he had repeated the same words several times, with the most provoking indifference," he told his aristocratic patrons. "I loaded him with the bitterest invectives that rage and disappointment could prompt; but they were all thrown away upon this phlegmatic mortal."

  In the event, Lunardi made six celebrated hydrogen balloon ascents in Scotland between 5 October 1785 and 28 July 1786 two from Edinburgh, two from Glasgow and one from Kelso. In what can only be called an unqualified success, the parade ended all too soon. The big question that was on everyone's lips was "Is this going to become an annual event?". We sure hope so!.

 Crowds of up to 80,000 attended his launches and he was awarded a string of civic honours and large round balloon-shaped bonnets, called "Lunardis" (referred to by Robert Burns in 'To a louse'), became fashionable amongst the young ladies he so admired.

 Tytler saw Lundardi sweep up the success he had so keenly hoped and worked for. His response was to write a poetic tribute to Lunardi in which he promised to "yet with Fate contend", pitting science experience and prudence against slander, hate, detraction, malice and envy, to join Lunardi in the sky and stand his "brother in the Records of Fame".

 Adulation, however, can be a fickle, passing and relative favour.

 Circulating in the street literature of Scotland at the end of the 18th century was the following, anonymously written view of the glamorous young Italian's exploits:

  By Jove it's an excellent trick,
 Now no-one will care for Old Nick;
 For me I confess I'm more humble,
 And fear from Olympus to tumble.
 _ Now the Ladies are going to fly,
 With their Jupiters up to the sky.
  It's the properest place for amours,
 No occasion for bolting of doors;
 Why then to the moon let them go,
 I'd rather cabbage cloth here below.

 In a meadow near Ware was set up a stone marking the place where Lunardi landed on 15 September 1784. It wrongly identified him as "the first aerial traveller in Britain". Lunardi returned to Italy in 1788. He died "of a decline" in a Lisbon convent in 1806, at the age of 46. He had survived James Tytler by a little more than two years.

 In 1792, accused of producing seditious broadsheets, Tytler moved first to Ireland and then on to the United States where he took up newspaper publishing and found a home in Salem, Massachusetts. There, one bitter night in January 1804, he was drowned.

 Better remembered than Tytler himself may be some of his contributions to the Scottish Musical Museum, such as The Bonnie Brucket Lassie and I hae laid a Herring in Saut. In 1997, a housing project 70 homes for rent and sale, including homes for disabled and elderly people was opened on the grounds of what once was Comley Gardens where Tytler was borne aloft in 1784.

 Copy supplied by Mike Paterson, BA, PhD,

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