Astronomical Observations from India – A Historical Overview

Jantar Mantar in India

Documents in India office in England dated AD 1616 describe telescopes as ‘prospective glasses’. It would appear that the agents of the East India Company were the first to sell the “glasses” in a jar. in the first quarter of the 17th century, Sir Thomas Roe presented samples of such ‘glasses’ to emperor Jahangir (1605 – 1627) and the Mughal nobility received telescopes as presents.It is interesting to find references to the use of glass at various periods of Indian history, but the manufacture of telescopes was not attempted in the country before independence.

Some years after Galileo used the telescope in 1609, an Englishman, shakily, arrived in Surat (Gujarat) with an improvised device and observed the transit of mercury in 1651 and a comet in the following year. In 1689 a French Jesuit priest, father J. Richard brought a telescope from Siam and observed the stars from Pondicherry. He taught astronomy at a Jesuit school in Millipore in Madras (now Chennai). He observed a comet as well as the binary nature of a bright star, Alpha Centauri.

Jantar Mantar in India

The famous Rajput ruler, Raja Jai Singh (1688-1743) was a lover of astronomy . He built five observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Maratha, Ujjain and Varanasi. He even sent an astronomical mission to Portugal in 1728. The mission brought a telescope made in Europe. Jai Singh, in turn, got some telescopes made in India. He observed the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and the sun. However, he used the telescopes for observation rather than for measurements of celestial phenomena. The optics were rather crude though, limiting the use of the instruments. However he did not use the telescopes in any significant way, expect including some telescopic observations in the compilation of astronomical tables. He used huge masonry instruments to mark celestial data. he gave his own specifications for building the observatories , aimed at ‘correcting the errors in old tables on celestial bodies’.

Two princely rulers in British India took a keen interest in astronomy, through for a short period. In 1832, the king of Oudh, Nasiruddin, set up an observatory in Lucknow. He demolished it in 1849, after the death of the English astronomer who built it. The Maharajah of Travancore founded an observatory in 1837 for observation. The observatory had several telescopes along with instruments for making magnetic observations. It was here that Broun discovered that magnetic disturbances are a global phenomenon and not confined to local areas.

In Pune, Maharajah Takheta Singhi set up an observatory under the guidance of Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala (1857-1938) regarded as the first Indian astrophysicist. The Maharajah of Banger also gave some funds to the observatory , which had a 20- inch reflecting telescope, at that time the largest in the country . The observatory was closed down in 1912 and the telescope was transferred to Kodaikanal observatory.

The first British effort at scientific studies in India was based on astronomical activity. Perhaps the long sea voyages from England to India triggered a wave of interest in observing the stars. One man’s curiosity sustained the interest. He was William Petrie, an influential officer of the East India company, who had two 3-inch telescopes, two pendulum clocks and an instrument for celestial observation. Petrie built a private observatory in Madras (now Chennai) in 1786. That year, Michel Topping (1747-1796), the company’s trained astronomer and surveyor, began a survey of the Coramandal coast. Petrie’s observatory provided a reference meridian for the survey.

In 1790 the company formally took over the observatory; it was housed in a part of the astronomer’s residence until 1791. A new building was constructed in Nungambakkam, Madras (now Chennai). The observatory was then the first – ever of its kind outside Europe. It was the only astronomical observatory in India for nearly a century. The observations began with the instruments donated by poetry’s pendulum clock designed by Shelton: a small ‘transit instrument ‘and three identical 2 (3/4) inch telescopes, extents, pocket chronometers and other device.

east india company astronomy

The Englishmen in charge of the observatory were proud of their work , even though the observatory was modestly equipped they inscribed on the massive pillar supporting the observing instrument a somewhat pompous declaration:

“Posterity may be informed more than a 1000 years hence of the period when the mathematical sciences were first planted by British liberality in Asia.”

The inscription was in Latin, Tamil, Telugu and Hindustanis.

In 1830 the observatory acquired a transit instrument and Thomas Glanville Taylor (1804 – 1848) based on the observation made between 1831 and 1843 prepared the famous madras catalogue. it showed the positions of 11,015 stars , based on observations made over 12 years . it was later received at the Greenwich observatory , England and formed the basis of British association’s 1845 catalogue . Taylor’s catalogue was received and reissued in 1893.

It is interesting to recall that it was only in 1838 that Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846) , a German astronomer, announced the parallax of the star 61 Cygni , which was the first fully authenticated measurement of the distance of a star. The distance to a star was calculated by measuring the parallax (angle) caused by the movement of the earth with reference to the apartment movement of a relatively close star.

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