History

Archbishop Richard Robinson (1708-1794), leader of the Church of Ireland, enhanced the Georgian town of Armagh and established the Observatory in 1789. A rich and influential man, he embodied the spirit of the age that became known as the enlightenment, which was marked by a steady increase in the study of the sciences. He is known to have been introduced to William Herschel very soon after the latter’s arrival in Bath, in December 1766, and may also have been influenced towards an interest in astronomy by the Reverend J.A. Hamilton of Cookstown, County Tyrone, who was a noted amateur astronomer, and was to become the Observatory’s first director.

The main Observatory building was designed by Francis Johnston, the architect responsible for many fine buildings in Dublin, most notably the GPO in O’Connell Street and the Chapel Royal. Construction was completed in 1793, and along with Dunsink Observatory in Dublin, established in 1783, it was one of the first observatories where what mattered was how good it was for observing as well as how pleasing it looked to the eye. It is an imposing example of the elegance of Georgian architecture.

J.A. Hamilton, the first director, embarked on a comprehensive programme of accurately measuring the positions of the stars, but was hindered by the death of Archbishop Robinson in 1794. Robinson’s heirs took little interest in science, which resulted in the loss of a number of instruments originally ordered for the Observatory. However, Hamilton struggled on with his astronomy, and also initiated a series of weather readings which are still carried out today, at the meteorological station currently located to the south of the main buildings.

In 1823, a young and gifted astronomer called Thomas Romney Robinson (apparently no relation to Archbishop Robinson) was appointed director, a post he held for a remarkable 59 years. He was fortunate in that before he took up his post, a new Archbishop was created, John George Beresford, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the Observatory, and (fortunately for the Observatory) rich. With this combination of ability and financial backing the Observatory flourished during the mid-19th century, acquiring the long-needed collection of good quality instruments, such as can be found in the telescope domes at the back of the building. It was during this period that Armagh became established as a scientific institution of national and international importance spanning both astronomy and meteorology. T.R. Robinson devised the instrument, the Robinson Cup-Anemometer, to measure wind speed, which can be seen on top of the Sector Tower.

John Louis Emil Dreyer, a Danish astronomer, took over as director upon Robinson’s death in 1882. While at Armagh he compiled the NGC catalogue, or more properly the “New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars”. This is one of the most important contributions to science to have come from the Armagh Observatory during the nineteenth century; and more than a hundred years later it remains one of the principal catalogues of nebulae and galaxies still used by the astronomical community.

Ernst Julius Opik, who worked at Armagh from 1948 to 1981, was one of the foremost theoretical astronomers of his generation. Among his many achievements, those which stand out include his early discovery of the exceptional density of a particular type of star now known as a white dwarf; the computation of evolutionary models of stars with variable chemical compositions; proof of the distance of the great spiral nebula in Andromeda, suggesting it was another galaxy; and recognition of the importance of stellar perturbations on the orbits of comets in exceedingly long-period orbits. He was also one of the first seriously to suggest that Ice Ages were caused by variations in the amount of energy given off by the Sun. His work on asteroid impacts and craters on Mars hit the headlines.

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