The Observatory was designed by the famous Sir Howard Grubb, and houses a unique collection of his finest work. Grubb built all the instruments contained in the Observatory, including the telescopes and their associated equipment such as the clocks and the dome.
The Grubb family business, which was based in Dublin, along the banks of the Grand Canal, next to the HQ today for the Construction Industry Federation, was Ireland’s foremost maker of scientific instruments. The firm was set up in the 1830s by Thomas Grubb, the father of Howard Grubb, and soon gained an international reputation for excellence.
The significance of the Crawford Observatory lies largely in the quality of its instruments, rather than in the findings made by astronomers using the instruments. The Siderostatic Telescope, for example, is the ancestor of that used today in Kitt Peak in Arizona and the work done there is still relevant over a hundred years later.
Nestled inside shrubbery, the Crawford Observatory building is in the same ecclesiastical style as the other early buildings of UCC. The layout was conventional enough for its day, with a two-story central section, and single-story wings. There are four small rooms in the Observatory, three on the ground floor and one upstairs.
The visitor enters through the centre room, which is now used to display detailed information about the Observatory. To the left, in a single-story East wing, is the Meridian Room – which is also called the Transit Room – and to the right a room housing the Siderostatic Telescope.
Transit instruments were used for astronometry – that is measuring the position of the stars to a high degree of accuracy. As well as satisfying the thirst of astronomers for more and more information and data, the results had practical applications in improving navigation for ships at sea. At the time, as with much of the instrumentation in the Crawford Observatory, the design was innovative. One particular advantage was its stability.
The observer’s seat was also innovative. The inclined chair, padded with horsehair, is on rollers for the comfort of the user. The chair has been beautifully restored by the Furniture Centre in Letterfrack.
A narrow spiral staircase with high stone steps reaches the Equatorial Telescope. The climb must have been hard on the knees of the astronomers as they nightly toiled up and down. It was worth their exertions, though, because at the top is a telescope that received a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition before it was installed in what was then Queen’s University Cork.
The location gave this telescope the advantage of height, so that it had an uninterrupted view of the sky down to the horizon.
Both Thomas and Howard Grubb were especially well known for their large reflecting telescopes, and they pioneered the use of equatorial mountings with clock drives. These improved mountings meant that the telescope could be pointed at any object above the horizon and could maintain its position in the field of view for a long time.
With the growth of photography astronomers found that the longer the exposure the more details they could make out, so this was a big advantage of the mounting.
The equatorial telescope was used to take photographs of sections of the northern sky for the Carte du Ciel project. This project, which was set up by international agreement in Paris in 1887, involved several observatories around the world working together to make a photographic map of the sky.
The room in which this telescope sat in was painstakingly engineered. For example, the entire dome could be rotated by hand, using a lever. One historical quirk is that before batteries were used to power the telescope, the Observatory was connected into Cork’s tram system.
At the time the Crawford Observatory was built, there were far fewer buildings around and light pollution didn’t exist. Nowadays the area is built up, and there is more light pollution about, but to maximise the effectiveness of the Observatory there is an arrangement with the university, whereby the campus lights are dimmed when the telescopes are in use.
This telescope is located to the right of the central hall, in the West wing. It is called the Siderostatic Telescope because it works by counteracting the rotation of the Earth and this means it offers the observer a stationary image in a stationary eyepiece.
This design originated in France in the 1830s, and the Crawford Observatory telescope is the first one that Howard Grubb built along these lines. A modern addition to this room is a large screen and internet connection, so that telescopes can be controlled over the web.
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