6. The Modern Period

E.M. Lindsay

There had been many visitors to the Observatory over the years. One, who came in the earlier 1920's, was a boy named Eric Mervyn Lindsay, who then regarded it as a great privilege to be shown round a real astronomical observatory and to meet its famous Director. When Ellison died, it was Lindsay who was appointed in his place; and it was he who re-built the Observatory into its present position of eminence in the scientific world.

He may be regarded as a "local", since he was born near Portadown in County Armagh. Following his school days at King's Hospital, Dublin, he went to the Queen's University at Belfast, taking his B.Sc. in physics in 1928 and his M.Sc. in the following year. He then went to Harvard College Observatory to undertake research into the problems of the southern Milky Way and the distribution of stars in the southern part of the sky; he gained his M.A. from Harvard in 1931 and his Ph.D. in 1934. At this point he departed for Africa, an from 1934 to 1937 carried on his researches as chief assistant at the Boyden Observatory, near Bloemfontein, which did not then have the close links with Irish astronomy that it has to-day. (It had originally been established at Arequipa, in Peru, as a Harvard southern outpost, and had been transferred to Africa in 1927; it was equipped with a 60in. reflector and the 24in. Bruce refractor.)

At Harvard, Lindsay had met Sylvia Mussells, an assistant at Harvard Observatory, and their marriage took place in South Africa in 1935. At Harvard, Mrs. Lindsay had worked with Dr. Harlow Shapley on studies of variable stars and galaxies. This is the first instance in the Observatory's history where the Director's wife has herself been associated with the astronomical work, though it is true that Mrs. Ellison had undertaken some of the meteorological recording.

When Lindsay accepted the Directorship at Armagh, he came back to Ireland immediately, to find a somewhat depressing picture awaiting him on his arrival in November 1937. The instruments were not, to put it mildly, in good repair. There was no staff. The endowments had shrunk continually, so that in 1938 the total income from all sources was a mere £450 - which included the annual £100 grant from the Northern Ireland Government and the £50 given by the Air Ministry to maintain the meteorological station. The whole situation needed a firm hand, and fortunately Lindsay was able to provide it.

Prompt steps were taken to start modernizing the Observatory. The Government grant was increased to £300 per year, and a Department of Astronomy was opened at the Queen's University with the Director as its head. A small capital grant was given by the Government to transform the transit room into a display room for public use. Also, an important addition was made to the Board of Governors. Under the 1791 Act, the Board could elect two lay members; by an Act passed in 1938, this number was increased to five, one to be appointed by the Governor of Northern Ireland and one by the Queen's University. Then came the War.

Hitler's armies rolled across Europe, and astronomical research had to take second place. The Director left to take up a post of Principal Scientific Officer at the Admiralty; the work of modernizing the Observatory ceased, and all research programmes were in abeyance.

However, there was one important development about Irish astronomy in general during the war period. In Dublin, Mr. de Valera had established the Institute of Advanced Studies, made up of two schools, Celtic Studies and Theoretical Physics. At this time, Mr. de Valera was anxious to establish a third school - Cosmic Physics, which would include astronomy. Dunsink Observatory had been closed for many years, and was almost derelict. There had been strong advice against re-opening it, on the grounds of expense and the unfavourable Irish climate. Lindsay emphatically did not agree, and meetings between him and the Taoiseach resulted in Dunsink being restored to its rightful place in the astronomical world.

When peace came again, there was much to do. Lindsay returned to Armagh in 1946 to find no modem equipment, no staff, and no library accommodation, while the existing buildings were deteriorating rapidly. However, the first breakthrough came in the same year, as the result of a plan formulated by the Director and Dr. Harlow Shapley. The scheme was to erect the joint Armagh-Dunsink-Harvard or A.D.H. telescope at Harvard Observatory's Boyden Station, near Bloemfontein.

The advantages of this arrangement were manifold. First, it was agreed that if each of the two Governments in Ireland would contribute £5,000, Harvard would provide the rest, no matter how much it might be. Harvard would also maintain the telescope at the Boyden station, and all other facilities there would be made available to the Armagh and Dunsink observers who would spend periods there collecting the necessary research material. Of course, climatic conditions at Boyden are excellent (which cannot, alas, be said of those in Ireland!). Most important of all, the southern hemisphere of the sky would be available, and was in urgent need of study.

Thus at an almost negligible cost, Armagh could become part of a great southern observatory. It was Lindsay's task to obtain the agreement of the two Governments in Ireland, and he succeeded in doing so. Negotiations with the, Government of the Republic were concluded, and were followed by a meeting between Sir Milne Barbour, a former Finance Minister in the Northern Ireland Government, and Major Sinclair, the then Minister of, Finance. Within a week, the Northern Ireland Government had also given its agreement to the scheme.*

ADH Telescope

The telescope was of the Baker-Schmidt type (a modification of the famous Schmidt principle), and was designed by Professor James Baker of Harvard University. It was in operation by 1950, and in 1951 the world's largest prism, of 33in. diameter, was provided - mainly by Harvard funds; though a grant of £1000 was made by the Department of Astronomy, Queen's University.

Before returning to events at Armagh, it may be as well to follow developments at Boyden through to the present day. In 1954 Harvard University decided to change the status of the southern station, which became the Boyden Observatory - the first international venture of its kind, operated by the Directors of Armagh, Brussels, Dunsink, Hamburg, Harvard and Stockholm Observatories. The running costs were to be borne mainly by the Swedish, Belgian and West German observatories, while the A.D.H. telescope became the joint property of Armagh and Dunsink. In return, it was agreed that the full resources at Boyden, including the 60in. Rockefeller reflector, should be made fully available to all the "partners".

As soon as the A.D.H. telescope came into operation, then the Magellanic Clouds were singled out for special attention, and during the last ten years many papers have been published. Needless to say, the Armagh programme at Boyden is not confined solely to the Clouds; many other fields of research are tackled as well.

Despite all the activity at Boyden, it was essential to have some modern equipment at Armagh itself, and this became practicable during the years after the end of the war. The dome covering the old Calver reflector was dismantled; and a grant of £1100 from the Royal Society enabled the reflector to be converted into a modern Schmidt. The mounting was retained, while the conversion of the optical parts was carried out by the well-known firm of Cox, Hargreaves and Thomson, who also provided the necessary electronic synchronized drive. The erection of a new dome was made possible by the gift of £800 from Mr. Tom Scott of Armagh. The conversion was finished in late 1950, and in its new form the instrument has proved to be extremely valuable. In the same year, the covering of the dome of the lOin. refractor, which had given trouble almost from the beginning, was replaced. A small workshop and darkroom were incorporated in the old meteorological building, and two rocking-mirror meteor cameras were designed and made at the Observatory, one installed on the site and the other 25 miles north. Also, a house to accommodate Observatory staff was built in the grounds.

E.J. Öpik

When the equipment problem had been satisfactorily solved, it became obviously essential to increase the staff of the Observatory. A particularly welcome newcomer to Armagh was Dr. E. J. Öpik, who arrived as Research Associate in 1948 and has remained ever since. Forced to leave his native Estonia at the end of the second world war, when the country was overrun, Öpik had been for three years Rector of the Exile Baltic University near Hamburg. While he was there, he was invited to come to Armagh - and he accepted, to the immense benefit of astronomy in general and Irish astronomy in particular. During the 1950's, Dr. E. B. Armstrong held the post of Senior Assistant until returning to the Department of Physics at Queen's University, and was succeeded by Dr. F. E. Kameny of the Steward Observatory at Tucson, who later took up a post at Georgetown University Observatory in Washington. Much valuable volunteer work was also done by Brigadier K. M. Papworth.

With the vastly increased sums of public money being spent on what was originally a privately-endowed Observatory, the Ministry of Finance felt that the whole question of its status should be re-examined. In 1957 the Ministry therefore set up a two-man Committee consisting of the Astronomer Royal, Dr. (now Sir Richard) Woolley, and Professor F. H. Newark, Professor of Jurisprudence and Secretary to the Academic Council of Queen's University. There were three possible solutions for consideration:

(1) That the status quo should be maintained. (2) That the Observatory should become a Government Institute. (3) That it should be incorporated within Queen's University.

The Committee recommended that the Observatory should be incorporated within the University, and the Ministry was prepared to earmark certain funds for its maintenance. However, a committee set up by the University thought otherwise, and recommended that integration would not be in the best interests of either the University or the Observatory. The Ministry finally decided that the status quo should be maintained - and in view of the rapid expansion that had been taking place, and in the light of subsequent developments, the decision was a happy and wise one.

The Ministry at once proceeded to ensure the stability of the Observatory. In 1959 large sums were made available by the Ulster Land Fund to preserve and maintain the existing buildings; the staff was increased, and the salaries put on University scales. A new building, providing offices, research rooms and the very much needed library accommodation, was completed in 1964 - built in Armagh marble, using the stone of the 1790 Observatory stables. Apart from the temporary brick building at one time used for meteorological instruments, and on the site of which the new wing was built, it was the first addition to the Observatory since 1841. A generous grant of £3000 from the Nuffield Foundation not only made it possible to complete this building, but also to bind the periodicals which had remained loose for seventy-five years past. And in 1965, further funds were made available to erect a building which houses a workshop and a dark-room. Truly, the "bad old days", when it had been impossible to spend fifteen shillings upon essential maintenance, seemed far in the past!

In every way, the scope of work at the Observatory has been tremendously enlarged in recent years; the results are published in various journals, and sent on an exchange basis to all observatories as Contributions and Leaflets from the Armagh Observatory. However, there is another field which is of great importance in the Space Age. This is the creation and encouragement of public interest in astronomy.

Amateur astronomers have always been numerous, and have contributed much to science. In England, the British Astronomical Association, for instance, has a splendid observational record. A society had existed for many years in Dublin, and in 1950 this organization was broadened, becoming the Irish Astronomical Society with various local centres - one of which, naturally, was at Armagh. The Council of the Irish Astronomical Society consisted of representatives from the various centres, and in 1950 the Society sponsored the Irish Astronomical Journal. Certain difficulties were encountered, and the Journal had to suspend publication in 1959, but it was re-started in 1963 under the auspices of the Armagh and Dunsink Observatories, and is now under the editorship of Dr. Öpik.

The Armagh Centre of the Irish Astronomical Society also had difficulties to face, and fell into abeyance. However, it was re-founded in the autumn of 1965, and is at present in a state of healthy activity, with a membership of well over fifty.

During the modem era there had been many visitors to the Observatory - between 3000 and 4000 per year in recent times. Facilities were provided in the form of a display room including a small astronomical museum, and there were several "open nights" per month around the first quarter of the Moon. Yet Armagh Observatory is a research institution, and with the increase in staff all the available space was taken up. Consequently, visitors simply could not be catered for. On the other hand, it was obviously in the interests of everyone to encourage a general interest in astronomy as much as possible. And the ideal solution was to set up a Planetarium.

Before the war, several Zeiss planetaria had been erected in Europe and the United States. None was set up in Britain; scientific institutions would have favoured the idea, but the money was not forthcoming, and it was only in 1958 that a commercial planetarium was brought to London by Madame Tussaud's Waxworks. The projector was a Zeiss, made by the "break-away" section of the old Zeiss firm, based in Western Germany.

By then, however, other firms had started manufacturing planetaria. There had been the split in Zeiss, so that projectors came both from the old works at Jena and from the western branch at Oberkochen; in America, the optical firm of Spitz had entered the field with success (the projector for the planetarium at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, opened in 1965, is a Spitz); and from Japan came the Goto planetaria, such as the huge installation. erected at St. Louis in the United States.

Armagh Planetarium

So far as Armagh was concerned, a planetarium would solve all sorts of problems. It would enable the general public to be introduced to astronomy in the proper way, and schools and other educational establishments would find it remarkably useful. Moreover, Armagh was a suitable site. It was one of Ireland's chief cultural centres, and its geographical position meant that it could be reached from all parts of Ireland.

In 1964 it was agreed that a planetarium should be built, paid for by a large grant from the Northern Ireland Government and with extra financial backing from the Armagh City and Armagh County Councils. The planetarium, was to be set up in the Observatory grounds, and would function as an autonomous unit controlled by the Observatory Board. I was invited to become the first Director; and although I had never meant to leave Sussex, where I had always lived, the invitation was really much too fascinating to refuse - so in August 1965 I arrived in Armagh, having moved from England lock, stock, barrel and telescopes.

By then, after earnest consultation and a great deal of thought (plus two trips to America on my part), it had been decided that the Japanese Goto projector was the best instrument for us; it was the most modern in design, and it gave the best star-images.. The inner dome was to be 40 feet in diameter, with an outer dome, to be made in Northern Ireland, 50 feet across. The seats for the audience were to be of the aircraft tip-back variety, to eliminate what is commonly termed Planetarium Disease (i.e. a stiff neck), and there were to be elaborate display halls, together with an actual observatory in which planetarium audiences could look through a working telescope, weather permitting.

When the news of the planetarium project was released, intense interest was shown allover Ireland - and, indeed, abroad, since this would be the first large, non-commercial public planetarium in the British Isles. By now the large dome will have become a familiar sight to anyone coming to Armagh down the Portadown road. One had the feeling that Primate Robinson, who founded the Observatory more than 170 years ago, would thoroughly approve.

The appended picture is that of a desk model of the Planetarium, looking remarkably similar to what is still an unfinished building while this is going through the press.


During its career, Armagh Observatory has had its share of mixed fortunes, and there have been times when the situation has been far from promising. Yet despite the lack of money, which remained a constant anxiety for so long, really great work was carried out. Romney Robinson's catalogue of stars, Dreyer's work on clusters and nebulae, and current researches on the theoretical problems of the solar system, internal constitution of the stars, the Magellanic Clouds, variable stars, meteors and comets, have a permanent place in astronomical history.

Come to the Observatory to-day, and you will find an atmosphere rather unusual in the modern world. It may be summed up, perhaps, as "tranquillity and activity". Both theoretical and practical work is going on all the time; results from Boyden are being analyzed and new programmes planned, while Armagh's own telescopes are in use every clear night.

At the Observatory, the old and the new come together, and the ancient 1790 buildings seem to blend perfectly with the large telescope-domes and the 1964 library wing. In this account, I have been able to describe only a part of what has happened here, but I hope that I have at least given some inkling of what the Observatory is, and what it means. And it is pleasant to be able to end upon a note of unqualified optimism. Great things have been accomplished in the past, but the prospects in the 1960's are brighter than ever before.

* Following the Boyden agreement, the annual Government grant rose from £720 to £3,320, thereafter there was a slow rise to about £5,000 in 1959/60 and a second major change in 1960/61. Since then annual grants have continued to rise amounting to £10,500 in 1965/66.


Last Revised: 2013 July 18th