Looking for Observatory Networks in the Tools of Knowledge Database

by Rebekah Higgitt

As well as Tools of Knowledge, I am Co-Investigator on another AHRC-funded project, a Network Grant, led by Louise Devoy at Royal Museums Greenwich, on Observatory Sites and Networks Since 1780. We held the last of our four workshops last autumn at Armagh Observatory & Planetarium and I contributed a paper that explored what the SIMON database and other data sources that we are using in the project might offer to historians of observatories. 

I expected the database to be strong in this area because its main compiler, Gloria Clifton, worked for many years as curator at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. When, in the process of extracting and modelling entities and events, Alex pulled out text from the rich but unstructured Misc. fields of the database, this did indeed note a number of key makers who had supplied instruments to the Observatory (such as Jeremiah Sisson, John Bird, Peter Dollond and Troughton & Simms), chronometer makers who had taken part in the Observatory’s chronometer trials, and an interesting group of makers who supplied instruments to the abortive St Andrews observatory in the late 17th century. However, there were many names missing, including some surprising omissions like George Graham, who made the main clock used at Greenwich, its famous zenith sector and mural quadrant

I suspect that sometimes this was information that was too well known – especially by Gloria and other scientific instrument experts – to need to be included. It is clear that we will be able to draw out many more relevant makers once collections data from our partner institutions is linked to our lists of maker names and, we hope, via the Scientific Apparatus ontology that Sarah has been developing. There are also published texts and datasets, such as Derek Howse’s World List of Astronomical Observatories Instruments and Clocks, that would be candidates for further augmenting future iterations of the database.  

Using the data we do have, Duncan has been able to do some network and geographical visualisations of makers. Supplying observatories, especially those funded by the state or universities, was complex and high-status work, so we would expect this group to be particularly well networked. The graph created through Gephi is suggestive and could be enhanced, if and when an expanded set of makers is available, making comparisons between different observatory networks possible. Even showing relations (business, apprenticeship, family) at just one degree, good (and known) candidates for other observatory-linked makers are thrown up for further scrutiny. It also appears that makers linked and local to one observatory (e.g. Adie & Sons and the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, at the top left in the image below) have associations that link them to London-based makers who supplied Greenwich (e.g. Thomas Jones, himself closely linked to other important makers of observatory instruments, like Jesse Ramsden and the Dollonds).

 Gephi also threw up a separate but distinct cluster around makers of meteorological instruments. As a specialism this then appears as largely unnetworked with the makers of optical and mathematical instruments that supplied telescopes and instruments with scales (mural quadrants, circles etc). Yet both were key to the work of observatories: meteorological observations are required for adjusting astronomical observations even if an observatory did not have a dedicated meteorological programme. Again, this network includes makers who did supply observatories, but are not currently noted as such in SIMON, and others that may be worth further research.  

Mapping our observatory-linked makers (orange dots) and their connections (blue dots) using QGIS at street level in London and at town level nationally shows a natural concentration in the instrument trade’s first and subsequently most important location of London. These makers are spread out from the city itself, along the major thoroughfare of Fleet Street and the Stand and into Westminster, very much the geography that has been described by Alexi Baker in her work on the early 18th-century trade. It is interesting to note in the map below, covering the period 1750-1800, that the orange dots are weighted to the west, a reflection of the success and size of these businesses, situated in fashionable Westminster.  

We are also, thanks to work done by Alex, able to explore and group these observatory-linked makers by their guilds, the types of instruments that they made, and through segments of time. Much more remains to be done in this area but it was instantly striking both that the two guilds that specifically included mathematical and optical instruments within their purview, the Spectacle Makers and the Clockmakers, are dominant, and that the observatory makers were particularly likely to be associated with (and perhaps leading members of) these rather than the Grocer’s Company, despite its being more or equally dominant amongst the makers they were closely connected with.  

In the longer term, we aim to be able to think in more detail about the instruments made by these individuals and explore ways of representing them as, for example, assemblages that co-existed within observatory sites, and as objects that followed particular itineraries over time. Sarah’s last post set out some of the movements of two significant instruments with observatory connections. We will also soon be launching a Zooniverse crowd-source transcription project that will help us compile itineraries for the Royal Navy chronometers that were overseen by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, as they were issued from Observatory to ship, to port depot and to makers for repair.  

More on that very soon!