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Background of the Institution


The Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh grew out of a previous "Club" or "Association" that was active in Edinburgh. No date for the formation of this previous association is known but several references have been found that suggest it was formed prior to 1800.

After Thomas Henderson's death the incoming second Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth, discovered that the observatory building was in urgent need of repair. Unfortunately, by this time, the Institution had spent all its money and was not in a position to effect the repairs. Hence a plan was hatched whereby the whole of the infrastructure on Calton Hill would be handed over to Government. A committee was formed to oversee this process which was made effective in 1847.

There were, however, some dissenting voices. Both Mr Robert Stevenson, Civil Engineer, and Mr James Mackay, Jeweller, who were proprietors of the Institution, wrote in strong terms to the Institution against its being handed over. Their letters are in the Minutes of the Institution. In 1850, after the handover had been carried out, Robert Stevenson prepared a Memorandum which we reproduce below.


Relative to the origin of the

Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh


Robert Stevenson, Civil Engineer

19th January 1850

There was a young man of the name of Kerr, an Optician in Edinburgh who, on commencing business, brought about the formation of a Club somewhat like a Book Club, for procuring Philosophical Instruments for the use of its Members. These were more particularly Optical Instruments. and Theodolites etc for Surveyors, which were also to have been lent out for hire. I think the subscription was a guinea. The meetings were perhaps monthly. They were held in the office of Mr James Ogilvy, Accountant, Parliament Square.

I attended two or perhaps three meetings in the year. The club was formed before I was invited to become a member. At the first meeting I found present Mr James Bonar, Treasurer of the Royal Society, Mr Christison, Mathematician, Mr Brown, bookseller opposite the College, Mr Ogilvie and Mr Kerr.

After attending one or two meetings of this very modest Society for the advancement of Science, Mr Bonar and I had some conversation upon its prospects and the difficulties attending such a scheme of procuring Philosophical Instruments and systematising the lending out and keeping in efficient order Theodolites, Telescopes etc; and we concurred in opinion, that the scheme could not succeed. We also deemed it advisable to endeavour to get Short's Observatory on the Calton Hill occupied as a "Popular Observatory". We spoke to some of the Magistrates on this subject, who, on the part of the Town, were quite favourable to the idea. We also applied to Mr Thomas Allan then an active member of the Royal Society, and he joined us in a communication to Sir George MacKenzie of Coul, who warmly entered into our views; and ultimately, we had an interview with Professor Playfair, who in his mild and placid manner agreed to consider the subject, but felt some difficulty in the matter on account of his colleague, the Professor of Practical Astronomy. After a time Professor Playfair undertook to draw up a statement on the subject for the public which he did in his usual elegant and concise style. Thus step by step we succeeded in obtaining subscribers; and under the countenance and support of Playfair many were found who patronised the proposal of establishing an Observatory on the Calton Hill.

Our idea was, that we might look forward to a Popular Observatory which would not interfere with the existing Professorship of Astronomy but have an establishment to which with our families we might resort in an evening with the advantage of oral and ocular demonstration in the Science of Astronomy treated after a popular form.

The present characteristic and beautiful Building was then erected, - and with the aid of Government it was furnished with some of the chief instruments, but much to my regret the establishment has been exclusively limited to the purposes of a Scientific Observatory without any provision of a popular description, for which it was originally intended.

Unfortunately there was nothing to keep our constitution alive in that minds of the public, - nothing to allure additional subscribers to our funds so as to extend the Building and fit it with a Theatre and Apparatus for Popular purposes, - no Lecture was established; and in short the original object fell dead in the hands of the Directors. I thus personally lost my object in this establishment; and in all my up-hill journeys and manifold meetings I had chiefly in view the pleasure of interviews with my excellent friend the late Professor Henderson.

The details of the Club or Association will be better known to Mr Ogilvy who I see from the Directory is now at 17 Howe Street. Perhaps Minutes of the early meetings were kept and may be in his possession. He may all also know about other members of the original club beyond those whom I have mentioned.

James Mackay

We do not reproduce Mr Mackay's letter to the Institution in full. But like Mr Stevenson he speaks in very warm tones about Thomas Henderson. Here is part of his letter -

"As a proprietor I always considered I had a right to enter the observatory and take a friend with me, and when I availed myself of this privilege I was always kindly received by the late Professor, and shown through the Instruments any of the Planets I desired.

I was as cordially received as if I had been deeply informed on the subject, and I will never forget the simplicity and unpretending way in which he conveyed his knowledge."