THE GROWTH OF MODERN ASTRONOMY IN INDIA, 1651-1960
Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 34, pp. 69–105, 1991
R. K. Kochhar
Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore 560034, India
1. Ancient and medieval times
2. Use of telescope in the 17th century
3. Advent of modern astronomy in the 18th century
4. Madras Observatory (1786-1899)
5. Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (1800)
6. Lucknow Observatory (1831-49)
7. Trivandrum Observatory (1837-52)
8: Poona non-observatory
9. 19th century astronomy – a critique
10. Advent of physical astronomy (1874)
11. Takhtasinghji’s Observatory Poona (1888-1912)
12. Kodaikanal Observatory (1899)
13. Nizamiah Observatory (1901)
14. Uttar Pradesh State Observatory, Naini Tal (1954)
15. Concluding remarks
1. ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL TIMES
India, as can be expected from an ancient culture, has a long astronomical tradition.
The earliest interest in astronomy was in determining the four directions for ritualistic
purposes, in making rather inexact calendars, and in observing stars near the zodiac as a
guide to the motion of the sun and the moon. The development of mathematical astronomy
in India came about as a result of interaction with Greece in the post-Alexandrian period.
The leading figure in this modernization of Indian astronomy was Aryabhata I, who was
born in AD 476 and completed his influential work, Aryabhatiya 1 , in AD 499.
The main occupation of Indian astronomers for the next thousand years was the
precise calculation of the planetary orbits and developing algorithms for the solution of
the mathematical equations that arose in the process.
In the Indian scheme of things, there was hardly any place for observation. Stars were
not studied, and observations were made only to the extent that they were required for
carrying on planetary calculations. The instruments used were rather simple: a waterclock,
a sundial, and an armillary sphere.
The indifference of the ancient Indians towards observation is tellingly illustrated by
the pioneering Aryabhatiya itself. Theoretical planetary calculations require three empirical
input parameters: earth’s diameter, the distance to the moon, and the distance to
the sun. There is no clue whatsoever in Aryabhata’s work as to where he obtained these
Aryabhata takes the earth’s diameter to be 1050 yojanas. It is not possible to compare
this value with any other because yojana is not a standard length. (In fact, Aryabhata
defined his own yojana so that 10 yojanas equal one arcminute of the moon’s orbit). The
distances to the sun and the moon, being in units of earth radii, can however be compared
Aryabhata places the moon at 60½ earth radii and the sun at 875½ earth radii. These
values are different from, and in fact less accurate than, the values of Hipparchus (d. ca.
125 BC) who devised the method of obtaining them from the simultaneous observation of
solar eclipse from two stations on the same meridian.
Presumably Aryabhata obtained his values of these parameters from his own observations
of a solar eclipse.
Now, there is a strong tradition that Aryabhata’s birth place Ashmaka was in what
is now the south Indian state of Kerala. If this is true (not all scholars agree on this)
then Aryabhata could have observed the total solar eclipse of AD 493 January 4, whose
path passed through Kerala. Interestingly, Kerala has a legend that Aryabhata and his
son Devarajan were excommunicated from their caste for the double sin of going to the
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 71
sea and observing the eclipse 2. In any case the legend implies the existence of the practice
of eclipse observations.
It should be realized that Hindu astronomers treated astronomical results as revelations
rather than deductions. The results were therefore preserved in the format used in
the (divine) Rig Veda, that is as terse shlokas composed in the rigid framework of metre.
In this format there was no place even for details of mathematical calculations or scientific
arguments, let alone for observations that were in any case not considered to be important.
The introduction of the Arabs to astronomy came from translation of Indian texts.
Given the formidability of these texts, which can only have been compounded in translation,
it is probably not surprising that the Arabs decided to specialize in observational
astronomy, rather than dabble in planetary calculations.
The first Indian astronomer in the Arab experimental mould was Mahendra Suri who
in AD 1370 culled a small 32-star catalogue from Ptolemy’s catalogue, and wrote a treatise
on astrolabe, or yantraraja 3.
In the early 18th century Raja 3ai Singh set out to update the tables Ulugh Beg (1394-
1449) had prepared 300 years previously, in 1436. He built huge immovable masonry
instruments which he himself had designed, on the pattern of brass instruments of the
Arab-Persian school. Jai Singh built five observatoriesa,4: in 1724 at Delhi; in 1734 at his
newly founded capital Jaipur; and later smaller ones at Mathura; Ujjain; and Varanasi
Before building these structures Jai Singh did experiment with brass instruments, but
decided against them for a number of reasons: they were faulty, because of their mobility
and size; the axes became worn and the instruments untrue; the graduations were too
small for fine measurements, etc.
Obviously Jai Singh had no idea about the theory of errors, nor did he realize that
small instruments have the great asset that they can be improved upon in the light of the
In addition, unlike the case of ~’~rance and England, there were no compelling reasons
for him to use his not inconsiderable influence to develop technology to achieve the desired
accuracy in metal. He then decided to build his observatories in the famous Indian tradition
of palaces and temples. The very fact that he headed the observatory himself rather than
offer full-time appointment to his ‘assistant’ Jagannath shows that for him it was a case
of what we may call vijnan vilas (science as a royal pastime or diversion). To appreciate
the term it must be remembered that it was customary for Rajas and Maharajas to give
names like Raj vilas, 3ai vilas or Lakshmi vilas to their palaces.
Ironically, Jai Singh’s instruments are less accurate than Ulugh Beg’s. Jai Singh’s two
72 R.K. Kochhar
quadrants (in ~amrat yantra, i.e., equal-hour sun dial) are of radius 49.5 ft(at Delhi) and
49 ft 10 in. (at Jaipur) whereas Ulugh Beg’s sextant had a radius of 132 ft. Ulugh Beg
could achieve a precision of 2-4 arcseconds, whereas Jai Singh’s accuracy is of the order of
a couple of arcminutes 3,4.
Thus with all his enthusiasm and personal efforts Jai Singh remains a historical
anachronism. Intellectually he belonged to the long-past medieval astronomical tradition,
even though chronologically he lived in the modem age of astronomy.
2. USE OF THE TELESCOPE IN THE 17TH CENTURY
It is interesting to note that telescopes were used from India in the 17th century itself.
The earliest use appears to have been in 1651, barely 40 years after its use by Galileo.
Jeremiah Shakerley (1626 – ca 1655), known in English astronomical circles s as one of
the earliest followers of Kepler, emigrated to Surat in west India. He observed the 1651
transit of Mercury, but could time neither the ingress nor egress. His effort thus remains
a historical curiosity 6. Shakerley also observed a comet in 1652.
In 1689, Father Jean Richaud, a French Jesuit priest made astronomical observations
from Pondicherry in south India, and discovered the binary nature of the bright star Alpha
Centanri. In fact, the visiting Jesuit priests were the earliest users of the telescope in India
for geographical purposes, although their observations were not made use of till there arose
colonial compulsions to learn about India’s geography.
In the early 18th century, Raja Jai Singh himself owned a telescope, but apparently
it was not of much use to him.
These telescopic swallows however did not make an Indian astronomical summer.
3. ADVENT OF MODERN ASTRONOMY IN THE 18TH CENTURY
Modern astronomy could take root in India only in the later half of the 18th century,
when it was pressed into service as a geographical aid.
As the British East India Company’s non-trading activities increased and it came
to control more and more territory, many of its officers started making for their own
amusement astronomical observations for the determination of latitudes and longitudes.
Surveying instruments were thus in great demand. They could be purchased from England
or from the captains and crew of the European ships. When an officer died or left the
country, his surveying instruments would find ready buyers. In the early days, it was not
the policy of the Company to supply surveying instruments to its officers. But a small
stock of surveying instruments – sextants, quadrants, theodolites, clocks, telescopes, etc. –
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 73
Figure 1. A page from SarnraZ Siddhan~a (the supreme text book), the Sanskrit translation
of Ptolemy’s Almagest; ordered by Jai Singh,
Figure 2. A 1790 pencil and wash sketch of Jai Singh’s Delhi Observatory by the uncle and
nephew team of Thomas and William Daniell. The sketch (28 in. x 51 in.) was executed
on three sheets of paper and pasted together (from P.Pal & V.Dehejia: From Merchants
to Emperors, Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca & London, 1986).
74 R.K. Kochhar
Figure 3. Astronomical clock by John Shelton, presumably made for the transit of Venus
of 1769. Identical to the one used by Capt. James Cook, this was a part of the private
observatory William Petrie set up at Madras in 1786. The clock is now at Kodaikanal,
and still in use.
Figure 4. Michael Topping (1747-1796), who founded the East India Company’s Observatory,
Madras, using William Petrie’s private observatory as a nucleus (from ref. 7)
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 75
Figure 5. A 1792 sketch (retouched) of the Madras Observatory building. The single room
Observatory was later expanded. The original buildings have long been demolished. The
18 ft conical granite pillar that served as a pedestal for the early telescopes can still be
seen at the original site.
• :.~ i*: .-
• . :: ‘:,’_ ,.
Figure 6. Portrait of John Warren (1769-1830) as a boy T. A direct descendent of William
the Conqueror through his youngest daughter Gondrada, Jean-Baptiste Francois Joseph
de Warren (the 24th Comte de Warren) served in the army under the future Duke of
Wellington and officiated as the Madras Astronomer during 1805-11. His 1807 value of the
Madras longitude continued to be used in the official maps for about 100 years, till 1905.
76 R.K. Kochhar
Figure 7. John Goldingharn swinging a Kater’s pendulum in front of a clock by Haswell
at Madras in 1821. The second Assistant, Thiruvenkatachari, is reading the clock, while
the first Assistant, Shrinivasachari, sitting near the pillar is noting down the reading (from
Phil. Trans., 1822. The original colour painting sent with the manuscript can be seen at
the Royal Society of London).
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960
was gradually built up by purchases from England or from within the country 7.
The transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 saw a flurry of astronomical activity. At the
request of the Royal Society of London, the company sent out reflecting telescopes, clocks,
and astronomical quadrants for the observation of the 1769 transit from various places.
The King of France deputed Guillaume Le Gentil (1725-1792) to observe from Pondicherry
the transits of 1761 and 1769. He could observe neither, but spent the time determining
the longitude of Pondicherry with respect to Greenwich and Paris.
An early British observer was the Calcutta-based Colonel Thomas Dean Pearse
(174112 – 1789) who made observations of longitude and latitude from 1774 to 1779. He
participated in the 1781-84 Mysore war and made observations on his march to and from
Madras 7,s. He used a clock by Ellicot; and a number of instruments: (i) transit instrument
by Jonathan Sisson; (ii) a ‘tolerably good’ Hadley’s quadrant and quicksilver, replaced in
1776 December by (iii) Ramsden’s inverting land quadrant with a micrometer; (iv) Hadley’s
wooden octant and quicksilver (used in 1782); (v) A 15 inches radius land quadrant by
B.Martin, belonging to the Company. It had been used by William Hirst during the 1761
transit of Venus; (vi) An 18 inches focus reflector: by Gregory, with a brass stand, replaced
in 1777 by (vii) a triple-glass Dollond refractor with a double-glass micrometer.
The early observers had to employ a lot of ingenuity. Pearse 9 modified Hadley’s
wooden octant so that he could take angles of 150 ° and consequently meridian altitudes
as far as 75 °. Similarly he modified the Dollond refractor: ‘And I made a polar axis for
it of brass with rack work, and a declination circle not divided, which also is racked; to
which when the micrometer was used, the telescope was fixed’.
In 1787, the Company purchased the following instruments for survey work 7 in
Bengal by Reuben Burrow (1747-92) one time assistant to the Astronomer Royal Nevil
Arnold’s chronometer Sicca Rs 1000;
Astronomical quadrant Rs 200;
DoUond’s achromatic telescope Rs 360.
A sicca rupee was a new rupee; after two or three years of use, it was at a small discount.
Burrow’s 1789 proposal for an astronomical observatory was brusquely turned down
by the Company 7, so that individual efforts at Calcutta did not have any cumulative effect.
In contrast, Madras turned out to be more congenial for matters scientific, thanks to the
practical requirements there.
4. MADRAS OBSERVATORY (1786-1899)
In the 1780s the East India Company was already a big landlord on the east coast
78 R.K. Kochhar
of India. Its geographical and navigational needs now came to the fore: (i) To survey
the territories it already had; (ii) to increase revenue earnings; (iii) to ensure safety of sea
passages; and (iv) to learn about the geography of the country the British were increasingly
getting involved with. Astronomy was thus required for navigational and geographical
purposes. As the sea traffic increased, the limitations of the Coromandel coast became
abundantly clear. The Bay of Bengal is affected by monsoons for seven months in the
year. Company ships that took barely six days between Calcutta and Madras in the
winter months December – April could require 4-6 weeks at other times.
In addition, or perhaps as a consequence, the Coromandel coast is rocky, full of shoals,
and without safe landing for the Indiamen, which therefore were often wrecked.
A survey of the coast was thus literally a matter of life and death, and eventually
in 1785 a trained surveyor-astronomer, Michael Topping (1747-96), was sent out from
England, passage paid, and equipped with surveying instruments l°. He has been called r
‘the most talented and highly qualified all round surveyor that served the East India
Company during the 18th century’.
This is the place to introduce another character in the story, who along with Topping,
was responsible for the establishment of a public observatory at Madras, the first one
outside Europe. William Petrie joined the civil service 11 on arrival at Madras on 1765
June 25. Starting at the lowest rung as a writer (or a clerk), he rose to become a senior
merchant in 1776. He served in the Governor’s Council many times during 1790 – 1800
(the dates are variously given). Petrie officiated as the Governor for a short period from
1807 September until December. He left India in 1812 to take over as the Governor of
Prince of Wales Island (Penang, Malaysia) where he died on 1816 October 27.
Petrie was not only an influential civil servant but enlightened also. He was himself
an astronomer, and in 1799 ehthusiastically supported Major Lambton’s proposal for a
trigonometrical survey of peninsular India. Not much is known about the personal life of
Petrie; his mother Margaret was the daughter of Andrew Waugh of Selkirk (Ref 7, Vol IV,
In 1786 November Topping set out by land on his survey of the coast north of Madras,
and returned the next February 12. In 1786 itself Petrie set up an iron-and-timber
observatory 13 at his ll-acre residence at Egmore, Madras, and furnished it with his own
instruments. The next year, he hired a Danish youth John Goldingham (later FIRS, d.1849)
as his assistant.
Petrie’s observatory fulfilled the long-felt need for a reference meridian in British India
and immediately became India’s Greenwich.
In 1788 January when Topping was sent on the coastal survey south of Madras, he
arranged for Petrie’s observatory to be occupied in public service. Goldingham was now
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 79
hired at a monthly salary of 15 pagodas (as against Topping’s 192) to make observations
of Jupiter’s satellites at Madras corresponding to Topping’s field observations 7. [1 gold
pagoda = 3½ rupees = 8 shillings].
When in 1789, Petrie left for England on a short visit he placed the Observatory in
Topping’s charge, offering it as a gift to the Government. Being made of iron and timber
it could be removed and rebuilt.
Topping, backed by Petrie himself, made a strong plea to the government for nationalization
of this observatory, pointing out 7 ‘it is doubtless from considerations of this nature
that the Hon’ble Court [of Directors] have come to the resolution of thus affording their
support to a science to which they are indebted for the sovereignty of a rich and extensive
On 1790 May 19 the Court of Directors decided to accept Petrie’s offer and to establish
an observatory for T ‘promoting the knowledge of Astronomy, Geography and Navigation
In 1791 a garden house was purchased at Nungambakkara, Madras, while the instruments
were removed to the Fort because of the war against Tipu, Sultan of Mysore. The
old garden house was provided with another storey, to act as the library, Astronomer’s
residence, and offices. A separate 20 ft x 40 ft single room was constructed in 1792 as the
This is an appropriate place to clear a misconception that has persisted for about 120
years. Topping prepared a description of the Observatory and sent two signed copies to
London (they can be seen at the India Office Library and Records, and at Royal Astronomical
An unsigned copy remained at Madras, and was prefixed to Goldingham’s 1793 observations.
(It is now at Bangalore 15, with the first several pages gone and the remaining
near total destruction). Without caring to look for corroboration, Madras Astronomer
Norman Robert Pogson as well as his successor Charles Michie Smith both assumed Goldingham
to be its author and made him the first Astronomer and 1792 the year of the
observatory’s establishment 16. Writing in 1892 on the occasion of the ‘centenary’ of the
Observatory Michie Smith wondered how Michael Topping’s name came to be etched on
the gra~te pillar in the Observatory. His version of the Observatory’s history received
wide currency 17 and has persisted to this day, notwithstanding the correct picture in two
government-sponsored but poorly circulated books: Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras 1°, and
Phillimore’s Historical Records of Survey of India 7.
J l”P& ,)4 z 1/2-F
R. K. Kochhar
In contrast to the Greenwich Observatory, which came into existence without any
instruments, Madras had instruments but no observatory. ‘The Company had from time
to time Sent many valuable Astronomical Instruments to Madras, most of which, for want
of a proper deposit, and of proper person to render them Serviceable, had been Scattered
abroad in different parts of the Country, or lain by neglected at the Presidency ”4. Topping
collected these instruments at the Madras Observatory, whose starting point was Petrie’s
i. A transit instrument by Stancliffe is – ‘small but invaluable’ — of exquisite workmanship
-‘, and although its Axis is only Sixteen Inches and a half in length [it] has
been adjusted in Mr Petrie’s Observatory — to within half a Second of time at every
altitude of the Meridian. ’14
ii. Transit clock by Shelton Is. Similar to the one used by Capt James Cook in his transit
of Venus expedition, it has been at Kodaikanal since 1899 and in use ‘9.
iii. A one-ft diameter quadrant by John Bird is.
In 1793 the Company purchased the following for Madras Observatory 17.
iv. A circular astronomical instrument of 16 in. diameter by Troughton.
v. Six telescopes in Brass mounting with Racks and Hook joints for observing the Satellites
of Jupiter – by Dollond. Two were retained at the Observatory, and rest distributed.
Topping also asked for six sextants of Mr Hadley’s construction, made either by
Ramsden or Stancliffe, according to his own modifications. These were not sanctioned 2°.
The instruments collected at the Observatory under Topping included 21 .
vi. Astronomical quadrant by Martin.
vii. Astronomical clock by Monk.
viii. Pocket chronometers in silver cases by Arnold, Nos 378, 391,393, 397.
ix. In 1804 the Observatory acquired a portable transit by Ramsden. It came as a gift
from John Goldingham who was proceeding on a long leave.
x. In 1808 the Observatory purchased an ‘excellent’ 18 in. circular instrument by Cary,
from Lt-Col.John Munroe. This was in 1823 transferred for use by Sir George Everest
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960
at the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India ( see section 5).
It was quite common in those early days for surveyors to borrow instruments from the
Observatory or leave them there when no longer required by them.
Till 1830 the Observatory was wholly engaged in survey oriented astronomy. Its chief
assets were the 20 in. transit and the 12 in. altazimuth ‘neither of them bearing an
object glass of so much as an inch and a half in aperture’. 22 The ever-expanding British
colonial interests depended upon safe navigation, which in turn required familiarity with
the southern skies. In 1826 state-of-the-art instruments were ordered. Whatever new
instruments the Observatory acquired in the remainder of the 19th century came in the
next four decades. 23 They are described below:
i. A 5 ft focus transit instrument and 4 ft diameter mural circle by Dollond 24 (1829),
both with 3¼ in. aperture telescopes. The instruments were ordered in 1826, received
in 1829, and installed by Thomas Glanville Taylor (1804-48) in 1830. Taylor used
these instruments during 1831-1843 to prepare his famed Madras catalogue of 11015
stars, which in 1854 was described by the Astronomer Royal Sir George Airy as
‘the greatest catalogue of modern times’. 2s The catalogue was revised in 1901 by Dr
A.M.W.Downing, Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, with financial assistance
from the India Office and the Royal Society.
In February 1861, the object glass of the mural circle was reported stolen. Both these
instruments were cut up and made into two handy telescopes for use during the 1868
ii. Three inch aperture telescope by Dollond 2s (1829)
Along with the transit and the mural circle was received a 3 in. aperture, 5 ft focus
achromatic DoUond telescope mounted on a mahogany frame armed with brass, supplied
with two graduated circles and a long axis moving on a graduated arc.
iii. Six inch equatorial by Lerebours & Secretan 2s (1850)
It came to Madras in 1850 as the personal property of Capt. William Stephan Jacob
(1813-62) who installed it for reasons of economy on stout wooden trestles under a folding
(rather than rotating) teak wood roof, atop the astronomer’s residence. It was subsequently
paid for by the Company (£500).
This telescope with an English mounting was made by M.Secretan at Paris, where
Jacob’s friend Charles Piazzi Smith inspected it and drew a sketch, which is now at the
Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. 26
Its defective objective was replaced in 1852 by the maker with a new one of 6 in.
82 R.K. Kochhar
aperture and 88 in. focus. Using it Jacob showed in 1852 that the recently discovered
crepe ring of Saturn was translucent. The discovery was independently made by William
Lassel at Malta using a 20 in. reflector. This provided convincing proof that the rings of
Saturn were after all not solid. In 1861, Pogson discovered his first minor planet with it,
aptly naming it Asia. 2r
The telescope was remodelled in 1898 by Sir Howard Grubb of Dublin, who provided
it with an electric drive and mounted a 5 in. aperture Grubb photographic lens on the
The telescope has been at Kodaikanal since 1899, and in use as a photoheliograph
iv. Transit circle by Troughton & Simms 27 (1857)
With an objective of 5 in. aperture and a divided circle of 42 in. diameter, it was
similar to but smaller than Airy’s 1850 Greenwich circle, but ‘divided by the same exquisite
It was ordered in 1855 and was constructed in 1857 under the supervision of Richard
C.Carrington who had got a smaller one made in 1852 and who ‘advised such alterations
as his own instrument had led him to consider advisable’. The transit circle was received
only in 1858, the delay in arrival being due to the 1857 turmoil in India variously referred
to as ‘the mutiny’ or ‘a war of independence’.
Either the instrument arrived without a set of instructions or they were lost. In any
case, there were difficulties in its installation which could take place only in 1862 after an
expert mechanic (F.Doderet) became available.
The transit circle was in use for 25 years (1862-1887)under the supervision of Pogson,
who did not reduce most of the data. (These results were later published by Pogson’s
successor Charles Michie Smith). The damaged instrument is now at Bangalore.
v. Universal equatorial by Troughton & Simms ~r (1862)
This portable equatorial could be used with either of the two telescopes of apertures
2 and 2 ¼ in. It was formerly the property of Lt-Gen.William Cullen (1785-1862) British
Resident of the State of Travancore since 1840, and was purchased on his death by Pogson
for his planned southern sky survey on the lines of Argelander’s Bonn survey; but this never
materialized, thanks to the overbearing attitude of the Astronomer Royal.(The equatorial
is now kept at Bangalore, with the two telescopes missing)
vi. Eight inch equatorial by Troughton & Simms (1864) 2T
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 83
The lens was made by George Merz, Fraunhofer’s assistant and successor at Munich,
and tested by the Astronomer Royal. Similar to a telescope made for the Liverpool City
Observatory, it was ordered in 1861; made by Mr William Simms (cost Rs 5200); received
in 1864; and installed two years later. In 1931 it was sent to Kodaikanal, where it was not
set up till 1960 when its original mount was discarded (and probably lost) and another
Madras Observatory did not get any new instruments after 1864. Its survival however
was ensured when in 1861 September, a German mathematical instrument maker,
F.Doderet, was appointed at Madras to start workshops for the repair of levels, theodolites,
etc. for the Public Works Department. In the mean time Capt. (later Lt-Gen.)
James Francis Tennant (1829-1915), who was the director for a year from 1859 October to
1860 September (later the President of the Royal Astronomical Society), had purchased
for the Observatory an excellent lathe, by Holtzaffel. With it and other tools from the
arsenal, a workshop was set up at the Observatory, whose first task was the commissioning
of the transit circle. Doderet looked after the instruments, improvised them, and made
new ones out of those discarded. He kept the two equatorials – the observatory’s lifelines –
in working condition, years after they were no longer new. For the 1868 eclipse, Doderet
made handy telescopes out of the parts of the historical 1830 transit and mural circle, thus
proving that history is a luxury poorly-equipped observatories can ill afford.
The period 1830-64 can truly be called the golden age of the Madras Observatory. It
was never so well endowed, before or after. It was because of the infrastructural support
available that the Observatory could see the 19th century through, otherwise it would have
met the fate of the observatories at Lucknow and Trivandrum (see sections 6 and 7).
5. THE GREAT TRIGONOMETRICAL SURVEY OF INDIA 7,s,36 (1800)
In 1799 with the fall of Tipu Sultan of Mysore the East India Company acquired
vast territory in south India. Its control now extended from the east coast to the west.
Immediately, Brigade-Major William Lambton, vigorously supported by his commanding
officer Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), submitted a proposal to the Madras
Governor Lord Clive suggesting a trigonometrical survey of the southern peninsula on the
lines of ones recently conducted in France and Britain. The proposal was supported by
the Governor’s councilor Petrie, who had earlier been instrumental in the establishment
of Madras Observatory. The formal orders for the start of the survey were issued on 1800
February 6. The early assistants to Lambton were Lt John Warren of the 33rd Foot and
Ensign Henry Kater of the 12th Foot (later FRS).
On 1818 January 1, the survey was extended to cover the whole of the subcontinent. It
84 R.K. Kochhar
was named the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS) and placed under the direct
control of the Governor General, with Lt George Everest (1790-1866) of Bengal Artillery
as the chief assistant to Lambton, the first Superintendent of the Survey. Lambton died in
1823 and was succeeded by Everest who retired in 1843. The trigonometrical survey was
a monumental scientific endeavour, unparalleUed in the world by virtue of its vastness and
problems of logistics.
Lambton started his survey with second-hand instruments*: a zenith sector with
an arc of 5 ft radius made by Ramsden in 1791 or 1792; and a 16 in. circular transit
instrument by Troughton. These instruments were part of a set sent to China as a gift
that was refused. The Madras Government bought these (and other minor instruments)
from Dr James Dinwiddie (d.1815) a lecture of science at Calcutta, paying him Rs 3600.
Lambton found them in ‘a wretched state’ and had to put them in working order.
In the early years, the surveyors had to get their own instruments. They, as well as the
Survey, bought instruments from private individuals who had obtained them from England
for astronomical purposes. Thus the Survey acquired a few altazimuths with circles of 15
to 24 in. diameter. Hasty disposal of instruments after Lambton’s death left the GTS
without any worthwhile instruments. Everest then obtained in 1823 an 18 in. altazimuth
by Cary from Madras Observatory, which had purchased it second-hand in 1808. For this
transfer, Everest took the help of Sir Charles Metcalf, Resident at Hyderabad who ‘kindly
obtained it for me from the Madras Observatory by his intercessions with Sir Thomas
Munro [Madras Governor] ’36. It was used, after modifications, till 1846.
Whenever repairs were required, the survey officers had to carry them out themselves
with the help of local mechanics at the Company ordnance depots. This was because
sending the instruments to England via the Cape of Good Hope would be a matter of
years with the added risk of loss of the ships. Thus in 1808 when the great theodolite was
damaged in a fall at Tanjore, Lambton brought it to Bangalore, and repaired it himself,
after 6 weeks of hard labour.
There was yet another problem. The instruments procured second-hand in India
were astronomical instruments and not really suitable for survey work. The Madras 18
in. altazimuth was called excellent by the Astronomer, but the Surveyor General while
referring to its use was less than enthusiastic, describing it as an instrument ‘of very inferior
powers, but such is the paucity of instrumental means’ that there was no other resource
to fall back upon 38.
In 1830 the survey got some new instruments and more importantly a repair workshop.
When Everest returned from England after a five year stint, he brought with him
Mr Henry Barrow (1790/1 – 1870, later FRS) who had earlier done jobs for Troughton,
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 85
PRINCIPAL FIXED STARS
EAST INDIA COMPANY’S
IN THE YEARS 1880–1843
THOMAS GLANVILLE TAYLOR, ESQ. F.KS. F.R.A.S.,
ASTRONOMER 1″0 THE ItONORABL.E COMPAI~Y
~”~’~’:”” ‘ :~ “‘ ….. …. ~ ‘2″~,
• .%, ~.:
PRINTED BY ORDER OF THE MADRAS GOVERNMF-~NT,
PILINTED BY R. W. THORPE, AT THE CHRISTIAN KNOWL~GE SOCIETY’~ FRF*S~k
Figure 8. The title page of Taylor’s celebrated Madras catalogue.
86 R. K, Kochhar
Figure 9. Six inch aperture refractor by Lerebours &: Secretan, painted by Charles Piazzi
Smith in 1851. The original is at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (I thank Mary T.
Briick for sending me the photograph).
Figure 10. Transit Circle by Troughton & Simms made in 1857. Similar to, but smaller
than, Airy’s Transit at Greenwich, it was used at Madras for 25 years 1862-87.
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 87
. . . .
• , ,2.m~r~i .. .
• – ,, .
• .. ,~ ~ . e – , ~ , . : ~ : . ~ ;
” – “l. ‘
Figure 11. A 3 ft theodolite constructed for the Trigonometrical Survey of India by ‘that
celebrated artist’ Troughton between the years 1827 and 1830. ‘This is probably the
best of all the instruments appertaining to the Survey, and it has been most extensively
Figure 12. The title page of a booklet in Urdu brought out by C. Ragoonathchary on
the occasion of the 1874 transit of Venus. Ragoonathachary was an Assistant to Pogson,
discoverer of a variable star, and the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Figure 13. The 15 in. refractor of the Nizamiah Observatory made by Sir Howard Grubb
in 1903 (from Astronomical and Optical Instruments, Publ. No. 1 of Sir Howard Grubb,
Parsons & Co., 1926).
88 R.K. Kochhar
Figure 14. The corner stone of the spectroheliograph building being laid at Kodaikanal in
1903, when Charles P. Butler was the acting Director of the Observatory. It was in this
building that John Evershed in 1909 discovered the Effect named after him.
Figure 15. Dallmeyer No. 4. One of the five photoheliographs originally made for observing
the 1874 transit of Venus, it was used at the Kodaikanal Observatory from about 1900 to
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 89
DoUond, Jones, Walkins, etc. (Everest was introduced to Barrow by an assistant at
Greenwich Observatory, William Richardson, who had refused an appointment at Madras
which then went to his colleague Thomas GlanviUe Taylor). Barrow was appointed as the
Mathematical Instrument Maker to the East India Company at a monthly salary of Rs.500
plus house rent; and a workshop was set up for him at Calcutta. (It is now known as
the National Instrument Factory).Gifted but headstrong, Barrow fell out with Everest
and was discharged from service in 1839. On return to England Barrow set up his own
manufactory and supplied instruments to the GTS.
For repairs during the field trips, Everest took along Arcot-born Syed Mir Mohsin
Husain (d. 1864) whom he had hand-picked. Brought from Madras to Calcutta by one
of Everest’s predecessors Col.Valentine Blacker (1778-1826), Mir Mohsin was appointed
in 1824 as an instrument repairer at the Surveyor General’s office at a monthly salary of
Rs.25. In 1836 he was appointed a sub-assistant at the GTS. On Everest’s recommendation
the company appointed Mohsin successor to Barrow, but with a lowered designation of
‘Head artificer to the department of scientific instruments ‘7 . Overcoming prejudice in high
quarters, Everest finally in 1843 got Mohsin appointed as Barrow’s successor with the
same official designation,if not the salary. Mohsin was given a monthly salary of Rs.250.
Markham s wrote about Mir Mohsin: ‘though he could not read English, he would have
taken a leading place even among Europcan instrument makers’.
The Instrument Department got busy remodelling astronomical altazimuths to serve as
geodetic theodolites, by replacing their circles and axes, using parts from older instruments
and making new ones. In 1833 Baxrow reconstructed to Everest’s design, the old Cary’s
theodolite, replacing the vertical circle with one taken off another instrument. Barrow
made a new horizontal circle and hand-divided it himself – a singular achievement.
Not only were old instruments modernized, new ones were also modified to meet
Everest’s exacting standards. Thus, the great 3 ft theodolite and two identical 18 in
theodolites made by Troughton & Simms under Everest’s supervision and received at
Calcutta in 1830 had to be improved upon before they could be used.
The crowning glory of Mir Mohsin and Everest was the treatment of two altazimuth
instruments received from ’13:oughton & Simms in 1832. The two, each with a 3 ft vertical
circle and 2 ft horizontal circle, were found to be radically defective in design when later put
to use. In 1839 the brass horizontal circles of both were replaced by cast-iron ones, which
after Barrow’s refusal werc hand-divided by Mohsin Hussain using an engine designed by
Everest. (This was before William Simms devised his self-acting dividing engine). For
this outstanding work, Mir Mohsin received from the Governor General an increase in
salary and an equivalent of £200 ‘the stun that would be charged for the same work by the
first rate makers in London’. In 1840, Hussain constructed an 18 in. theodolite, entirely
by himself, except for the object glass of the telescope and lenses of the eyepieces and
90 R.K. Kochhar
The Instrument Department also undertook non-survey work. Thus in 1835, Barrow
excellently repaired the Madras 5 ft transit instrument that Taylor was using, although
the instrument was gone from the Observatory 11 months. Barrow received Rs 203 for the
repair and return freight. In 1874-75, the Department manufactured 3999 instruments,
repaired 2391, and examined 2067.
In 1862 the Secretary of State for India asked Lt – Col. Alexander Strange FRS (who
had been a member of the GTS 1847-60) to supervise and test all instruments destined for
India, and an observatory was set up for the purpose at Lambeth. The average yearly cost
of the instruments for the five year period 1873-77 was £ 16343. The cost of inspection
was 2? 584, including 2? 350 for Colonel Strange’s salary a. The instruments sent out for
the GTS included the following sT
i. Two zenith sectors by Troughton & Simms (received 1869 and 1871).
ii. Two identical transit telescopes (marked 1 and 2); 5 in. aperture, 5 ft focus; by
T.Cooke & Sons (1872).
iii. Two drum chronographs (A and B) with electrical apparatus; for use with above, by
Eichens & Hardy of Paris (1872).
iv. Three 8-day astronomical clocks with mercurial pendulums, by Frodsham of London
v. A 3 ft theodolite by Troughton & Simms (1874). 3s
Also received were
vi. Two smaller transit instruments by T.Cooke & Sons.
vii. Two 12 in. vertical circles (German form) by Repshold of Hamburg.
The first use of the transit telescopes was in 1872 to electro-telegraphically determine
the longitude difference between Madras and Bangalore under John Herschel (son of Sir
John Herschel). Telescope 2 was found defective and repaired by Doderet in Madras in
1875, who also carried out the changes in the electric recorders 38. In 1896 telescope 2 and
and chronograph A were sent to Madras for later use at Kodaikanal. 2s (The telescope is
still at Kodaikanal, whereas the chronograph without the electrical arrangements is now
kept at Bangalore).
This Strange set of instruments was the last consignment of major positionalastronomy
instruments received in the 19th century.
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960
6. LUCKNOW OBSERVATORY (1831-49)
In 1819 the Nawab of the rich province of Oudh (correctly, Avadh, corresponding to
the eastern part of the present Uttar Pradesh) Ghazi-uddin Hyder, on the instigation of
the British, declared his independence from the tottering Mughal empire at Delhi and
proclaimed himself the King. The second King (1827-37) Naseeruddin Hyder (who had a
European wife) founded an Observatory at the capital city of Lucknow.
Although the Observatory belonged to the King, its scientific control was in the hands
of the British, the Astronomer’s appointment being made by the Governor General. Major
James Dowling Herbert (1791-1833) came to Lucknow with good credentials. He was at
that time occupying the number two position at Calcutta as Deputy Surveyor General
and Superintendent of Revenue Surveys (salary Rs 750 pm). He had earlier for a short
period officiated as the Surveyor General, and his name had been mentioned to take over
Everest’s responsibilities as Superintendent of the GTS if Everest relinquished charge on
grounds of health. Herbert joined at Lucknow in December 1831, and promptly ordered
the best available instruments for the Observatory.
Herbert died in 1833, and was succeeded by Lt – Col. Richard Wilcox (1802-48).
The lure of high salary (Rs 1000) had again attracted a capable man to Lucknow. Since
1832, Wilcox had been an astronomical assistant at the GTS, with a salary of Rs 618 pm.
Everest wrote about him ‘Lieut Wilcox is a person highly able, and likely to qualify himself
in a shorter time than any person in the Department’. Herbert describes him as ‘one of
the cleverest young man we have’. He was in addition a distinguished oriental scholar 7.
Wilcox joined at Lucknow in 1835 September. His place at the GTS was taken by Andrew
Scott Waugh who subsequently succeeded Everest.
Wilcox built the Observatory, put up the instruments, organized the plan of observations,
and brought the observatory into a state of high efficiency ~. The Observatory was
ready for use in 1841. It was the best equipped in India, certainly better than Madras,
and was in fact on par with Greenwich and Cambridge. It boasted of (i) a mural circle of
6 ft, (ii) an 8 ft transit, and (iii) an equatorial of more than 5 in. aperture – all three by
Troughton • Simms. The clocks were by Molyneux.
Wilcox set out to emulate Taylor at Madras who was engaged in the work on his
monumental ‘Madras catalogue’. Wilcox himself observed with the mural circle. ‘I believe
that our transit observations – in which I take no part myself (being left to the ‘Hindoo
lads’)- will compete with those of any observatory’. The equatorial was used for observing
the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites. ‘I have observed but few occultations, on account of
their requiring time for the previous computations …. ‘.
The results from these excellent instruments were never published. Wilcox died in
1848 October; and the Observatory itself was abolished in 1849 by the King on the ground
that the great outlay incurred in maintaining it had produced no advantage whatever to the
92 R.K. Kochhar
state or to the people and learned of Oudh’. It is reported that a memorandum to the King
had asserted that ‘the Europeans and not Indians are benefited by this Observatory’. 29
When Avadh was annexed by the British in 1856, there was a move by the Surveyor
General Sir Andrew Wangh to use these instruments for an observatory at Calcutta. The
Observatory was however ransacked in 1857. Lt James Francis Wennant of the Bengal
Engineers was a part of the British force that recaptured Lucknow. He found that though
the building itself was ‘unhurt’, all the instruments had perished.
In the mean time all the records of the Observatory, reduced as’well as unreduced,
were eaten up by insects. Thus ended a first class observatory whose results could never
see the light of day.
7. TRIVANDRUIvl OBSERVATORY (1837-52)
The King of Travancore, Raja Varma (1813-47) (better known as Svati Tirunal), set
up an observatory at Trivandrum, in 1837. The astronomer John Caldecott (1800-1849)
furnished it with
i. a transit instrument by Dollond, of 3¼ in. aperture;
ii. a 5 ft diameter mural circle by DoUond, with a 4 in. aperture telescope;
iii. a mural circle by Jones;
iv. a portable altazimuth by Troughton & Simms;
v. a transit clock by E.J.Dent; and
vi. a mean time clock by E.Wrench.
In 1842 there was received
vii. a 5 in. aperture, 7 ft focus English plan equatorial by Dollond.
viii. There was also a smaller equotorial of 4.3 in. aperture and 5 ft focus.
By 1852 these instruments had become so dilapidated that the Observatory Director
John Broun FRS gave up astronomy and concentrated on magnetism and meteorology.
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960
And then there was an observatory that wasn’t to be. Its founder was Capt. William
Stephen Jacob (1813-62) of the Bombay Engineers who worked for the GTS from 1833 to
1843, becoming First Assistant in 1837. In 1842 Jacob set up an observatory at Poona to
house his 5 ft focus equatorial by Doiiond in a folding roof rather than rotating (expense
£25). On the basis of the work done at Poona, while holding the post of Assistant Superintendent
of Roads and Tanks in the Public Works Department, Jacob was invited to come
over to Madras Observatory which he did in 1849 by closing down his own observatory.
Jacob was always dogged by ill-health. He left for England in 1858 on leave, and
resigned his post the next year. In 1859, Jacob wrote to R.C.Carrington, the Secretary
of the Royal Astronomical Society 63 ‘the East India Company has expended large sums
in the promotion of science, witness the Trigonometrical Survey, and the Magnetic and
Meteorological Observatories, but though astronomy has not been altogether neglected, it
has scarcely been allowed the prominence that it merits both by its intrinsic importance
and from the advantages offered by the Climate.’
In 1861 the British Parliament gave a grant of £1000 to the Royal Astronomical
Society ‘in aid of the proposed temporary maintenance of an Observatory near Poonah’.
Jacob bought a 9 in. aperture telescope by T.Cooke & Sons ‘at his own expense and
cost’ (£550) and was given £500 (£100 for purchasing a chronometer and other minor
instruments, £400 for package, freight and first expense on arrival). Jacob was to hold the
charge of the Observatory for three years, but never got to using the remaining grant. He
arried at Poona in 1862 August, but died two days later of ‘violent lever attack’ ‘though
leaches were freely applied’. 35
The 9 in. telescope was subsequently put on sale in England. 7
9. 19TH CENTURY POSITIONAL ASTRONOMY – A CRITIQUE
We have seen that astronomical activity in India in the 19th century followed two
distinct channels: pure astronomy as represented by the Madras Observatory, and practical
astronomy as represented by the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. In the early years,
till 1829, there was hardly a distinction between the activities of the Observatory and the
Survey. Madras Observatory was the reference meridian for all survey work, and the early
astronomers Michael Topping, John Goldingham, and John Warren actively participated
in the GTS work, being officially co-designated (till 1810) Madras surveyors. Between 1794
and 1810 the Observatory ran a surveying school to train India – born European boys (then
called natives) as assistant surveyors. The last astronomer to do survey work was Thomas
Glanville Taylor who assisted George Everest at Calcutta in 1831.(The first astronomer
without any surveying connection whatsoever was Norman Robert Pogson who joined in
After this, the two streams, (Madras) astronomy and trigonometrical survey, increas94
ingly separated. For reasons of state, practical astronomy received all the favours, while
pure astronomy emerged as a poor cousin.
The relative importance of the two streams of astronomy is best brought out by
economics. In 1801 the Survey Superintendent’s monthly salary was fixed at Rs.980,
when the Madras Astronomer was receiving Rs.672. Seven decades later, in 1877, the
Superintendent’s salary had gone up to Rs.2565, whereas the Madras Astronomer received a
paltry Rs.800. Fifteen officers of the survey were drawing more than the Astronomer,three
of them being Fellows of the Royal Society. ~
Significantly, while military officers were permitted to serve on the GTS, they were
not allowed to take up the ‘civil’ appointment at Madras Observatory.
The attitude towards pure astronomy is best brought out by a little-known incident. In
1834, on orders from the Government, instruments were issued to John Cumin, the former
Astronomer at Bombay, for the observation of the opposition of Mars. The Surveyor
General, George Everest, made a strong protest against the loan, saying 7
‘… The discoveries which the late astronomer of Bombay is likely to make in science
would hardly repay the inconvenience occasioned by retarding the operations of the Great
Trigonometrical Survey …’
10. ADVENT OF PHYSICAL ASTRONOMY (1874)
Although spectroscopic and photographic techniques had been used in the Indian
observations of the solar eclipses of 1868, 1871 and 1872, it was the 1874 December 9
transit of Venus and a belief in a connection between the sun and the famines that led to
the beginning in India of solar physics – or physical astronomy as it was then called. 39,4°
At the initiative of the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, transit of Venus observations
were planned at Roorkee and Lahore, under the supervision of Col. James Francis
Tennant (later Lt-Gen.) of the Royal Engineers. Note that it was Tennant and not Airy’s
bete noire, Norman Robert Pogson, the Madras Astronomer, who was asked to do this
work. The following instruments were sent out from England.
i. Photoheliograph by Dallmeyer
Precisely similar to the five instruments made for the British transit of Venus expeditions,
it had a 4 in. aperture lens that made a 4 in. diameter solar image on 6 in. square
photographic plates. It had originally been ordered by Dr Warren de la Rue, who was
persuaded to give it up for India’s use. It was used at Roorkee by Capt.J.Waterhouse
Superintendent of the Mathematical Instrument Department, Calcutta, who took over 100
photographs of the solar disc. These pictures were sent to Greenwich where they were
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 95
reduced by Capt. G.L.Tupman who wrote 42 ‘There is only one really sharp image in
the whole collection, including the Indian and Australian contingents, and that is one of
Captain Waterhouse’s wet plates taken at Roorkee ….. ‘.
ii. A 6 in. aperture, 82 in. focus equatorial by T.Cooke & Sons, ‘of their usual pattern’.
Its construction was supervised by CoLA.Strange. It was also set up at Roorkee.
Eventually this telescope reached Kodaikanal via South Kensington and Poona. Its
mounting now supports Pogson’s 8 in. telescope at Kodaikanal.
iii. A small transit instrument,
iv. a standard and two journeyman clocks,
v. a chronograph,
all by T.Cooke & Sons.
Tennant’s suggestion for setting up a solar observatory at Simla with these instruments
was turned down and he was asked to send the instruments back to England. However,
where Tennant failed, Joseph Norman Lockyer succeeded by using his good offices with
Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, who had visited Lockyer’s laboratories at
South Kensington a number of times and shown great interest in his work. s°
Lockyer in 1877 suggested s9 that the photoheliograph already in India should be used
for daily photography of the sun; and ‘the remaining instruments should certainly come
home at once. If not contrary to Indian regulations, I would beg to be allowed the use of
them …. ‘
Salisbury accepted the suggestions, writing to the Governor General of India on 1877
September 28 … and viewing the fact that a study of the condition of the sun’s disc in
relation to terrestrial phenomena has become an important part of physical investigation,
I have thought it desirable to assent to ….. obtain photographs of the sun’s disc by aid of
the instrument in India ….. ‘The stand of the photohehograph will be retained in India,
and a fresh tube will be sent there to replace that used by Colonel Tennant (which had
been found defective) …. The other instruments may also be sent to England, and will be
placed in the custody of the Science and Art Department which has offered to take charge
of them ‘sg.
The telescope tube was replaced by the Astronomer Royal and thus, directly on orders
from the Secretary of State for India, solar photography started at Dehra Dun in 1878.
In 1880 a bigger photoheliograph – of 6 in. aperture, 9 ft focus objective giving 12 in.
diameter pictures – was sent out by the Solar Physics Committee. Also arrangements were
made to modify the older one to give 8 in. pictures, instead of 4 in. Direct photography
continued at Dehra Dun till 1925 with some years of overlap with Kodaikanal.
96 R.K. Kochhar
11. TAKHTASINGHJI’S OBSERVATORY POONA (1888-1912)
This was the first modern astrophysical observatory in the country, and result of efforts
of Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala (1857-1938) a lecturer in Physics at Elphinstone College
Bombay. Armed with a 5000 rupee grant from Maharaja Takhtasinghji of Bhavnagar
(in Gujarat) and a matching amount from the Bombay Government, he established an
observatory at Government College of Science (now College of Engineering) Poona where
he had shifted in the mean time.
The chief instrument was a 16½ in. aperture silver-on-parabolic glass Newtonian with
a 4-inch finder attached. This telescope by Grubb along with its £250 observatory dome
was inspected at the Indian Government’s Lambeth Observatory in 1887 or 1888 before
being sent to Poona, where it was installed in 1890, though the building had been ready
In 1874 the Government of India had purchased a 6-inch equatorial by T.Cooke &
Sons for observing the transit of Venus from India. After the transit (in 1879) it was
loaned to Sir Norman Lockyer at South Kensington (see section 10). The India office
also purchased two spectroscopes from Hilger (one solar, the other stellar) for Lockyer’s
use. The equatorial was also inspected at Lambeth and along with the spectroscopes was
sent to Poona in 1885. 43 (In 1893 the telescope and the spectroscope were asked to be
sent to Madras for use at Kodaikanal Observatory which came up only in 1899. Madras
however received only one of the spectroscopes). Ironically, Naegamvala’s first use of the
large telescope was to prove his mentor Lockyer wrong. Naegamvala showed in 1891 that
the chief nebular line in Orion was sharp under all circumstances and therefore could not
be the remnant of a magnesium band as Lockyer had suggested. In other words William
Huggins and James E.Keeler were right.
Lockyer’s bland reaction is amusing. Describing Poona Observatory, he wrote 45 in
1898 ‘Some spectroscopic work of preliminary character was done during 1891, but it was
found that the instrument used was altogether lacking in stability and was very weak in
its driving parts …’.
The telescope was sent to Grubb for modifications and was received back in 1894. It
was now ‘a Cassegrain reflector of 16~ in. aperture and 127 in. focus, adapted both for
visual and photographic work, and supplied with electrical control’. To this was attached
a 6 in. achromatic finder with filar micrometer and solar eye piece.
The telescope underwent yet another change when in 1897 the mirror was replaced
by a 20 in. aperture, 11 ft. 3 in. focus mirror by Dr A.A. Common. No results appear to
have been published using this telescope.
The Observatory was closed down in 1912 on Naegamvala’s retirement and instruments
were transferred to Kodaikanal from where we get their description. They comprised the
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 97
i. 20 in. reflecting telescope by Grnbb. Mirror by Dr A. A. Common (now called
ii. 6 in. Cooke photo-visual equatorial telescope.
iii. Two prisms of 6 in. aperture for use with the above.
iv. 12 in. Cooke siderostat.
v. 8 in. horizontal telescope.
vi. Large gating spectroscope, by Hilger.
vii. An ultraviolet spectrograph, by Grubb.
viii. Sidereal clock, by Cooke.
ix. Mean time chronometer, Frodsham No 3476.
The Poona Observatory was a clear case of history repeating itself. Though the best
equipped in the country when set up, Maharaja Takhtasinghji’s observatory turned out to
be a one-astronomer observatory, closing down with Naegamvala’s retirement.
The Kodaikanal Observatory, after a shaky start, rose to great heights, and was intact
when the time came for modernization.
12. KODAIKANAL OBSERVATORY (1899)
Although the need for a modem observatory as a successor to the one at Madras for
research in the newly opened field of physical astronomy had been felt for many decades, it
was only in 1891 on the death of Pogson after a 30 year uninterrupted stint as the Director
of Madras Observatory that the question of a new observatory was taken up in earnest.
The severe famine in the Madras Presidency in 1876-77 was taken to underline the
need for a study of the sun so that monsoon patterns could be better understood. Thanks
to the efforts of John Eliot 44, Meteorological Reporter to the Government of India (later
renamed Director General of Observatories), it was finally decided in 1893 – overruling
Norman Lockyer’s 45 objections supporting Naegamvala’s case – to establish a solar physics
observatory at Kodaikanal in the Palani Hills of South India with the Madras Astronomer
Charles Michie Smith as the Director46; to transfer all astronomical activity from Madras
to Kodalkanal; and to place the new observatory under the control of the Central Gov98
to Kodaikanal; and to place the new observatory under the control of the Central Government.
Kodalkanal Observatory came into existence on 1899 April 1, with the following
instruments that had in the mean time been collected at Madras from a variety of sources2S:
i. Photoheliograph called Dallmeyer No 4; this was one of the five identical photoheliographs
made by John Henry Dallmeyer (1830-1833) for the British transit of Venus
expeditions 47. With a 4 in. aperture, 5 ft. focus object glass, it was modified after
the transit (in 1844) to give an 8 in. diameter solar image. Similar to the ones in use
at Greenwich and Dehra Dun, it was received at Madras in 1895 April on loan from
Greenwich. (It is now at Bangalore, without the optics)
ii. Spectrograph received in 1897, consisting of a polar siderostat with an 11 in. aperture
plane mirror; a 6 in. aperture, 40 ft focus lens; and a concave grating. The siderostat
and the lens were made by Sir Howard Grubb, and the rest of the instrument by Adam
Hilger. (The siderostat still survives and is at Bangalore.)
iii. 6 in. aperture telescope by T.Cooke &: Sons. Made for the 1874 transit of Venus
observations at Roorkee, it was loaned to Lockyer, along with a three-prism solar
spectroscope by Adam Hilger. Sent in 1885 to Poona, it was transferred to Madras in
1893 (see sections 10 and 11).
iv. Transit telescope and chronograph. Already discussed in section 5, this 5 in. aperture,
5 ft. focus equatorial was made by T.Cooke 8z Sons for the Great Trigonometrical
Survey of India, which sent it to Madras along with the accompanying galvanic drum
chronograph made by Eichen & Hardy of Paris.
v. 6 in. equatorial by Lerebours & Secretan. An old Madras telescope of 1850 vintage,
it was remodelled by Sir Howard Grubb in 1898 who mounted on it a 5 in. focus
photographic lens, and provided the telescope with a new driving clock.
The polar siderostat and the 40 ft focus lens, and Dallmeyer No 4 were taken to
Shahdol (now in Madhya Pradesh) and adapted for photography during the total solar
eclipse of 1898.
In 1902 September a calcium-K spectroheliograph was ordered from Horace Darwin’s
Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 4s. Its construction was supervised by
H.F.Newall, and it arrived in 1904 August, at a cost of £1300. This 12 in. aperture, 20
ft. focus solar telescope was used in conjunction with a Z440 Foucault siderostat incorporating
an 18 in. aperture plane silver-on-glass mirror made by T.Cooke & Sons. In 1903,
a dividing engine was received from the same company.
John Evershed’s arrival in 1907 heralded the observatory’s golden age. He made a
prismatic camera using the prisms he had brought with him; and got the spectroheliograph
into working order. Evershed also built a number of spectrographs, and continued his work
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 99
radial motion in sunspots (the Evershed effect). In 1911 Evershed finally made an auxiliary
spectroheliograph and bolted it to the framework of the existing instrument so that now
the sun could be photographed not only in calcium K light but also in hydrogen alpha.
This was the first and only time that a state-of-the-art pure astronomical instrument was
built in India.
In 1912 instruments were received from Poona on the closure of Takhtasinghji’s Observatory.
The 20 in. Bhavnagar reflector was installed only in 1951. In 1933 a Hale
spectrohelioscope was received as a gift from the Mount Wilson Observatory.
Thanks to Anil Kumar Das (1902-1961) and the International Geophysical Year that
started in 1957, Kodai~nal acquired three instruments in 1958: (i) a Lyot hydrogen-alpha
heliograph (£2234) with a 15 cm aperture objective, from Paris (ii) A Lyot coronograph
(£8126) with a 20 cm aperture, 3 m focus objective from M/s REOSC, Paris. The coronograph
has never really been used. (iii) A tunnel telescope of 38 cm aperture and 36 m
focus (Rs 525000), from Sir Howard Grubb Parsons. The tunnel telescope has been the
main solar physics telescope in the country, ever since. This was the last consignment of
instruments to reach Kodaikanal Observatory.
In 1961 with the appointment of Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu (1927-1982) the emphasis
shifted towards moderuisation of stellar astronomical facilities, with the establishment in
1968 of an observatory at Kavalur 48.
13. NIZAMIAH OBSERVATORY 49 (1901)
Nizamiah (i.e. Nizam’s) Observatory was established in 1901 by a rich nobleman
Nawab Zafar Jung at his estate at Phisalbanda in Hyderabad. His chief instruments were
(i) a 15 in. refractor, by Howard Grubb; and (ii) an astrograph, with an 8 in. aperture
photovisual doublet Cooke lens.
Showing foresight, Zafar Jung had taken the Nizam’s (i.e. the King’s) permission
for the name and had also ensured that after the founder’s death, the Observatory would
be taken over by the Government. Jung died in 1907; the observatory was shifted to
Begumpet in Hyderabad itself with Mr.A.B.Chatwood as the Director.
The first instrument to be installed end of 1909 was the astrograph which was housed
in a 25 ft dome by T.Cooke & Sons. Using it, the Nizamiah joined the international ‘Carte
du cier program. The 15 in. Grubb was installed only in 1922; in the mean time (1915-22)
its objective was used at Kodaikanal.
The Observatory acquired, in 1939, a Hale spectrohelioscope made by Howell & Sherburne
of Pasadena. In 1958, a 1.2 m reflector was purchased from J.W.Pecker & Co. of
Pittsburg using a rupee grant from the US government. A new site was chosen for the
I00 R.K. Kochhar
observatory near the two villages of Japal and Rangapur, some 50 km from Hyderabad.
The 1.2 m reflector was installed in 1968 at the Japal-Rangapur Observatory and remains
14. UTTAR PRADESH STATE OBSERVATORY, NAINI TAL (1954)
This observatory was set up in April 1954 at Varanasi under the honorary directorship
of A.N.Singh, the Principal of the newly established D.S.B.Government Degree College at
Naini Tal. Its early instruments included 5°
i. a gravity-driven 25 cm refractor, by T.Cooke & Sons,
ii. a 13 cm transit telescope,
iii. a set of quartz clocks by Rhode gz Schwartz.
In November 1955, with Vainu Bappu as the Director, the Observatory was shifted to
Manora Peak, Naini Tal. The Observatory’s biggest telescope is a 1 m reflector by Carl
Zeiss Jena set up in 1972 (its twin is at Kavalur).
15. CONCLUDING REMARKS
The first half of the 20th century saw astronomy in India represented by two observatories:
the Imperial Government’s Kodaikanal Observatory; and Osmania University’s
The real reason for the establishment of Kodaikanal Observatory was the need of the
British astronomers to collect good quality data on the sun, which as Lockyer pointed out
was not so obliging to Britain itself. The solar connection with the monsoons (which even
today determine India’s prosperity) was used as a convenient reason to strengthen the case
for a solar observatory in India. Nizamiah observatory, on the other hand, was set up for
no reason other than cosmic curiosity. During the British period, Kodaikanal’s mainstay
was the state-of-the-art instruments made by Evershed himself.
It was after India’s independence in 1947 that Kodaikanal Observatory received the
new Government’s support in the name of astronomy for pleasure and prestige. Thus,
International Geophysical Year was used to buy new equipment for solar studies.
We have closed our account in 1960. This is the year when Bappu joined Kodaikanal
as its Director. He set out to update stellar astronomy. As a result of his efforts a new
observatory was set up at Kavalur (Javadi Hills, Tamil Nadu), which is now named after
him, and has a 2.3 metre telescope. In the mean time a small solar physics observatory
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 101
has come up at Udaipur, and an infrared 1 metre class telescope at Gurushikhar (Mount
It may, however, be pointed out that India’s infrastmctural facilities have been espeeiaUy
conducive towards radio and ram wave telescopes.
The poet-1960 astronomical facilities will be treated separately.
I thank Professor M.G.K. Menon for encouragement, advice, and help in this project.
Thanks are also due to Professor J.C. Bhattacharyya for helpful conversations on recent
developments. I thank the library staff at the India OiBce Library and Records, Royal
Greenwich Observatory, Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Society of London
for their help. Thanks are due to our library and the photographic laboratory staff at
Kod~kanal and Bangalore for cheerful cooperation, and to the workshop staff for help in
assemblin~ the old instruments at the time of the Institute’s bicentennial celebrations in
102 R. K. Kochhar
I. Shukla,K.S. (1976) Aryabhatiya of Aryabhata, Indian National Science Academy, New
2. Krishna Warrior,N.V. (1988) Desk Encyclopaedia (in Malayalam). Vol.l, D.C.Books,
3. Kaye,G.R. (1918) Astronomical Observations of Jai Singh, Govt. Printing Press,
Calcutta. Also see Bholanath (undated) A Hand book of Maharajah Jaisingh’s Astronomical
Observatory, Delhi. (As Assistant Engineer in the Buildings Dept., Jaipur,
the author was associated with the renovation work.)
4. Sharma,V.N. (1987) IAU Coll. No.91: History of Oriental Astronomy (Eds:
G.Swarup, A.K.Bag & K.S.Shukla) Cambridge Univ. Press.
5. Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
6. Kochhar,R.K. (1989)Ind. J. Hist. Sci. (still in the press).
7. Phillimore,R.H. (1945-58) Historical Records of Survey of India, 4 vols., Dehra Dun.
This is the most authentic reference on survey of India.
8. Markham,C.R. (1878) A Memoir of the Indian Surveys, 2nd edn. (lst edn. 1872),
W.H.AIIen & Co, London. Markham is rather sketchy and not always reliable.
9. Pearse,T.D. Asiatic Researches 1, 47.
10. Love,H.D. (1913) Vestiges of Old Madras, 4 vols., John Murray, London.
11. Prinsep,C. (1885) Madras Civil Servants 1741-1858 Trubner & Co, Ludgate Hill.
12. Paper in A.Dalrymple’s Oriental Repertory, Vol.1. These results published in 1792
were communicated by Petrie. Topping’s astronomical and geographical paper is
followed by Cursory Remarks, where he comments on roads and rivers and points out
that teak timber could be transported down the Godavari River at a small expense.
Topping also attaches an account on the cultivation of pepper.
13. Topping’s description of the Observatory (ref.14) says that it was established in 1787.
If it is not a misprint, it could mean that the observatory came up while he was out
of Madras (i.e. in 1786 November or December) and he learnt about it on his return.
It is not possible to say where exactly in Egmore Petrie’s Observatory was located,
because old records refer to garden houses with respect to each other, and not to any
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 103
14. Michael Topping: Description of an Astronomical Observatory erected at Madras in
1792, by order of The East India Company, Madras, 24th December 1792. RAS copy
of the MS is without any illustrations; IOLR copy has a sketch of the Observatory.
The damaged Bangalore copy contains all the illustrations referred to in the text; and
an appendix written a little later.
15. Goldingham’s MS, prefaced by Topping’s unsigned account of the Observatory (Indian
Institute of Astrophysics).
16. Madras Observatory’s Annual Reports.
17. Nature 46 (1892) p.301, Observatory 15 (1892) p.410, Indian Imperial Gazetteer 1908
for Madras all make 1792 the year of the Observatory’s establishment and John
Goldingham the first Astronomer. Apparently the first one to make this mistake
is Markham (ref.8) who recognizes Topping as a surveyor, but not as Astronomer.
In 1792 May Topping was appointed ‘Astronomer and Surveyor’ and given charge of
all non-military surveys. In 1794 April his designation was changed to ‘Company’s
Astronomer and Geographical Marine Surveyor’. He was also the Superintendent of
Tank Repairs and Water Courses. This last position earned him an additional 400
pagodas a month, about twice his scientist’s salary.
18. Inventory of 1811 Oct 1. Madras MS records (Indian Institute of Astrophysics).
19. Kochhar,R.K. (1987) Antiquarian Horology 17, 181.
20. Topping,M.: Indent of Astronomical Instruments wanted — at Madras 1792 Jan
19.(RAS MSS Madras).
21. Topping,M.: List of Instruments (Astronomical and Geodetical) belonging to the
Hon’ble Company at present in my charge, 1794 Jul 22 (RAS). (RAS MSS Madras).
22. Pogson,N.R. (1887) Madras Meridian Circle Observations 1862-4, Govt of Madras.
23. Kochhar,R.K. (1985)Bull. Astr. Soc. India. 13, 287.
24. Taylor,T.G. (1832) Madras Astronomical Observations, Vol.1, Madras Observatory.
25. M.N.R.A.S. 14 (1854), 145.
26. Worster,W.K. &: Jacob,W.S. (1855) Madras
Astronomical Observations, Vol,8,
104 R.K. Kochhar
27. Annual Reports by N.R.Pogson 1861-1890.
28. Annum Reports by C.Mich~e Smith 1891-1899.
29. Ansari,S.M.R. (1985) Introduction of Modern Western Astronomy in India during
18-19th Centuries, IHMMR, New DelM ll00 62.
30. M.N.R.A.S (1858) 18, 287.
31. Broun,J.A. (1874) Observations of Magnetic Declination made at ‘h-ivandrum and
Augustia MaUey … in 18,52-69, Henry & King, London.
32. Dreyer,J.L.E. & Tnrner,H.H. (1923) History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1830-
1920, R A S London.
33. RAS Papers 49, R.A.S. Archives.
34. DNB wrongly says it was by Lerebours & Secretan.
35. M.N.R.A.S. (1863) 23, 128.
36. Account of the Operations of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, various
volumes, Dehra Dun. Vol. 1 gives a historical summary.
37. Strange,A. (1867) Proc. R. Soc. 15, 385.
38. IGng,H.C. (1955) The History of the Telescope, Charles Gritrm& Co, London on p.238
confuses Strange’s 1874 theodolite with Everest’s of 1830, both made by Troughton
39. Reports of the Committee of Solar Physics (1882, 1889), H.M.Stationery Office.
40. Kochhar,R.K. (1987, 1988) Indian Institute of Astrophysics Newsletter 2, 25; 3, 11.
41. Tennant,J.F. (1887) Report of Transit of Venus as seen at Roorkee and Lahore on
December 8, 1874, Calcutta.
42. Tupman,G.L. (1878) M.N.R.A.S. 38, 509.
43. Kochhar,R. K. (1990) Indian Institute of Astrophysics Newsletter 5, 6.
44. Govt of Madras Public Govt Order 21 Nov 1893 Nos. 940, 941.
45. Lockyer,N. (1898) Report on Indian Observatories.
Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 105
46. Michie Smith received support from the Astronomer Royal: W.H.M.Christie (1898)
Report on Indian Observatories.
47. Derek Howse in his History of Greenwich Observatory, Vol.3.(Taylor & Francis, London)
mistakenly attributes the construction to J.H.Dallmeyer’s son Thomas Rudolphus
Dallmeyer (1859-1906) who was only 15 at the time of the 1874 transit.
48. Annual Reports of Kodaikanal Observatory 1900-1961.
49. Kochhar,R.K. & Menon,M.G.K. (1982) Bull. Astr. Soc. India. 10, 275.
50. Sanwal,N.B. (1983) in Nizamlah Observatory, Platinum Jubilee Souvenir 1908-1983.
(ed.: G.M.Ballabh) Osmania University, Hyderabad. The year 1908 is the year of the
Observatory’s taking over by the Government, not its founding. Also see Sanwal,N.B.
(1983) Bull. Astr. Soc. India 11,349
51. 25 years of Uttar Pradesh State Observatory, Naini Tal (1979), UPSO.