Posts Tagged ‘transit of Venus’

Kodaikanal Observatory as a potential world astronomy heritage site

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on September 29th, 2012 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Colloquium given at Indian  Institute of Astrophysics Bangalore, 25 September 2012

Rajesh Kochhar

President IAU Commission 41: History of Astronomy

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali

[email protected]

As is well known, Unesco has a mission to safeguard and preserve world heritage sites. Towards this end, it prepares a World Heritage List, in which cultural properties from all over are inscribed (that is included) . Additionally, Unesco encourages international cooperation in heritage conservation. Unesco has now undertaken a Thematic Initiative on ‘Astronomy and World Heritage’. It has enlisted technical assistance from International Astronomical Union for this purpose. Within IAU, the responsibility has been entrusted to Commission 41: History of Astronomy. Phase I of this Initiative aims at ‘acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the outstanding properties connected with astronomy in all geographical regions through their identification, study and inclusion of the most representative of these properties on the national tentative lists. Phase II aims at promoting the most outstanding of these properties which recognize and celebrate achievements in science through their inscription on the World Heritage List.

In simpler words, an astronomical property must first enter its nation’s tentative list and then campaign for inscription in the World List. Note that Unesco does not deal with individuals, only with member countries.


You are all familiar with the rust-free iron pillar near Qutub Minar at Mehrauli in Delhi. It is famous the world over for its metallurgy. What is not so well known is its astronomical significance. It was brought to Delhi in relatively recent times, that is 1233 CE. It was originally installed in  about 400CE in Udaigiri, Central India, on Tropic of Cancer, as a gnomon. If this pillar had remained at its original location, it would have been an obvious choice as a world astronomical heritage property.


As things stand, I think the only candidate for astronomical world heritage list from India would be the Solar Physics Observatory Kodaikanal ( est 1899 ), which now has solar picture data with the same instrument for the longest period in the world (since 1912), except for some short interruptions due to maintenance/ upgradation.


Since you are all practitioners of science ( and not merely historians), I will try to place Kodaikanal in the larger context of development of  solar physics as a scientific discipline.

By the middle of the 19th century, physical astronomy, as distinct from positional astronomy, had already taken some shape, thanks to the advent of  solar spectroscopy and photography. There were a number of solar eclipses in quick succession and visible from India : 1868, 1871 and 1872. These eclipses brought observers from Europe into India, and gave a fillip to solar instrumentation and studies the world over. In 1868, the French astrophysicist Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen discovered helium from Guntur . During his post-eclipse stay at Simla, Janssen created the first spectro-helioscope, which facilitated daily examination of the sun.

Then came the 1874 Transit of Venus. The scientists’ agenda for it ran deep. What was advertised was the brief passage of Venus in front of the solar disc; what was planned was a long-term study of the disc itself.

British (and European) solar physicists wanted photograph of the sun for each day of the year. Since this was impossible in Europe’s weather conditions, data was needed from the colonies.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science passed a resolution asking the Government of India to make arrangements for observing the event and to provide instruments which were afterwards to be transferred to a solar observatory. Such was the prestige enjoyed by science and scientists in Europe at the time that the British Empire, as the owner of the most of the world’s sunshine, agreed to help, though partially.


The 1874 transit eventually led to regular solar physics studies in India, even though the exercise took 25 years. The initiative came from the influential British  scientist of the time , Sir Norman Lockyer.To sum up in advance, the step-wise developments were as follows. First, express arrangements were made for the observation of the 1874 event from Roorkee. Next, interim facilities were created at Dehra Dun and Poona for collection of data and its transmission to Europe. Finally, a permanent solar physics research facility was set up at Kodaikanal.


The 1874 event

 It is noteworthy that Survey of India ( and not Madras Observatory) was asked to make transit  observations. More than 100 photos of the sun were taken at Roorkee  and sent to the Astronomer Royal Sir George Biddell  Airy. Photos from all over were reduced by Captain G. L. Tupman who wrote: ‘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’.


Dehra Dun Observatory (1878-1925)

 Lockyer used his equation with Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, for making arrangement for solar photography in India. Salisbury wrote to the Viceroy on 28 September 1877: ‘Having considered the suggestions made by Mr. Lockyer, and viewing that a study of the conditions of the sun’s disc in relation to terrestrial phenomenon has become an important part of physical investigation, I have thought it desirable to assent to the employment for a limited period of a person qualified to obtain photographs of the sun’s disc by the aid of the instrument now in India’.  From the technical details given in the letter , it is clear that it was drafted by Lockyer himself. Accordingly, starting from early 1878,  solar photographs were regularly taken at Dehra Dun  under the auspices of Survey of India, and sent to England every week. Dehra Dun continued solar photography till 1925, but more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm.


The larger of the two photoheliographs fell into disuse, and in 1898, Lockyer was stung by on-the-spot discovery that ‘the dome has been taken possession of by bees’.The arrangement was discontinued in 1925, and equipment sent to Kodaikanal.


St Xavier’s College Observatory, Calcutta (1879)

 Sunny India caught the attention of astronomers in the continent also. The Italian transit-of-Venus team led by Professor P. Tacchini of Palermo Observatory stationed itself in Bengal, its Chief instrument being the spectroscope, `an instrument not recognized in the equipment of any of the English parties’. A co-opted member of the Italian team was the Belgian Jesuit Father Eugene Lafont (1837-1908), the popular professor of science at the elitist   St. Xavier’s College. Lafont was  no researcher himself was an inspiring educator and science communicator.

Tacchini suggested to Lafont ‘the advisability of erecting a Solar Observatory in Calcutta, in order to supplement the Observations made in Europe, by filling up the gaps caused in the series of solar records by bad weather’. Lafont used his influence with Europeans, Anglo-Indians  (half-castes), rajas, zamindars, and Indian men of note, and soon collected  a substantial sum of Rs 21000 through donations, including Rs 7000 from the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.

A  9 in refractor by Steinhill of Munich was purchased and housed in a spacious dome constructed for the purpose.

No research or teaching use was ever made of  this facility. This is unfortunate. If the experiment had succeeded, observational astronomy might have become part  of Indian education system. As it is, astronomy has largely remained decoupled from  college/ university teaching.



Takhtasinghji’s Observatory Poona  (1888-1912)

      It was a Government Observatory, named after the principal funder, Maharaja of a princely state, Bhavnagar. It was India’s first modern astrophysical observatory. Unfortunately, it was created for an individual and did not last long. The original plan was to establish a spectroscopic laboratory at Elphinstone College Bombay for use by the students. The initiator of the proposal was a lecturer in the College, Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala (1857-1938), who obtained seed money of Rs 5000 from the Maharaja of Bhavnagar and a matching grant from the Bombay Government.  While in England in 1884 for buying the equipment,  he was persuaded by the Astronomer Royal and Lockyer to build a spectroscopic observatory instead.


Since Poona was a better astronomical site than Bombay, in 1885 Naegamvala was transferred  there to College of Science where the Observatory came up in 1888. Its chief instrument was a 16½ inch aperture silver-on-parabolic glass Newtonian  made by Grubb. In addition, Lockyer equipped Poona as a satellite facility. A six-inch Cooke equatorial purchased by the Government for the 1874 transit observation from India had been  loaned to Lockyer’s Observatory in South Kensington.


The India Office also purchased two spectroscopes from Hilger (one solar, the other stellar) for his use. The equatorial and the spectroscopes were given to Naegamvala so that he could observe with them and send raw data to Lockyer. Similarly, data was received  by Lockyer and more generally in England from Kodaikanal and Mauritius.


Not surprisingly, relationship between Poona and South Kensington was non-symmetrical. Whenever South Kensington found fault with data collection at Poona, it did not write directly to Naegamvala, but formally complained to his British superiors. Yet, when Kodaikanal Observatory was being planned, Lockyer suggested Naegamvala’s name for the directorship. The position was however offered to an Englishman, Charles Michie Smith, a non-descript physics professor at Madras. Lockyer and Astronomer Royal constituted two independent centres of power in England, and Kodaikanal came under the latter’s sphere of influence.


Naegamvala took observations till the very last date of his employment, 11 January 1912. The Observatory was officially abolished on the day of his retirement and  all equipment was sent to Kodaikanal. Thus instead of creating a permanent educational facility, a temporary research centre was created for the primary benefit of European solar physicists.


Kodaikanal Observatory (1899)

       If the 1874 transit of Venus was important for solar physicists, so was the severe famine of 1876-77 in the Madras Presidency. Monsoons fail at times, but the severity of famines was particularly high in the colonial period because of large-scale export of food grains from India to Britain  in utter disregard of local requirements. Astronomers of course would not worry about avoiding famines, but in predicting monsoon behaviour. In 1879, Lockyer presented a report to the Indian Famine Commission claiming that famines were correlated with sunspot minima.

There is no doubt that Lockyer and many others genuinely believed in a correlation with solar activity and terrestrial weather. But  it is also a fact that the practical benefits to be derived from a study of the sun were exaggerated to gain Government support. In 1881, Government of India’s chief meteorologist Henry Francis Blanford reported to the Famine Commission that no such simple sunspot-monsoon correlation as suggested by Lockyer existed.


In any case, the Government decided to go ahead with the Solar Observatory. It was however decided to wait till the neurotic Madras Astronomer Pogson was dead. This happened in 1890.

Kodaikanal started shakily. The first task was the acquisition of instruments; they came from a variety of sources.

A photoheliograph (Dallmeyer No. 4) originally made for the 1874 transit was given on loan by Greenwich to Kodaikanal. It was used till 1912. Madras had acquired a 6 in telescope on English mounting, by Lerebours and Secretan of Paris, in 1850. It was remodelled in 1898 by Grubb of Dublin who provided it with an electric drive, and mounted a 5 in aperture a 5 in aperture  Grubb photographic lens on the frame. These and other pictures have now been digitized.


The most important event in the Kodaikanl Observatory’s history was the arrival of George Evershed in 1907, who chose to come to India  no doubt to be able to work in solitary splendour. Kodaikanal rose to great heights under him. His first task was the installation of Ca-K spectroheliograph that had been received in 1904, from Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company. His 1909 discovery of the radial flow in sun spots_ the Evershed Effect_ is the only major discovery ever made from Kodaikanal.In 1911, he made an auxiliary specroheliograph and bolted it to the existing instrument. The Sun could now be photographed not only in Ca-K light but also in H-alpha.


This is the only time a state-of-art pure astronomical instrument was ever made in India.

These old twin spectroheliographs are no longer in use. The H-alpha pictures were discontinued in about 2005, and  the Ca-K  in about 2007. In the mean time, in 1995, as a back-up, Ca-K line filtergrams using a CCD camera were begun.      Finally, in 2008 a newly constructed  twin telescope was commissioned to take pictures in Ca-K and white light. In other words, Kodaikanal does not take H-alpha pictures any more. It takes Ca-K pictures all right, but with a new equipment, as in the Spectro building and white-light pictures at two places ( North Dome and Spectro).In 1933, a Hale spectrohelioscope was received as a gift from Mount Wilson Observatory.


The Spectroheliograph building, known locally as Spectro, has a priceless clock from the 18th century. It is among the dozen odd gridiron pendulum clocks made by John Shelton for the 1761 or 1769 ( probably the latter) transit of Venus. It is not known when and how one of the Sheltons ended in India. The clock was one of the original instruments at Madras Observatory (est 1787). It was transferred to Kodaikanal in 1899. It is still working, and is in use as an ordinary clock.


International Geophysical Year 1957-1958 provided an opportunity for ordering three new instruments. Two of these, Lyot heliograph, and Lyot coronograph, were never really utilized. The third instrument, acquired on turn-key basis, was the Solar Tunnel Telescope which was commissioned by M. K. Vainu Bappu, who joined as Director in 1961. This was the last time Kodaikanal got a new instrument.Over the years many minor instruments were obtained; and new temporary  ctivities initiated ( radio, magnetic/ionospheric). At present, the Tunnel Telescope, Spectro, and the North Dome are the only regular activity centres of  Kodaikanal Observatory.

Kodaikanal was never a well-endowed Observatory. Told instruments cwere often canabalized o meet current requirements, for example an eclipse expedition.There was therefore lot of improvisation; cutting up of old instruments to make new ones for solar eclipse expeditions, e. g.

About 25 years ago, I traced the history of almost every instrument, or parts thereof, that was in actual existence or was mentioned  in the Store’s Stock Register. Many of these details have been published ( eg in Vistas in Astronomy). Here I have drawn attention to only some of them.

  • Indian Institute of Astrophysics Bangalore ( whose field station Kodaikanal Observatory is) has a priceless instrumentation heritage. It deserves to be documented case by case  and preserved.
  •  Kodaikanal Observatory has always been an important feature on the  town’s tourist map. The Observatory however needs to revamp its Outreach Programme, and ,make it more attractive and interactive.
  • Many buildings in the Kodaikanal campus are lying unused. Utilizing them for a combination of heritage, curriculum-based education and science popularization will help preserve the buildings also. The Kodaikanal Observatory needs to be protected not only as cultural property but as real estate also.


Concluding remarks

Kodaikanal Observatory is a respected name in the world solar physics. Many better-known observatories have discontinued their old programmes, or even shifted to new locations, and become more high tech.

IIA should prepare a detailed dossier on the Observatory. Persuade  India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development ( Indian node for Unesco) to include it in the national list.

Then work towards getting it inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage List.






























William Petrie (d.1816), Madras Civil Servant 1765-1812 and Governor,Penang 1812-1816

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on April 4th, 2011 by Rajesh Kochhar – 2 Comments

Rajesh Kochhar

William Petrie (d.1816) was an influential Madras Civil Servant of the English East India Company who remained in India from 1765 till 1812 with some breaks, and later (1812-1816) held the office of Governor of Prince of Wales Island, that is Penang. Though not an astronomer himself, he set up a private astronomical observatory at Madras in 1786 as a geographical and navigational aid. Taken over by the Government in 1789, the Observatory remained functional for close to a century. In 1899, astronomical activity was shifted to Kodaikanal Solar Physics Observatory .This Observatory is now a field station of Indian Institute of Astrophysics, headquartered in Bangalore. One of the original instruments donated by Petrie to the Observatory was a gridiron astronomical clock made by John Shelton for the transit of Venus of 1769. The clock is now in Kodaikanal, and still ticking. (For information on Shelton clock as well as Madras and Kodaikanal Observatories, publications by Rajesh Kochhar ( also indexed under R.K. Kochhar) may be referred to.)

The brief Wikipedia entry on William Petrie confuses two distinct persons with the same name , goofs on the dates, and makes factually incorrect statements. Wikipedia’s William Petrie becomes an FRS at the age of eleven! ( Why cannot Wikipedia have the flexibility of an on-line source and the rigor of a research publication?)

Table 1. William Pwetrie, Madras Civil Servant

1765 Writer
1771 Factor
1774 Junior Merchant
1776 Senior Merchant; at home
1778 In India
1782 At home
1790 Member of the Council of Governor
1793 At home
1800 President of Board of Revenue and Member Council of Governor
1812 Appointed Governor of Prince of Wales Island
1816 Oct.27 died at Prince of Wales Island

Ref. Charles Campbell Prinsep (1885) Record of Services of Honourable East India Company’s Servants in Madras Presidency 1741-1858 (London: Trubner and Co.), p. 113. This reference wrongly gives 1809 as the date of Petrie’s appointment as Governor Prince of Wales Island .
—- ————-

The following is William Petrie’s detailed professional biography which I had copied years ago from India Office Records of British Library. I am reproducing it for the benefit of scholars, interested laypersons and Petrie’s lineal or collateral descendents. The British Library Reference is IOR/0/6/5.

William Petrie: Official biography

Mr Petrie appointed a Writer in the year 1765 arrived at Fort St George on the 23rd of June in that year, and on the 2nd of July was appointed an Assistant in the Secretary’s Office. On the 19th of May he was placed under the Export Warehouse Keeper. In February 1768, he was permitted to proceed to Bombay for the recovery of his Health. In July 1769 he was appointed under the Commissionary. In February 1770, Clerk to the Grain Committee and in the June following, Clerk to the Committees of Accounts and Works.

In July 1771 he was appointed Paymaster of the Army, then about to proceed against Tanjore. In January 1772 he took charge of the Commissariat Department till the arrival of the Gentleman appointed thereto, and at the recommendation of General Joseph smith, was shortly appointed to take charge of the Nabab’s Grain in the Camps.

In December 1772 he was appointed Secretary to the Governor and Council in the Military Department, and Judge Advocate General and in January 1773 Persian Translator. In May 1773, he resigned these offices and proceeded to England on account of ill health, upon which occasion the Government in their Letter to the Court of Directors of the 4th July 1775 declared themselves satisfied with his conduct ans ability, before and during the time he had acted as their Secretary and thotoughly recommended him for permission to return with his rank as soon as his health would permit.

He was permitted to return to Fort St George in July 1777, and in 1778 was employed by Sir Thomas Rumbold to procure for the Company from the Rajah of Tanjore a Grant of the District of Nagore, estimated at the yearly value of 2 ½ Lack of Rupees which he having obtained, he was rewarded for his Conduct upon the occasion by being appointed Resident at that Place, an appointment he was obliged to relinquish in March 1780, and again to come to England on account of his health. He was recommended for leave to return with his rank in the letter from Fort St George of the 4th April 1780. He returned to Madras in April 1786, and was a few months after appointed to the Office of Military Storekeeper.

On the 18th of June 1787 he was appointed to fill the vacancy in the Council occasioned by Mr. Davidson’s removal, which he relinquished on the 31st July following, to Mr. Holland whom the Court of Directors had appointed thereto, and. Mr Petrie resumed his former office of Military Storekeeper.

In 1788 he was employed on a Special Commission to the Rajah of Tanjore for the purpose of enforcing the payment of the Company’s Subsidy which had fallen greatly in arrears, and effectualising certain Reforms in his Government, which he executed in a manner satisfactory to the Majority of the Board, but Mr [Robert] Maunsell, one of the Members, conceived he had connived at a Loan of Money which the Rajah had obtained from the Danes, to whom he had given Lands in his Country as a Security and that he was censurable for the same.

The Court of Directors on a review of this transaction observed in their Reply to the Letter from Madras, advising these Proceedings, that Mr Petrie had lost sight of that part of his Instructions which respected the proposed Reforms. This was expunged by the Board of Commissioners and a paragraph inserted by them giving a full appreciation to the whole of Mr Petrie’s Conduct in the business.

Mr Petrie returned to England on account of his health in February 1789 and was again recommended in the General Letter of that date for permission to return to the Service whenever his health will permit.

Mr Petrie was appointed on 12 May 1790, third Member of Council at Fort St George and to succeed to the temporary Government on the death or coming away of Sir Charles Oakley, but had permission to remain in England till the following season.

[Note added: Maj. Gen. Meadows was the Governor, while Sir Charles Oakley was Second in Council and Governor-Designate. ( Ref. : East India Company List of Civil Servants 1790.)]

On 19th June 1791 he arrived at Madras, and on the 20th took the Oath and his Seat and was on the 21st appointed President of the Board of Revenue. The Letter from Madras of 25 May 1792 mentions that Mr Petrie had been under the necessity of proceeding to the Cape, and eventually to Europe on account of Health, and the then Government regret the absence of so able a Member of the Council and recommend should he be compelled to take the latter step, that he be permitted to return without prejudice to his rank.

In the letter to Madras of 19th March 1793, the Court recommended having come to the Resolution That Mr Petrie’s Seat in Council became vacant on his quitting Fort St George, and that they had further resolved that the appointment of Mr Petrie to be a Member of Council be revoked and that should any payment have been made to his attornies on account of Salary, they should be called on to refund the same. The sum of 2666 pagoda, 2 fanam 8 cash had been received in India and was accordingly refunded in England.

On the 10th May 1793 Mr Petrie was reappointed by the Court, 2nd Member in Council at Fort St George, which appointment he declined on the 25th November following, but at the same time expressing a hope that in any further selection for the Governments abroad his Services will not be forgotten.

In February 1798 Mr Petrie was appointed to a provisional seat in the Council after the death or resignation of Mr Saunders or Mr Fallsfield, and if any person should have intermediately succeeded to a Seat at the Board, he was to succeed to the Chair pro tempore in case of a vacancy, the Court at the same time revoking the provisional appointment of Mr Westcott. [Note added:According to Madras Register 1799, the date is 11th December 1798.]

Mr Petrie arrived at Madras in August 1798 , and took his seat as First Civil Councillor in December following on the resignation of Mr Saunders , to which station was annexed the Office of the President of the Board of Revenue. He was also a Member of the Committee of Reforms, and to whose exertions the Court attributed a considerable degree of merit in effecting large retrenchments of expense.[Notes added:(i)The exact date 14 August 1798 for his arrival in Madras is mentioned by Madras Almanac 1800.(ii) Edward Lord Clive was the Governor at the time. The Council members were Lt.. Gen. George Harris, Edward Saunders, and Ernst William Fallsfield. The first vacancy was to go to Petrie, the second to George Westcott.( Ref. East India Company List 1803).]

On 17th December 1802, the Court of Directors resolved to present Mr Petrie with the Sum of Pagodas 10,000 in acknowledgement of his long and faithful service. Mr Petrie continued to hold his Seat in Council at Fort St George during part of the Government of Lord Clive, and the whole of that of Lord William Bentinck, and upon the return of the latter to Europe, the temporary charge of the Government devolved upon him, under the provisional appointment which he accordingly assumed on the 11th September 1807 and retained it till the arrival of Sir George Barlow on the 24th December following.

In April 1810, Court of Directors came to a Resolution that no person should remain a Member of the Supreme Council of Bengal beyond five years and it having been resolved the principle to Fort St George.In April 1810 the Court of Directors resolved to issue a new Commission of Government for Fort St George in which Mr Petrie was not included; Copy of the Paragraph advising that resolution was forwarded on the 10th April under the hand of the Secretary of the Court of Directors, and the Madras Government proceeded forthwith to exclude Mr Petrie from Council, a measure which was afterwards declared to be irregular and hasty and calculated in certain possible events pointed out by the Council to create Confusion. In consideration of this circumstance Mr Petrie was allowed to draw his full salary till the arrival of the Court’s Commission.

Upon Mr Petrie’s removal from Council he was directed to by Court’s orders to resume the office of he had formally held of first Member of the Revenue Board in which he could till …[blank]…

On the 22nd May1812, he received an appointment from the Court of Directors to the office of Governor of Prince of Wales Island.

Mr Petrie arrived in Prince of Wales Island and took his seat at the head of the Council Board on 28 September following and continued to hold that office until his death which happened on 27 October 1816.

In one instance the conduct of Prince of Wales Island Government during the time that Mr Petri presided in it was strongly disapproved by the Court, viz., the case of the Contract for Pepper with Mr Brown, upon which the Court say they will hold the Members of the Council responsible in their own individual fortunes for any loss which may eventually be sustained by the Company.

The Salaries enjoyed by Mr Petri after his succession to Council were as follows

As Member of the Fort St George Council Pagodas p.a. 17000 Pounds p.a. 6800

As First Member Board of Revenue Pagodas p.a. 12000 Pounds p.a. 4800

As Governor of Prince of Wales Island Pagodas p.a. 32000 Pounds p.a. 8000

Examiner’s Office
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