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




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

with others.

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

user’s experience.

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.


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.


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

(3) (4)

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.


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 India’.

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

Society.) 14

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

own instruments:

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

equatorial. 2s

The telescope has been at Kodaikanal since 1899, and in use as a photoheliograph

since 1912.

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

machinery’fl 7

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

one used.


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).


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.

Instrument Department

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










IN THE YEARS 1880–1843





~”~’~’:”” ‘ :~ “‘ ….. …. ~ ‘2″~,

• .%, ~.:





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 – , ~ , . : ~ : . ~ ;

(11) (12)

” – “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

employed ’36.

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



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.


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


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

R.K. Kochhar

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 …’


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


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 1888.

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

following: •

i. 20 in. reflecting telescope by Grnbb. Mirror by Dr A. A. Common (now called

Bhavnagar telescope).

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.


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

R.K. Kochhar

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.


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

$~’A ~48112-0

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

its mainstay.


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).


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

Nizamiah Observatory.

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,

Kottayam, Kerala.

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

Madras Observatory.

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

& Simms.

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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *