King's Observatory

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The King's Observatory
Kew Observatory
Location Old Deer Park
Nearest city Richmond, London
Coordinates 51°28′08″N0°18′53″W / 51.4689°N 0.3147°W / 51.4689; -0.3147 Coordinates: 51°28′08″N0°18′53″W / 51.4689°N 0.3147°W / 51.4689; -0.3147
Built for George III of the United Kingdom
Original useAstronomical and terrestrial magnetic observatory
Current usePrivate dwelling
Architect Sir William Chambers
Owner Crown Estate
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Kew Observatory
Designated10 January 1950
Reference no.1357729

The King's Observatory (called for many years the Kew Observatory) [1] is a Grade I listed building [2] in Richmond, London. Now a private dwelling, it formerly housed an astronomical and terrestrial magnetic observatory [3] founded by King George III. The architect was Sir William Chambers; his design of the King's Observatory influenced the architecture of two Irish observatories  Armagh Observatory and Dunsink Observatory near Dublin. [4]

Listed building Collection of protected architectural creations in the United Kingdom

A listed building, or listed structure, is one that has been placed on one of the four statutory lists maintained by Historic England in England, Historic Environment Scotland in Scotland, Cadw in Wales, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in Northern Ireland.

Richmond, London town in London, England

Richmond is a suburban town in south-west London, 8.2 miles (13.2 km) west-southwest of Charing Cross. It is on a meander of the River Thames, with a large number of parks and open spaces, including Richmond Park, and many protected conservation areas, which include much of Richmond Hill. A specific Act of Parliament protects the scenic view of the River Thames from Richmond.

Observatory location used for observing terrestrial or celestial events

An observatory is a location used for observing terrestrial or celestial events. Astronomy, climatology/meteorology, geophysical, oceanography and volcanology are examples of disciplines for which observatories have been constructed. Historically, observatories were as simple as containing an astronomical sextant or Stonehenge.



The observatory and its grounds are located within the grounds of the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, which is part of the Old Deer Park of the former Richmond Palace in Richmond, historically in Surrey and now in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. The former royal manor of Kew lies to the immediate north. The observatory grounds overlie to the south the site of the former Sheen Priory, the Carthusian monastery established by King Henry V in 1414. [5] The observatory is not publicly accessible, and obscuring woodlands mean that it cannot be viewed from outside the golf course, which is not open to the general public.

Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club

The Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club is a private golf club and golf course comprising two 18-hole courses located in Old Deer Park in Richmond, south west London.

Old Deer Park park in the United Kingdom

Old Deer Park is an area of open space within Richmond, in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, England. It covers 147 hectares of which 90.4 hectares is not in public ownership, largely sports grounds for the sports of rugby and golf.

Richmond Palace former royal residence in London, England

Richmond Palace was a royal residence on the River Thames in England which stood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Situated in what was then rural Surrey, it lay upstream and on the opposite bank from the Palace of Westminster, which was located nine miles (14 km) to the north-east. It was erected about 1501 by Henry VII of England, formerly known as the Earl of Richmond, in honour of which the manor of Sheen had recently been renamed "Richmond". Richmond Palace therefore replaced Shene Palace, the latter palace being itself built on the site of an earlier manor house which had been appropriated by Edward I in 1299 and which was subsequently used by his next three direct descendants before it fell into disrepair.


Directors (superintendents) of the observatory included Stephen Demainbray, Francis Ronalds, John Welsh, Balfour Stewart, Francis John Welsh Whipple, Charles Chree, and George Clarke Simpson.

Stephen Charles Triboudet Demainbray was an English natural scientist and astronomer, who was Superintendent at the King's Observatory in Richmond, Surrey from 1768 to 1782.

Francis Ronalds British meteorlogist

Sir Francis Ronalds FRS was an English scientist and inventor, and arguably the first electrical engineer. He was knighted for creating the first electric telegraph over a substantial distance. In 1816 he laid eight miles of iron wire between wooden frames in his garden and sent pulses using electrostatic generators. Others like Francisco Salva Campillo in 1804 or Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring in 1809 already built telegraphs but with lengths of only 0.4 - 2.2 miles.

John Welsh (1824–1859) was a Scottish meteorologist.


The observatory was completed in 1769, [6] in time for King George III's observation of the transit of Venus that occurred on 3 June in that year.

Transit of Venus astronomical transit of Venus across the Sun

A transit of Venus across the Sun takes place when the planet Venus passes directly between the Sun and a superior planet, becoming visible against the solar disk. During a transit, Venus can be seen from Earth as a small black dot moving across the face of the Sun. The duration of such transits is usually several hours. A transit is similar to a solar eclipse by the Moon. While the diameter of Venus is more than three times that of the Moon, Venus appears smaller, and travels more slowly across the face of the Sun, because it is much farther away from Earth.

In 1842, the by then empty building was taken on by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and became widely known as the Kew Observatory. [7] Francis Ronalds was the inaugural Honorary Director for the next decade and founded the observatory’s enduring reputation.

The British Science Association (BSA) is a charity and learned society founded in 1831 to aid in the promotion and development of science. Until 2009 it was known as the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA). The Chief Executive is Katherine Mathieson. In the present, the British Science Association's mission is to get more people engaged in the field of science by coordinating, delivering and overseeing different projects that are suited to achieve these goals. To maintain this vision of a world that puts science in the heart of today's culture and society, the British Science Association (BSA) partners with many national and local organizations that share their vision. Diversifying the people involved in science increases the potential of being able to solve some of the world's biggest challenges in science and to do this the British Science Association are putting together a strategy for 2018-2020 to help them achieve their goals. These key components include: 1. Championing diversity and inclusion, 2. Improving science education, 3. Influencing and convening stakeholders. Located in the Wellcome Wolfson Building, the BSA's professional team of staff works on creating, managing and delivering a range of projects, activities and events that both recognize and encourage people involved in science. These include the British Science Festival, British Science Week, the CREST Awards, Huxley Summit, Youth Pannel, Media Fellowships Scheme, along with regional and local events.

Responsibility for the facility was transferred to the Royal Society in 1871. The National Physical Laboratory was established there in 1900 and from 1910 it housed the Meteorological Office. The Met Office closed the observatory in 1980. The geomagnetic instruments had already been relocated to Eskdalemuir Observatory in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland in 1908 after the advent of electrification in London led to interference with their operations. [8]

Royal Society English learned society for science

The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society". It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

National Physical Laboratory (United Kingdom) National Measurement Institution of the United Kingdom

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the national measurement standards laboratory for the United Kingdom, based at Bushy Park in Teddington, London, England. It comes under the management of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Met Office United Kingdoms national weather service

The Met Office is the United Kingdom's national weather service. It is an executive agency and trading fund of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy led by CEO, Penelope Endersby, who took on the role as Chief Executive in December 2018, the first woman to do so. The Met Office makes meteorological predictions across all timescales from weather forecasts to climate change.

Scientific achievements

Observing the transit of Venus on 3 June 1769

Extract from Observations on the Transit of Venus, a manuscript notebook from the collections of George III, showing George, his wife and those attending them, including Demainbray. TransitOfVenus1769.png
Extract from Observations on the Transit of Venus, a manuscript notebook from the collections of George III, showing George, his wife and those attending them, including Demainbray.

A contemporary report by Stephen Demainbray, the superintendent of the observatory, says: "His Majesty the King who made his observation with a Shorts reflecting telescope, magnifying Diameters 170 Times, was the first to view the Penumbra of Venus touching the Edge of the Sun's Disk. The exact mean time (according to civil Reckoning) was attended to by Stephen Demainbray, appointed to take exact time by Shelton's Regulator, previously regulated by several astronomical observations." [9]

Self-registering instruments

Francis Ronalds invented many meteorological, magnetic and electrical instruments at Kew, which saw long-term use around the world. These included the first successful cameras in 1845 to record the variations of parameters such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, atmospheric electricity and geomagnetism through the day and night. [10] His photo-barograph was used by Robert Fitzroy from 1862 in making the UK’s first official weather forecasts at the Meteorological Office. The network of observing stations set-up in 1867 by the Met Office to assist in understanding the weather was equipped with his cameras – some of these remained in use at Kew until the observatory’s closure in 1980. [11]

Atmospheric electricity observations

Ronalds also established a sophisticated atmospheric electricity observing system at Kew with a long copper rod protruding through the dome of the observatory and a suite of novel electrometers and electrographs to manually record the data. He supplied this equipment to facilities in England, Spain, France, Italy, India (Colaba and Trivandrum) and the Arctic with the goal of delineating atmospheric electricity on a global scale. [12] At Kew, two-hourly data was recorded in the Reports of the British Association between 1844 and 1847.

An entirely new system, providing continuous automatic recording, was installed by Lord Kelvin personally in the early 1860s. This device, based on Kelvin's water dropper potential equaliser with photographic recording, [13] was known as the Kew electrograph. It provided the backbone of a long and almost continuous series of potential gradient measurements which finished in 1980. A secondary system of measurement, operating on different principles, was designed and implemented by the Nobel laureate CTR Wilson, from which records begin in 1906 until the closure of the Observatory. [14] These measurements, which complement those of the Kelvin electrograph, were made on fine days at 1500 GMT. Beyond their applications in atmospheric electricity, the electrograph and Wilson apparatus have been shown to be useful for reconstructing past air pollution changes. [15]

Testing timepiece movements

In the early 1850s, the facility began performing a role in assessing and rating barometers, thermometers, chronometers, watches, sextants and other scientific instruments for accuracy; this duty was transferred to the National Physical Laboratory in 1910. An instrument which passed the tests was awarded a "Kew Certificate", a hallmark of excellence.

As marine navigation adopted the use of mechanical timepieces, their accuracy became more important. The need for precision resulted in the development of a testing regime involving various astronomical observatories. In Europe, the observatories at Neuchatel, Geneva, Besancon and Kew were examples of prominent observatories that tested timepiece movements for accuracy. The testing process lasted for many days, typically 45. Each movement was tested in five positions and two temperatures, in ten series of four or five days each. The tolerances for error were much finer than any other standard, including the modern COSC standard. Movements that passed the stringent tests were issued a certification from the observatory called a Bulletin de Marche, signed by the directeur of the observatory. The Bulletin de Marche stated the testing criteria and the actual performance of the movement. A movement with a Bulletin de Marche from an observatory became known as an Observatory Chronometer, and was issued a chronometer reference number by the observatory.

The role of the observatories in assessing the accuracy of mechanical timepieces was instrumental in driving the mechanical watchmaking industry toward higher and higher levels of accuracy. As a result, modern high quality mechanical watch movements have an extremely high degree of accuracy. However, no mechanical movement could ultimately compare to the accuracy of a quartz movement. Accordingly, such chronometer certification ceased in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the advent of the quartz watch movement.

Later use

In 1981 the facility was returned to the Crown Estate Commissioners and reverted to its original name, "King’s Observatory". In 1985 the observatory was refurbished and transformed into commercial offices; new brick buildings were added. From 1986 to 2011 it was used by Autoglass (now Belron) as their UK head office. [16] Since 1989 the lease has been held by Robbie Brothers of Kew Holdings Limited. [16]

In 1999, landscape architect Kim Wilkie was commissioned to prepare a master plan linking the observatory's Grade I landscape to Kew Gardens, Syon Park and Richmond. These proposals were accepted by Kew Holdings Limited. In 2014 Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council granted planning permission for the observatory to be used as a private single family dwelling. All auxiliary buildings have been demolished.

The Observatory in art

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford has a portrait, Peter Rigaud and Mary Anne Rigaud, by the 18th-century painter John Francis Rigaud. His portrait of his nephew and niece, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778, shows Stephen Peter Rigaud (1774–1839) (who became a mathematical historian and astronomer, and Savilian Chair of Geometry and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford) and his elder sister. The picture, painted when they were aged four and seven, shows them in a park landscape with the observatory (where their father was observer) in the background. [17] Although described here as Richmond Park, topographical considerations make it more likely that the park portrayed is Old Deer Park, where the observatory is situated.

See also

Notes and references

  1. Scott, Robert Henry (1885). "The History of the Kew Observatory" in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. XXXIX. Royal Society. pp. 37–86.
  2. Historic England. "Kew Observatory (1357729)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  3. Hunt, Andrew (21 January 2007). "Where a king watched a transit of Venus". Cities of Science. Archived from the original on 28 March 2008. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  4. "The King's Observatory at Richmond". History. Armagh Observatory. 22 February 2010. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  5. Diagram on p. 51 of Cloake, John (1990). Richmond's Great Monastery, The Charterhouse of Jesus of Bethlehem of Shene. London: Richmond Local History Society. ISBN   0-9508198-6-7.
  6. Cherry, Bridget and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1983). The Buildings of England  – London 2: South. London: Penguin Books. p. 520. ISBN   0-14-0710-47-7.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. MacDonald, Lee (2018). Kew Observatory & the evolution of Victorian science, 1840–1910. Pittsburgh, PA. ISBN   9780822983491. OCLC   1038801663.
  8. "A Scientific Workshop Threatened by Applied Science: Kew Observatory to Be Removed Owing To The Disturbance Caused by Electric Traction". The Illustrated London News . 8 August 1903.
  9. Manuscript of Stephen Demainbray's notebook of the Transit of Venus 1769, "The Observatory: A Monthly Review of Astronomy" (1882) called 'Dr Demainbray and the King's Observatory at Kew'. The manuscript is now held at King's College London and is quoted in "The King's Observatory at Kew & The Transit of Venus 1769". Arcadian Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013.
  10. Ronalds, B. F. (2016). Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph. London: Imperial College Press. ISBN   978-1-78326-917-4.
  11. Ronalds, B. F. (2016). "The Beginnings of Continuous Scientific Recording using Photography: Sir Francis Ronalds' Contribution". European Society for the History of Photography. Retrieved 2 June 2016.
  12. Ronalds, B. F. (June 2016). "Sir Francis Ronalds and the Early Years of the Kew Observatory". Weather. Bibcode:2016Wthr...71..131R. doi:10.1002/wea.2739.
  13. Aplin, K. L.; Harrison, R. G. (3 September 2013). "Lord Kelvin's atmospheric electricity measurements". History of Geo- and Space Sciences. 4 (2): 83–95. arXiv: 1305.5347 . Bibcode:2013HGSS....4...83A. doi:10.5194/hgss-4-83-2013. ISSN   2190-5029.
  14. Harrison, R. G.; Ingram, W. J. (July 2005). "Air–earth current measurements at Kew, London, 1909–1979". Atmospheric Research. 76 (1–4): 49–64. Bibcode:2005AtmRe..76...49H. doi:10.1016/j.atmosres.2004.11.022. ISSN   0169-8095.
  15. Harrison, R. G.; Aplin, K. L. (September 2002). "Mid-nineteenth century smoke concentrations near London". Atmospheric Environment. 36 (25): 4037–4043. Bibcode:2002AtmEn..36.4037H. doi:10.1016/s1352-2310(02)00334-5. ISSN   1352-2310.
  16. 1 2 Brothers, Robbie. "Home page". The King's Observatory. Retrieved 31 October 2018.
  17. "John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810): Stephen Peter Rigaud and Mary Anne Rigaud". Browse the Paintings Collection. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology . Retrieved 13 July 2013.

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