Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory

In the 1830s German scientist Alexander von Humboldt approached London’s Royal Society advocating a network of observatories to measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and to identify links between it, the aurora, and weather changes. The British government became involved since facilities in their colonies could form a network girdling the globe, for example in Capetown, St. Helen and Tasmania. The Royal Artillery was tasked with establishing the facility in Canada.

Initially the Toronto instruments were placed near Fort York but magnetism from guns affected the results and a better site was sought. The new campus of the University of Toronto was chosen before it even opened to students. Regular observations began 1 January 1840 at the Fort, but moved to a primitive log cabin on the campus in September 1840. These represent the earliest continuous meteorological records in Canada.

Instruments sent to Toronto included magnetometers, survey instruments and meteorological instruments. Of these only a mercury barometer survives. Researchers measured the direction and intensity of magnetic fields, observed weather patterns, and made astronomical observations for time calibrations. The observatory team used extremely sensitive instruments that were made of completely non-magnetic materials, such as brass. Their observations helped expose the relationship between sunspots and irregular magnetic variations on Earth.

Intended to be a three-year project, the observatory was still functioning in 1850 when Upper Canada began to assume some of the costs. The colony’s government assumed financial responsibility but turned over the operation and administration to the University. With £2000 worth of new instruments, a permanent observatory was established in 1854/55 which was later to become headquarters of the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) founded under Univ. of Toronto professor, George Kingston.

The observatory dome, holding a 6-inch refractor from 1882-1984, provided the first facilities for the University’s Astronomy Department. In the 1880s the observatory participated in the world-wide observations on the transit of Venus and aided in Sir Sanford Fleming’s drive to standardize international time. By the 1890s electrification of Toronto’s street cars interfered with the delicate magnetic observations. The observatory’s equipment was disassembled in 1907.
Canadian Heritage Information Network
Canadian Heritage Information Network, Canada Museum of Science and Technology, Musée de la civilisation, Stewart Museum, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Museum of Health Care at Kingston, University Health Network Artifact Collection, University of Toronto Museum of Scientific Instruments, University of Toronto Museum Studies Program, Suzanne Board, Dr. Randall C. Brooks, Sylvie Toupin, Ana-Laura Baz, Jean-François Gauvin, Betsy Little, Paola Poletto, Dr. James Low, David Kasserra, Kathryn Rumbold, David Pantalony, Dr. Thierry Ruddel, Kim Svendsen

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