The history of Canadian astronomy began when the first European explorers used astronomical observations to guide them over the ocean and to navigate our waterways.

John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland in 1497, and Jacques Cartier, who explored further inland by way of the Saint-Lawrence River in 1534, were undoubtedly the first explorers that used astronomical instruments to locate the landmass now known as Canada.

It was in 1603, with the arrival of Samuel de Champlain, that the roots of astronomy really took hold in Canada. In 1608, de Champlain founded Quebec City and would go on to become the first governor of New France. Under his rule, explorers had to maintain records of the places they visited, and these often included a determination of the location’s latitude for which they would have required the use of astronomical instruments (longitude was rarely recorded because the Title page of one of the Jesuit reports known in French as Relations.methods of the time were unreliable).

It was also during the Champlain era that French missionaries, the Jesuits, first set foot on Canadian soil in 1604. By 1618, they had begun to record astr Read More
The history of Canadian astronomy began when the first European explorers used astronomical observations to guide them over the ocean and to navigate our waterways.

John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland in 1497, and Jacques Cartier, who explored further inland by way of the Saint-Lawrence River in 1534, were undoubtedly the first explorers that used astronomical instruments to locate the landmass now known as Canada.

It was in 1603, with the arrival of Samuel de Champlain, that the roots of astronomy really took hold in Canada. In 1608, de Champlain founded Quebec City and would go on to become the first governor of New France. Under his rule, explorers had to maintain records of the places they visited, and these often included a determination of the location’s latitude for which they would have required the use of astronomical instruments (longitude was rarely recorded because the Title page of one of the Jesuit reports known in French as Relations.methods of the time were unreliable).

It was also during the Champlain era that French missionaries, the Jesuits, first set foot on Canadian soil in 1604. By 1618, they had begun to record astronomical observations (most notably about comets and eclipses) and included them in the reports sent back to France (titled Relations in French).

In 1634, astronomy officially became a part of the tasks assigned to Jean Bourdon, the Engineer-in-Chief and Land Surveyor for the New France colony in Quebec. He was the first Canadian to own a telescope, a gift from the Jesuits in 1646, and was likely the first person in Canada to teach astronomy, as it would almost certainly have been a topic in the hydrography courses he gave at the College of Quebec in the 1630’s.

During the time of the early settlers, the function of astronomy was primarily practical. It was the science of colonization par excellence, used to draw up accurate geographic maps and to tell time precisely.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Painting of Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain.

Library and Archives Canada/Credit: Théophile Hamel/C-014305

© Library and Archives Canada/Credit: Théophile Hamel/C-014305


Colour photo of the yellowing title page of the Jesuit report Relation

Relation de ce qvi s'est passé en la Novvelle France, en l'année 1634 : enuoyée au R. Pere provincial de la Compagnie de Iesvs en la prouince de France p. Paul le Ieune de la mesme compagnie, superieur de la residence de Kebec -- A Paris : Chez Sebastien Cramoisy ..., 1635. -

ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

18 cm
© ASTROLab/Mont-Mégantic National Park


It is difficult to confirm with certainty the very first astronomical observatory in Canada. The Jesuit priest Joseph-Pierre de Bonnécamps, who taught at the College of Quebec from 1750 to 1759, had obtained a number of astronomical instruments with the intention of constructing an observatory on the college roof. Although there is no official record of such a structure ever existing, it would have been the oldest observatory in North America if it had.

Bonnécamps left Canada in 1759 not long before the fall of Quebec at the hands of the British, and he never returned. The British closed the College of Quebec and the teaching tasks were transferred to the Seminary of Quebec across the street. There is mention of an “observation chamber” in the Seminary archives of 1770, which may be a reference to the existence of an astronomical observatory.

Portrait of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesbarresEvidence for another early observatory can be found in a wood engraving from a book by the Marquis de Chabert de Cogolin that dates from the time he was at the Fortress of Louisbourg (1750-1751). The engraving shows the image of sky observers outdoors with an astro Read More
It is difficult to confirm with certainty the very first astronomical observatory in Canada. The Jesuit priest Joseph-Pierre de Bonnécamps, who taught at the College of Quebec from 1750 to 1759, had obtained a number of astronomical instruments with the intention of constructing an observatory on the college roof. Although there is no official record of such a structure ever existing, it would have been the oldest observatory in North America if it had.

Bonnécamps left Canada in 1759 not long before the fall of Quebec at the hands of the British, and he never returned. The British closed the College of Quebec and the teaching tasks were transferred to the Seminary of Quebec across the street. There is mention of an “observation chamber” in the Seminary archives of 1770, which may be a reference to the existence of an astronomical observatory.

Portrait of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesbarresEvidence for another early observatory can be found in a wood engraving from a book by the Marquis de Chabert de Cogolin that dates from the time he was at the Fortress of Louisbourg (1750-1751). The engraving shows the image of sky observers outdoors with an astronomical instrument. Chabert owned several such instruments and it is likely that a temporary observatory existed for a short time in the fortress.

The first North American observatory that existed with historical certainty was at Castle Frederick, the estate founded by Joseph DesBarres at Falmouth, Nova Scotia, in 1765.

Later records describe an observatory on Quebec’s Île Jésus (now “Laval”) that was established by Dr. Charles Smallwood de Saint-Martin. Historical evidence suggests that it was already in existence by 1846.

There is also evidence that in 1849, Dr. James Toldervy of Fredericton, New Brunswick, created an observatory in his garden near the Saint John River.

A year later, in 1850, the Quebec City Observatory was established on the Plains of Abraham. Built in such a way as to be visible from the port and the Saint Lawrence River, the structure included a large ball that signalled midday when it dropped.

The Cliff Street astronomical observatory.Historical records report the establishment of seven other major observatories from 1850 to the end of the century. They are:
  1. Kingston Observatory in London, Ontario: est. 1856
  2. King College Observatory in Windsor, Nova Scotia: est. 1862
  3. McGill University Observatory in Montreal, Quebec: est. 1863
  4. Charles Blackman Observatory in Montreal, Quebec: est. 1873
  5. Woodstock College Observatory in Hamilton, Ontario: est. 1879
  6. Victoria College Observatory in Cobourg, Ontario: est. pre-1882
  7. An observatory on Cliff Street in Ottawa, Ontario: est. 1890; constructed by astronomers W.F. King, E.G. Deville and O.J. Klotz

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Painting of Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres sitting in a chair reading a book

Portrait of Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, credited to James Peachey, ca. 1785.

James Peachey
Library and Archives Canada/DesBarres collection
1785
C-135130
© Library and Archives Canada


Black and white photo of the Cliff Street astronomical observatory

The Cliff Street astronomical observatory.

Musée Canadien de la Science et de la Technologie/Observatoire Fédéral

© Musée Canadien de la Science et de la Technologie/Observatoire Fédéral


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify recent contributions, including Canada’s, to the development of space exploration technologies;
  • describe in detail the function of Canadian technologies involved in exploration of space;
  • draw a solar system with all its components;
  • establish the link between atoms and light using different instruments.

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