Astronomy Teaching Instruments

Until around 1880, the history of astronomy and observatories at Canadian universities is often linked with military or governmental astronomical activities. This is because astronomy had very practical uses in determining time and location. Surveys, mapmaking, navigation, and time-keeping were all of practical military and civic interest.

In the case of the Kingston Observatory, as with the Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, an observatory was situated at the university campus, though it was funded and/or operated by the government or the military. Eventually, the university took over operation of the observatory, using it to satisfy teaching needs, as well as the practical needs of the public.

The Kingston Observatory was built by the City of Kingston in 1855. In 1855 the Observatory had few instruments, but this equatorial telescope with a 6 1/4-inch lens was ordered from Alvan Clark, the best lens maker in America at the time.

In 1861, the City transferred the building and equipment to Queen’s University, on condition that the observatory continue to provide several public services, including weekly corrections to the City Hall clock, and publishing daily barometric and temperature readings.

Nathanial Fellowes Dupuis is a prominent figure in the history of the Observatory at Queen’s. As an undergraduate in 1863, he was employed as assistant observer at the Observatory. He would later become Dean of the Faculty of Practical Sciences.

Dupuis was a skilled craftsperson and, when a new instrument was needed at the Observatory, he often just built it himself. He furnished the Alvan Clark telescope with a micrometer, and he built several clocks of remarkable accuracy (essential components of any observatory). He also constructed instruments for teaching, including orreries (physical models of the movement of planets), geometrical models, and a wave motion demonstrator.

This wooden clock was one of several built by Dupuis. The nine dials indicate mean time; sidereal time; the equation of time; the day of the month; the time of the Sun’s rising and setting; the Sun’s declination; the Sun’s longitude; the phases of the Moon; and the position of the planets on the ecliptic.

These geared slides were used in astronomy classes to illustrate celestial movements. The slide was projected onto a screen, and with a turn of the crank, the gears moved the image to simulate the movements of the planets and stars.

Instruments used in teaching astronomy were found in the laboratory as well as the observatory. Gyroscopes were used to model the rotation of the Earth. As the knob spins inside a frame, the angle of its axis of rotation gradually changes (it teeters back and forth as it spins, much like a spinning top). This phenomenon (the "precession" of the axis) accounts for the apparent gradual shift in the stars positioned above the Earth’s poles. This double gyroscope from the University of Toronto was likely used to challenge students to give a mathematical description of the movements of its parts.
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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