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Of astronomical significance


MAN'S INTEREST in the geophysical sciences led to the establishment of a number of observatories in several parts of the world in the 19th Century. The Madras Observatory, first astronomical observatory in the country to be equipped with a telescope, was established in 1792 by the East India Company to "promote the knowledge of astronomy, geography and navigation." The then Governor of Madras, Charles Oakley, was keenly interested in astronomy and began constructing the observatory even without obtaining the nod from the Government of London. Oakley was aided in his work by the munificence of a member of the Madras Government, William Petris, who in 1788 built and equipped an astronomical observatory at his own expense, probably the first modern astronomical observatory of its kind in the East. On his return to England in 1789 he handed over the observatory with all its instruments to the Madras Government. This formed the nucleus of the Madras Observatory.

The granite pillar, which carried the original transit instruments, is still preserved in Chennai as a monument. The pillar bears inscriptions in Latin, Tamil and Telugu as also the name of its architect, Michael Topping. Close to it is a standard benchmark which William Lambton used in the course of his Great Trigonometric Survey of India. The first astronomer of the observatory was Michael Topping, who served till 1794 when J. Goldingham F. R.S. took over.

The earliest meteorological observations at the Madras Observatory are known to have been made in September 1793 by Goldingham and recorded in a manuscript volume, preserved since at the Kodaikanal Observatory. Goldingham prepared a meteorological register in 1796. A series of observations recorded from that date onwards exists still, though only part of the data has been published.

Thomas Glanville Taylor F. R.S. succeeded Goldingham in 1830 and remained government astronomer till 1848. He equipped the observatory with new and more powerful instruments and compiled a catalogue of 11,000 stars, which was published in 1844. Hourly meteorological and magnetic observations were first made in 1840 by Captain S.O.E. Ludlow. From 1849 to 1861 Captain W.S. Jacob, Major W.K. Worster and General J.F. Tennant successively held the post of astronomer and N. R. Pogson held the post of Meteorological Reporter to the Government of Madras for the next 30 years.

After 1861, the observatory acquired more modern precision instruments, chief among them being a transit circle and an 8 inch equatorial. During Pogson's tenure the transit circle was used for the preparation of a catalogue of 5000 stars, each of which was observed at least five times. With the equatorial, Pogson discovered six minor planets and seven variable stars. He died in 1891 and the work on his catalogue of variable stars was completed by his successor, Michie Smith, who remained Government Astronomer in Madras till 1899.

The stone for the solar observatory at Kodaikanal was laid by Lord Wenlock, Governor of Madras, in 1895 and Michie Smith took up residence at Kodaikanal to supervise the construction work. The scheme for the reorganisation of Indian observatories was launched on April 1, 1899. It was also on this date that the Madras Observatory was transferred from the Government of Madras to the Government of India and the former Government Astronomer became Director of the Kodaikanal and Madras Observatories. The astronomical work of the Madras Observatory came to an end, except for transit observations for determining time.

In 1899 Mr. R. Lt. Jones, Professor of Physics, Presidency College, Madras, was appointed part-time Meteorologist of the Madras Observatory. In 1919 he retired and in 1921 Dr. S.R.U. Savur, also of Presidency College took charge. The post was abolished in 1926 and a full-time Assistant Meteorologist appointed. The Madras Observatory survived till the retrenchment of 1930 when it was reduced to the status of an ordinary pilot balloon station. Until then the observatory was supporting the time signal throughout the Indian Telegraph System and issuing the Madras daily weather report (which commenced in October 1893).

With the rapid expansion of the Meteorological Department during World War II, the technical and administrative control of various meteorological observatories was decentralised by forming different meteorological regions. The Regional Meteorological Centre, Madras, was set up in April 1945 with Dr. S. R. Savur as Director for the organisation in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madras, Mysore and Laccadives (Lakshadweep). During the war as the observatory area was under the control of the military, the Regional Meteorological Centre was located in a rented building there. After April 1948 the Regional Meteorological Centre moved to its present site.

The Madras Meteorological Observatory is the first to be established in India and has rainfall records dating back to more than a century.

Only a few countries in the world have such extensive records.

The contribution of both the astronomical and meteorological wings of the Madras Observatory to the progress of science in the country is indeed laudable.

R. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

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