Astronomy has been taught at the University of Edinburgh since its foundation in 1583. James Gregory (1638-75) and Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746) both held the Chair of Mathematics. Maclaurin had telescopes mounted on the flat roof of the University Library for his students and in 1792 a small observatory was opened on Calton Hill.

The Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, founded in 1811, later campaigned for an improved observatory on the site. Then in 1822, during his visit to Edinburgh, George IV granted the observatory a Royal Charter. The first Royal Observatory in Edinburgh opened in 1824.

… a renowned city should not any longer lack the facilities for the pursuit of the fairest and grandest of sciences...
- Royal Observatory

In 1888 the Earl of Crawford (1847-1913), declared that he would present his instruments and astronomical library to the nation if the Government would build a new Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Astronomy could no longer be pursued from Calton Hill because of the smog from Edinburgh’s coal fires. Therefore a new site was found on Blackford Hill and the new Royal Observatory, which is still on the site today, opened in 1896.

By the 20th mid-century Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory was among those at the cutting edge of the instruments of world astronomy and the young science of astrophysics. During the 1970s and 80s the Observatory was responsible for the creation and operation of the UK Schmidt Telescope in Australia, the UK Infrared Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, both in Hawaii. During the 1990s, it was decided to run the overseas observatories independently.

 

Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill

Astronomy today

Today Edinburgh is still at the forefront of world astronomy. The site at Blackford Hill is now owned by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The Royal Observatory is home to the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), the Institute for Astronomy of the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Edinburgh, and the Royal Observatory Visitor Centre.

The UK ATC is the national centre for astronomical technology. They design and build instruments for many of the world's major telescopes, including MIRI (Mid Infra Red Instrument) being built for the 6.3m diameter James Webb Space Telescope, launch date October 2018.

Their scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into fundamental questions such as the origins of planets and of galaxies.

Visit the adjacent Earth in Space gallery on Level 1 to see some more of our earliest telescopes on display.

Header image: Royal Observatory, Calton Hill, frontispiece to Astronomical Observations (1842).

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