King's College London
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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Astronomical observations

Colour illustration showing (on top) the arc of light of an aurora borealis and (below) an aurora with an arc of bright darting rays, both depicted in the night sky above the horizon.An aurora borealis observed on 6 August 1871 and an aurora observed at 11pm on 21 August 1871.This 14th part of a multi-volume set records the observations and data collected at the Edinburgh Royal Observatory. Increases in telescopic power and the invention of the spectroscope (an instrument for measuring the properties of light) saw the study of astronomy develop rapidly in the 19th century.

Scientists, through the study of electromagnetism, waves and radiation, laid the foundations of modern astrophysics, and extensive statistical charts in this work record positions of stars and their properties, air temperatures and data relating to objects’ magnitudes.

As in other fields of science at this time, the development of technology to aid enquiry meant that the foundations of 20th century scientific advancement were being laid down.

The data collected in research such as this would eventually inform the physical exploration of space, which powers other than Britain would contest, through the vehicles of rockets, shuttles and moon buggies.

The plate on show here shows an image of the aurora borealis viewed from the old building of the Edinburgh Royal Observatory. A bookplate records that the item was presented to King’s by the Observatory in 1877.

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