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The Browning 8-inch Reflecting Telescope (1871)

The 1871 telescope was probably taken by Lockyer on his 1871 eclipse expedition to India as it had been delivered to him only weeks before he set out. The instrument is similar to one held by the Science Museum and was at the time obtainable by mail order. 

On entering the Observatory by the main door, the first thing that greets you is a Browning 8-inch reflecting telescope. Rather like old aeroplanes used as "gate guardians" at airports, now the telescope is an exhibition piece to greet visitors at the front door, but it is fully restored and capable of being trundled outside and put to proper use. Sadly, it is incredibly heavy for its size, unstable and, being an alt-azimuth instrument, it is very difficult for visitors to use.

The 240 mm. (9 in) Newtonian reflector has a focal length of 1.8 m giving a focal ratio of f/7.5. It was made for Sir Norman Lockyer by Browning in 1870 and was brought to this observatory in 1912. The cast-iron alt-azimuth mounting is original and gives a manual adjustment in both axes. There is doubt about the triangular wooden base but there is another Browning instrument similarly mounted in the Science Museum Astronomy Collection. The present wooden base was built or repaired, at Paignton in about 1962. There is little record of it being made into a useful instrument at that time. It returned to the Norman Lockyer Observatory in 1993, where John Pope (our telescope engineer) and Jack Wickings (Chairman and "do it all") set about refurbishing it. The University of Exeter helpfully re-aluminised the mirror. Now it looks as ferocious as ever in its present British racing green livery and tricycle gun carriage, but is quite capable of being used for its proper purpose.

However, the instrument is top heavy and needs weighting or anchoring at the base if safety is to be maintained. The manual controls are awkward, but otherwise it is quite a good instrument for visual observing. The cumbersome nature of the instrument makes it very difficult to use for astro-photography. The instrument is primitive by the standards of only twenty years later. Clearly, we have reservations about its safety if the visiting public were to lean heavily on the instrument in the dark. In the exhibition hall minor modifications have had to be made in the interests of safety, but these are easily removable.

John Browning had a flourishing scientific instrument business at 68, The Strand, London, throughout the mid-nineteenth century. He specialised in spectroscopes and made several instruments for Lockyer. Indeed, Lockyer used a spectroscope by Browning for his first observations of a prominence on the un-obscured Sun in 1868. During the late 1860s Browning collaborated with With of Hereford, who had developed a notable skill at grinding and polishing large reflecting mirrors. Interest in astronomy was growing rapidly towards the end of the nineteenth century. Nothing inhibited the amateur from playing an active part in real discovery. Many wealthy people were buying telescopes for garden observatories. With's mirrors were of very high quality and Browning sought to provide a cheap and affordable mounting for them. Both alt-azimuth and equatorial mountings were offered.

There is no certainty that Lockyer took the telescope on his 1871 expedition to India to view eclipses. An etching in a text about the expedition shows an instrument very much like it, but suspended from a mount reminiscent of a four poster bed. It is difficult to believe that he would leave it behind if he had acquired it only months before.

There is a nice story of the expedition that almost confirms it. Lockyer's expedition had been delivered to the chosen site on the track of the eclipse by the Royal Navy. This was despite the abortive expedition in Sicily the previous year, when one of the naval ships had gone aground and the weather was bad, yet again the Navy took part. The sailors carried the equipment ashore and set it up on a disused fort. Rumour among the natives spread that a war must have started as the fort was being garrisoned. Then cannon appeared over the parapet and rumour turned to certainty. Danger was immanent and an attack was expected at any moment. Wives, gold and goats were packed off to the safety of the hills. When told that there was to be an eclipse, it was the worst of all ill omens. Gods must be placated! Sacrifices must be made! The natives duly set fire to the crops filling the sky with smoke just at the crucial time.

Fortunately a slight breeze sprang up and the smoke went the other way giving Lockyer and his expedition a clear view of the eclipse. Well take a look at the Browning - anyone would take it for some dreadful piece of ordnance. Surely this must have been cause of the furore.


Copyright Norman Lockyer Observatory   January 2008

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