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The Dublin telescope makers and the empire: a short history of Grubbs

File:Great Melbourne Telescope 1869.JPG

Great Melbourne Telescope, 1869, available at WikiMedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Melbourne_Telescope_1869.JPG?useland=en-gb) (23 March 2016).

By Adrian James Kirwan

Thomas Grubb was born to the Quakers William Grubb and his wife Eleanor (née Fayle) in 1800. Around 1832 Grubb established a mechanical engineering workshop in Dublin and began constructing modest reflector telescopes for his own use. Through his interest in astronomy he began undertaking various commissions for the erection and construction of telescopes, including a fifteen-inch reflector for the Armagh observatory. In order to mount this large telescope Grubb designed a system of triangle levers to reduce stress on the mirror. A similar system was employed by William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, in the construction of his six-foot reflector, ‘the leviathan’, at Birr Castle in the 1840s. In this early period Grubb’s work was primarily funded by private individuals.

These commissions soon brought him to the attention of scientific figures throughout the United Kingdom, and he was hired to construct telescopes for the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and the University of Glasgow. He also fabricated twenty sets of magnetometers for Professor Humphrey Lloyd’s (Trinity College, Dublin) efforts to establish a network of magnetic observatories throughout the British Empire. These were to further scientific understanding of geo-magnetism and, eventually, thirty-three observatories were set-up throughout the world on the same model as the magnetic observatory based in Trinity College, Dublin.

A great deal of this research was not driven by ‘pure’ scientific interest. The British state, as a maritime nation, was strongly motivated to fund astronomy and the production of star charts. In fact, George Airy, Astronomer Royal, saw the main tasks of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as producing accurate stellar and planetary maps and the regulation of ships chronometers, all essential for navigation. Thus, the successful trajectory of Grubb’s business was, in many ways, firmly tied to wider British Imperial and trading interests. As the nineteenth century progressed the British state was to begin funding ‘pure’ research to a greater extend and this was to provide Grubb with much work.

It was the success of the Rosse telescope, which had gone someway to answering the question of the resolvability of nebulae, that was to prompt calls for a similar telescope to be erected in the southern hemisphere. This was realised in 1869 when a four-foot Grubb reflector was installed in Melbourne. Unfortunately, this telescope was to be a resounding failure, probably due to the inability of staff in Melbourne to polish the mirrors (these had been made using polished metal instead of the silver-on-glass method that was becoming popular). Thomas Grubb was to die in 1878 but the company was to remain in operation under the guidance of his son, Howard, who had taken control in 1868.

Howard Grubb was to remain in charge for fifty-seven years and in this time constructed most of the large telescopes erected across Britain and its empire, including five for the Royal Observatory. In addition, the company also constructed telescopes for a number of others, including a twenty-seven-inch reflector for the University of Vienna, 1881. In this period the majority of Howard’s large instruments were refractors. In the closing years of the nineteenth century the company also began making photographic instruments for astronomical observations. The previous system of human observers sketching their observations had been open to error and encountered difficulties when attempting to draw large and detailed star charts. In 1890 the company delivered seven, of thirteen, such instruments that were used as part of the Carte du ciel (map of the sky) project, the rest were constructed by the Henry brothers of France. (It was on one of these Grubb telescopes that Arthur Eddington was to show the distortion of a star’s position when its light passed near the sun, thus providing the first proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity).

In the twentieth century the company was to put its optical expertise to military use, designing rangefinders, gunsights and the first submarine periscope. This was to tie the fortunes of the company to the state in an even more obvious manner. Due to its increased importance to the war effort, the company transferred to the south of England in 1918. This move was to prove decisive and, with the end of the First World War, Grubb was unable to meet increasing costs. The firm was sold to Charles Parson, the youngest son of the third earl of Rosse, in 1925 and the new firm, ‘Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co.’ was to continue in operation until 1985.

Further reading
Ian Elliott, ‘Grubbs of Dublin: telescope makers to the world’ in Juliana Adelman and Éadaoin Agnew (eds), Science and technology in nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2011), pp 47-62.
Anita McConnell, ‘Scientific instrument makers’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2015), available at (www.oxforddnb.com) (19 Mar. 2016).
John Burnett, ‘Grubb, Thomas, engineer and telescope builder’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2015), available at (www.oxforddnb.com) (19 Mar. 2016).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.



Conference review: the British Society for the History of Science, Swansea University, 2-5 July 2015


Title page of Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Basel, 1566), available at wikimedia commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_revolutionibus_orbium_coelestium.jpg) (23 July 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The conference was, as usual, a highly enjoyable mix of academic sessions, roundtables and keynotes; with a bit of time reserved for some socialising. The conference was opened by Prof. Iwan Morus on the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Swansea in 1848. The first full day of the conference, 2 July, was packed with sessions, with five parallel panels running at simultaneously. These ranged from early-modern science to Darwinism to the development of hearing technologies by the twentieth -century British Post Office.  The day was finished with the awarding of two of the societies prizes the John Pickstone prize 2014 for best scholarly book (awarded to Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis, Patently contestable: electrical technologies and inventor identities on trial in Britain (Cambridge, 2013)) and the Dingle prize for the best book on history of science accessible to a wide audience. The Dingle prize was awarded to Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014). Rudwick’s acceptance speak was a masterclass in the public lecture. He masterfully brought the audience through the evolution of thinking on the age of the earth and the significant impacts this deepening timeframe had on our understanding of not just the earth but also of man’s existence on it and theology. If the book is half as good as the lecture it promises to be well worth the read not just for those with an interest in the history of science but anyone who wants to understand how the natural sciences impacted upon society.

The second full day of the conference brought a plethora of excellent panels on the history of science, technology and medicine. The day included a panel on Science and Religion. This contained perhaps one of the top papers at the conference, Bill Jenkins (University of Edinburgh), ‘Evangelicals and extra-terrestrials: the plurality of worlds debate in Scotland, 1815-55.’ This paper trace the impact of astronomic discovers on Scottish Evangelicals who set out to deal with the possibility of life on other worlds. These evangelicals not only accepted that life existed on other worlds but also engaged in a series of discussions that sought to understand the nature of salvation in an extra-terrestrial context. The paper also explained how these figures combined science and teleology to justify their beliefs.

Perhaps the best panel of the conference was one entitled, ‘the travelling rat, 1850-1950’ which traced the interaction and co-existence of man and his travelling companion, the rat. One very good paper on the co-existences of man and rat, by Kaori Nagai (University of Kent), look at rats as passengers on nineteenth-century ships. The paper highlighted that while rats were considered a problem, they had to be managed rather than destroyed. For example, to stop rats eating into water butts the crew had to ensure that the ships complement of rats were well watered. The highlight of the session was Neil Pemberton’s (University of Manchester) ‘From foreign invader to subterranean fiend: sewer rats, sanitary modernity and Victorian underworlds’. This highly informative and enjoyable paper highlighted the fact that rats enjoyed a status as eaters of waste in sewers and, hence, were deemed important to public health. The paper also looked at the complex relationship between man and rat once it surfaced out of the sewer. By using contemporaneous accounts of rat catchers the paper demonstrated that the relationship between man and rat in the Victorian period was much more complicated than we assume.

The conference reached a crescendo with the Presidential keynote by Greg Radick (University of Leeds). This was based on some fascinating work using the history of biology to produce a genetics course that removes the concentration on Mendel’s famous experiments with peas and inheritance. This allows the student to learn the importance that other factors, such as environment, play, alongside genes, in human development.

Further reading

Further information on the British Society for the History of Science can be found at its website: http://www.bshs.org.

For more information or to purchase Martin J.S. Rudwick’s Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014)  go to: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo19211655.html


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


A short history of the Hubble Space Telescope: 25 years of wonder


Eagle Nebula as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hubble_images_of_nebulae#/media/File:Eagle_nebula_pillars.jpg) (28 April 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

2015 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hubble telescope, named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Astronomers had been well aware that the earth’s atmosphere distorts light coming from stars and nebulae since early in the science’s development. Early astronomers, relying on hand-drawn images to relay their discoveries resorted to multiple observations of astronomical phenomenon in order to produce a reliable image. However this technique could still produce errors, in part due to the observer(s) imaging things they wished were there (or not seeing things that were). This was help by the development of photography in the nineteenth century. It would be many decades before the exposure time was short enough to allow for its use in astronomy but even then this technology had to negotiate with atmospheric interference. Following the Second World War the idea of a space-based telescope began to gain traction. Obviously, such ideas were aided by the development of rockets during that conflict.

Horsehead NebulaHubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)

Horsehead Nebula as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horsehead-Hubble.jpg) (28 April 2015)

First promoted by Lyman Spitzer, such a telescope would not only avoid the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere but also allow for the observation of x-rays, which are blocked by the atmosphere, from distance objects. Spitzer was to go on to head the National Academy of Science’s committee on the Large Space Telescope which held its first meeting in 1966, just three years prior to the first landing on the moon. Thus the genesis of a large space-based telescope must be understood in the context of the space race and, hence, the cold war.

Hubble lauch

Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope#/media/File:Hubble_01.jpg) (28 April 2015)

The task of launching such a telescope into space had been studied by Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space center in the 1960s. Von Braun had been a member of the German rocket society in the 1920s and received his Ph.D. while developing missiles for the German army. As well being famous as one of NASA’s foremost rocket engineers (developing the Saturn rocket) he also led the team’s which constructed the American Jupiter ballistic missile and, during the Second World War, developed the German V-2 rocket. This demonstrates the strong connection between German military rocket engineering and subsequent developments in American military and space rockets.

The feasibility of a large space-based telescope was significantly improved with the development of the Space Shuttle program from the 1960s. This would not only provide a platform with which to launch such a telescope but would also allow for periodic maintenance and repair of the apparatus. In 1971 NASA approved feasibility studies for a large-space telescope. This was followed by attempts to secure federal funding. However, at an estimated cost of $400-$500 million these proved difficult acquire. The only hope for the telescope would be a reduction in price. The substitution of the proposed 3 meter mirror to one measuring 2.4 meters brought the projected cost down to c. $200 million. With this the project secure partial funding from the European Space Research Organisation (now the European Space Agency) in 1975 and the rest of the funds were approved by congress in 1977.

Hubble deployment

Launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, available at Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope#/media/File:1990_s31_IMAX_view_of_HST_release.jpg) (28 April 2014).

The original launch in 1986 was aborted due to the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the telescope would not enter orbit until 1990. Astronomers quickly noticed distortions in the images from the telescope due to a fault in its primary mirror. This was repaired during the telescopes first service mission in 1993 and the telescope has been astonishing the world since. However the faith of the telescope is as tied to the space shuttle program now as it was during its conception. With the end of that program there is no platform available to service Hubble and it will eventually fall into disrepair.

Further reading

A Brief History of the Hubble Space Telescope, available at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA history division (http://history.nasa.gov/hubble/) (24 April 2015).

Dr. Wernher von Braun, available at Marshall Space Flight Center, MSFC History Office (http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html) (24 April 2015).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


George Boole’s life and legacy

George_Boole pic

George Boole, c. 1860, available at Wikimeda Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Boole.jpg?uselang=en-gb) (6 Mar. 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

2015 marks the bicentenary of the birth of George Boole who made significant contributions to a form of mathematics that is essential today for the operation of the internet. Boole was born in 1815 to John Boole (a cobbler) and his wife Mary. Despite the basic education that Boole received he was encouraged by his father, who was active in the local mechanics’ institute, to advance his learning. He would go on to teach himself classical and modern languages; in addition, he took a keen interest in science, particularly optics. Using these skills Boole was to spend his early adulthood teaching in various English schools.

In 1831 Boole began the study of advance mathematics, aided by his friendship with Sir Edward Bromhead (who had studied mathematics at Cambridge). Boole was to excel at mathematics and between 1841 and 1845 was to publish twelve mathematical papers, receiving a Royal Medal of the Royal Society of London for his work.

In 1845 the Colleges (Ireland) Bill was passed providing public funds for the establishment of colleges in Ireland. Boole, encouraged by the future Lord Kelvin, William Thompson, applied for a position as Professor of Mathematics at one of the new institutions. Boole was elected to that position at Queen’s College Cork (now University College Cork, UCC) in 1849. It was here that Boole was to make some of his most significant contributions to mathematics. At the centre of his new study was an attempt to construct a science of logic based on mathematical equations. His 1854 book, An investigation of the laws of thought on which are founded the mathematical theories of logic and probability, was a major contribution to the algebra of logic. This was to form the bases of Boole’s work for the rest of his life. This work was to focus on the differential operators and, thus, had a strong influence on Boole’s contributions to logic.

For his contributions to mathematics Boole was awarded honorary degrees from Dublin, and Oxford Universities; he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857. At the heart of logic is the need to determine whether a statement is true or false, thus, Boole’s attempts to use algebra to solve logical problems produced a binary form of mathematic equation. While contemporaries had a wide range of views on the success and originality of Boole’s work, it was to become famous in the twentieth century when an abstract Boolean algebra was developed and -with its binary bases- was to prove one of the best methods to study digital circuits. Thus when using the advance search function on an internet search engine -otherwise known as the Boolean operators- remember that the computer is using mathematics first developed in the nineteenth century. If one ever needed an argument for the utility and necessarily of blue-sky research this is surely one of them.

UCC are having a series of events to mark the bicentenary of Boole’s birth and his contributions to mathematics, more information can be found at the website George Boole (http://georgeboole.com/).

Further reading

Grattan-Guinness, ‘Boole, George (1815–1864)’, in Lawrence Goldman (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), available at (www.oxforddnb.com) (6 March)

Roderick Gow, ‘George Boole’ in James McGuire, James Quinn (eds), The Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, 2009), available at (dib.cambridge.org) (6 Mar. 2015).


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.



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