As the telescope turns 400, a toast to India’s first spy glass

Updated on Sep 26, 2008 04:09 PM IST

As the world celebrates the 400th birth anniversary of the telescope, a pillar in Nungambakkam, Chennai, believed to be part of the first observatory built outside Europe bears the sole testimony of the key astronomical instrument’s entry into India in 1786.

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PTI | By, Tiruchirapalli

As the world celebrates the 400th birth anniversary of the telescope, a pillar in Nungambakkam, Chennai, believed to be part of the first observatory built outside Europe bears the sole testimony of the key astronomical instrument’s entry into India in 1786.

The ‘spy glass’, as the telescope is otherwise known, entered the subcontinent when a British official gifted it to Mughal emperor Jahangir (1605-1627). It, however, failed to get the attention of Jahangir and remained an object of curiosity. Regular use of the telescope in India had to wait till the arrival of William Price, an official of the British East India Company in Madras in 1786, who built a private observatory.

It was later taken over by his company, which built the first full-fledged observatory outside Europe on the banks of the Cooum river in Nungambakkam which served local astronomers for over a century. The observatory building disappeared along with time, but the pillar announcing the “planting” of mathematical sciences by the British still remains.

“Posterity may be informed more than 1000 years hence of the period when the mathematical sciences were first planted by the British liberality in Asia”, it said, perhaps unaware of the great contributions of the great Indian astronomer Aryabhatta, 1,000 years before Copernicus.

A new telescope was installed in Madras in 1850, using which, one of the directors of the observatory, Norman Robert Pogson, discovered six variable stars and as many asteroids.

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