Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/January 1880/The Most Powerful Telescope in Existence


By E. NEISON, F. R. A. S.

WHICH is the most powerful telescope in existence? Define the meaning which ought to be attached to the adjective "powerful" in this question. The most powerful telescope in existence is that existing telescope which can do the most work. The work of a telescope may be said to be to enable you to see and to enable you to measure. Therefore, that telescope with which you can see most and can measure best is that which can do the most work, and is unquestionably the most powerful telescope in existence.

Which is the most powerful telescope in existence?

Every one has heard of the two giant telescopes which were constructed nearly forty years ago by the late Lord Rosse, and which were erected at his residence at Parsonstown, about fifty miles from Dublin. The first great telescope constructed by Lord Rosse was a reflecting telescope with a speculum three feet in diameter and twenty-six feet in focal length. It was carried in a ponderous tube moving in a massive iron mounting by means of ingenious machinery. When it was finished in the year 1840 it was considered the grandest instrument in existence, and from its employment in the study of the heavens enormous advantages were expected to be gained for astronomy. Scarcely, however, was this telescope out of the hands of its maker, than Lord Rosse resolved to construct a second telescope of still larger dimensions. With enormous skill, patience, and ingenuity Lord Rosse carried out this intention, and by the year 1846 had finished his second grand telescope, the instrument commonly known as "Lord Rosse's Telescope." It has, a metal speculum six feet in diameter and fifty-four feet in focal length. This enormous mirror, which weighs nearly four tons, is placed in a great tube eight feet in diameter and fifty feet in length, and this tube is carried by a massive iron mounting supported by two lofty castellated buildings, each nearly sixty feet in height. The weight of the telescope and its mountings is enormous. By ingenious methods the observer who is using the telescope is placed in a kind of cage, suspended in the air from the mounting of the telescope, and carried up and down along with the instrument.

To this day this giant telescope of Lord Rosse's retains its position as the greatest telescope in existence. In its enormous size it has still no rival, in its massiveness and weight it is long likely to retain its preeminence.

Which is the most powerful telescope in existence?

Lord Rosse's giant telescope, of course, will be the answer of most people; it will be the answer of the great majority of scientific men; it would be almost the unanimous answer of the British Association, of that Section A which is supposed to keep the world informed of the great achievements of astronomy and of optics.

Is this the true answer? No.

To most people, to most scientific men, this answer will come like a shock, for to them it has long been a cherished tradition, an article of faith, almost an axiom, that Lord Rosse's giant telescope was the most powerful telescope in existence. To those astronomers who are observers, astronomers not star-gazers, it is well known that for years this giant telescope of Lord Rosse's has been beaten in power by far smaller and more compact rivals. In fact, it is doubtful whether in real power it is much superior to its smaller companion, the three-foot telescope.

There are many who judge a telescope by its size alone, who compute its excellence by aid of a two-foot rule, and a knowledge of its cost in pounds. With them a telescope with a metallic speculum weighing four tons and measuring six feet in diameter, with a tube fifty feet long, and costing a thousand pounds, ought to give so much light, have such and such separating power, and show this or that object. It is true with small telescopes a great deal may be done in this way, but experienced observers know that the real power of a telescope an only be ascertained by a study of what it has done. Tried by this test, the giant telescope of Lord Rosse breaks down. It has not the accuracy of definition which constitutes the real power of a telescope, for it is mainly upon this that depends its capability for doing work. Compared with the metal specula which were made at the time when Lord Rosse's telescope was constructed, the great speculum of Lord Rosse's instrument might come out with credit. But great improvements have since then been introduced into the manufacture of reflecting telescopes, and the present silver-on-glass reflecting telescopes successfully rival the finest achromatic telescope in definition and in power.

In days gone by repeated reference was made to the wonderful things which could be seen upon the surface of the moon with these two giant telescopes of Lord Rosse's. Picturesque descriptions were given of the minute features which were visible; amazement was often expressed at the small objects which could be seen. Still more interesting accounts were given of what ought to be visible—a carpet of pronounced pattern as big as Lincoln's Inn Fields, the Castle at Dublin, the Court-house at Cork, a house, or even a man, provided he were big enough. All these ought to be seen if they happened to be on the lower surface. Yet when we come to consider what it really is which is described as being seen, when we calmly examine the various drawings which have been made by the aid of one or the other of these great telescopes, then we find that they show nothing which can not be distinctly seen and drawn by the smallest astronomical telescope of high excellence. An enormous blaze of light is gathered by the telescopes, but all this light reveals nothing which can not be seen with far greater ease in a far smaller telescope. There are in existence a number of drawings of the planets, and observations of their satellites; there are also observations of close double stars, or faint companions to bright stars, all made with one or the other of these two telescopes. Yet nothing has been seen which is beyond the power of a good astronomical telescope of comparatively moderate aperture. It is only in observing the dull, ill-defined nebulæ that Lord Rosse's great telescope has any exceptional advantage, though even in this respect it is probably much overrated. As an astronomical telescope either of Lord Rosse's telescopes would be fairly beaten by either of the fine eighteen inch reflectors which are now in existence.

If, then, Lord Rosse's great telescope is not the most powerful in existence, what answer is to be given to the question with which we commenced? Which is the most powerful telescope in existence? There are the great refractors of Poltava and of Cambridge, United States, each of fifteen inches in diameter and twenty-three feet in focal length. There is the still larger refractor of Chicago, with an aperture of eighteen inches and a focal length of twenty-three feet. All these instruments are of high excellence in defining power, the essential point where Lord Rosse's breaks down. There is the reflector of Mr. Russels, with its metal speculum of two feet in diameter and its tube twenty feet in length. There is the great Melbourne reflector, with its great metal speculum of forty-eight inches in diameter, the second largest telescope in the world, but by no means so sharp in definition as might be desired, so that it failed to reveal the satellites of Mars which were seen with an instrument of not one sixth the diameter in Europe.

There is also the great reflector of the Paris Observatory, with a silver-on-glass speculum nearly four feet in diameter, an instrument whose power is seriously injured by the imperfect definition arising from the flexure of its thin speculum. There is also the large refractor constructed for Mr. Newall, of Gateshead, with an object-glass twenty-five inches in diameter mounted in a tube nearly thirty feet in length.

But all these instruments must yield the palm to the great refractor of the United States Naval Observatory at Washington, a splendid instrument, with an object-glass twenty-six inches in clear aperture and thirty-three feet in focal length. This magnificent instrument is equatorially mounted and driven by clockwork, so that it is complete as an astronomical telescope. The Washington refractor is, however, not merely a telescope of great dimensions; like more than one of those previously mentioned, it is an instrument of high optical excellence. Its definition is crisp and sharp, and it brings every ray of the enormous amount of light which it collects to a sharp focus as a very minute point, so that none is wasted. It was with this fine telescope that Professor Asaph Hall made his famous discovery of the satellites of Mars, that Mr. Burnham discovered a number of the most minute companions to the brighter stars, and that Professors Newcomb, Holden, and Hall have observed and measured the smallest satellites of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It is this magnificent instrument which is supposed by most astronomers to be the most powerful telescope in existence. Then our answer to the question with which we have commenced ought to be—the great refractor of the Washington Observatory. No!

Then which is the most powerful telescope in existence?

The most powerful telescope in existence is the magnificent new reflecting telescope which has been just finished by Mr. A. Ainslie Common, and is erected at his residence at Ealing. This telescope has a silver-on-glass speculum, thirty-seven and a half inches in diameter, and a focal length of just over twenty feet. It is equatorially mounted in a novel but most efficacious manner, and is driven by a powerful clock controlled in an ingenious manner by a method invented by Mr. Common. This new telescope, which has only been finished about a month, has turned out a great success, and is unquestionably the finest and most powerful telescope in existence.

For the last three years Mr. Common has had in his observatory a fine silver-on-glass reflector, with an aperture of eighteen inches and a focal length of nearly ten feet. This telescope was mounted by him on an equatorial stand of his own design, on what is known as the "Sissons" principle. For efficiency, power, and excellence this eighteen-inch reflector is as yet without a rival in England, and was only beaten, perhaps, by the great refractor of the Washington Observatory. With this instrument were made a number of observations of the faint satellites of Saturn and Uranus, which rendered the Ealing Observatory a familiar name to all astronomers. When, in 1877, the astronomical world was electrified by the announcement of Professor Asaph Hall's discovery of the two satellites of Mars, it was to Ealing that astronomers looked for systematic observations of these faint objects, and it was from Ealing Observatory that came the only systematic series of measures of these objects which has been furnished by England. Astronomers may congratulate themselves, therefore, upon this new telescope being in good hands, and in an observatory where it will not be allowed to rust in idleness like so many of the finest instruments in England.

Satisfied from the performance of his eighteen-inch Newtonian reflector that it would be possible to successfully construct much larger instruments of this kind, it seems to have been about two years ago that Mr. Common first seriously thought of constructing a very large reflecting telescope with a silver-on-glass speculum. It was obvious that this would be a serious undertaking, and one which would require much thought and ingenuity to carry it out successfully. Many difficulties would require to be boldly faced and successfully overcome. The expense alone would have been sufficient to deter most men. Experience, skill, courage, perseverance, money—all would be required if success was to be won.

It was decided to first undertake the manufacture of a telescope with an aperture of thirty-seven and a half inches and a focal length of about eighteen or twenty feet. This was a much shorter focus than had usually been thought essential for an instrument of this large aperture. Generally instruments of this kind are made with a focal length of from nine to ten times their diameter. This would correspond to about thirty feet focus for a speculum of the given size. The fine performance of his eighteen-inch telescope had convinced Mr. Common that it was not necessary to give a greater focal length than fifteen or sixteen feet. But there were two conflicting interests to be reconciled. The shorter the instrument the easier it would be to mount, and the easier to observe with; but, on the other hand, the longer the focus the better it would be for taking photographs of the heavenly bodies, and this last was one of the main uses that the new telescope was intended for. With the view of best reconciling these two views the instrument was designed with a focus of some twenty feet.

The very first step to be taken was to undertake the manufacture of the glass speculum, and here at the outset an enormous difficulty presented itself. To make a speculum of the required dimensions it was necessary to have a disk of good crown glass about thirty-eight inches in diameter and from six to nine inches in thickness. Well, purchase such a disk; or rather, as it was not likely that such a thing could be bought ready-made, why order one. This seems feasible enough. But there was not a firm in England who would undertake to make such a thing. In fact, at the time, the opinion was freely expressed that such a thing could not be made. This was a serious obstacle, for nearly all the glass used for optical purposes came from England. Determined not to be baffled, Mr. Common applied to a French firm, and they produced the disk of glass which was essential before a single step could be taken. The first difficulty was faced and overcome.

After mature consideration the grinding and polishing of the speculum into which this glass disk was to be turned was intrusted to Mr. G. Calver, of Widford, a well-known maker of glass specula. From its enormous size, over twice as large and ten times as heavy as any speculum which had ever been manufactured before, it was necessary to construct new and more powerful machinery and even a new building. Nothing daunted, however, Mr. Calver agreed to do his best to turn this great mass of glass into an excellent speculum, though of course he could not guarantee anything, the entire risk necessarily remaining with Mr. Common.

This settled, the greater portion of the task remained to be faced. Given a speculum of the specified size, how was it to be mounted, and how was it to be used? 1. The glass speculum must be mounted with such care that, despite its enormous weight, it must nowhere bend by as much as one ten-thousandth of an inch. 2. The glass speculum and the iron cell which supports it must be fastened at the end of a tube some twenty feet in length, and this tube must be supported by an elaborate mounting by which it can be pointed to any desired part of the heavens, and moved by clockwork so as to follow the apparent motion of the celestial bodies. 3. Arrangements must be made so that an observer can always use the telescope, and be enabled to look through the eye-piece of the telescope whatever position it may be in—no slight task, seeing that the said eye-piece must in some positions of the instrument be over twenty feet from the ground. Lastly, the telescope must have an observatory which will shield it from the weather, and yet permit any part of the heavens to be examined with the telescope.

When the instrument has a metallic speculum, like the large reflecting telescopes of Lord Rosse and Mr. Lassells, and that at Melbourne, it is much easier to satisfy the first condition than when the speculum is made of glass; for it is possible to cast the speculum with grooves, projections, and recesses in its back, by means of which the task of supporting it is much simplified. With a glass speculum it is not practicable to have these aids, so that the back of the speculum is cast quite flat, and usually rests on a flat plate of metal. By an ingenious method of balanced arms Mr. Common has contrived to support the speculum so that it is perfectly free from flexure. Thus the first point was secured.

The second point, or the method by which the telescope should be mounted, was a problem which required long and serious consideration. Mr. Common devised a new and most ingenious method, which, after long consideration, he thought would furnish a means of steadily supporting the telescope. In this steadiness is most essential, the slightest vibration, vibrations absolutely invisible to the eye, would ruin the performance of a telescope. The weight of the moving part of the telescope amounts probably to four or five tons, and this has to be kept in motion by a clock, yet it must not be liable to the least tremor or vibration. The difficulty of the problem is evident. His plan of a mounting was submitted by Mr. Common, for criticism, to several well-known astronomers, who might be supposed competent to advise on this subject. As might have been expected, very diverse opinions were expressed; at most, one seemed to decidedly favor the plan, others seemed doubtful, and more than one were decidedly adverse. The result was, to leave that matter much as it stood at first, so that Mr. Common decided to persevere in his original design. The success which has crowned his labors shows that he was correct in his judgment. It would be impossible to describe the method of mounting employed without the aid of several detailed drawings, but reference may be made to one ingenious point. As in all equatorial mountings, nearly the entire weight of the moving part of the telescope (in the present telescope five tons) rests on the bottom pivot of the polar axis. This pivot, therefore, is exposed to enormous friction, and is a common cause of vibration. To obviate this, Mr. Common, by an ingenious arrangement, supports the whole polar axis in mercury, thus taking off nearly the entire friction, and the whole instrument moves as if it were floating. By this means he is enabled to drive the whole telescope with an ordinary train of clockwork, regulated by the governor, which he had invented for his smaller telescope.

The last two points specified above are obtained by making the observatory itself the ladder by which you approach the eye-end of the telescope, and the whole observatory revolves on iron wheels running on a circular railway. By means of a wheel on your left, you can raise or lower yourself at pleasure, and observe with the telescope in any position. The whole observatory only requires moving about once in two hours, and can be moved with ease by one hand.

Within a year of its being begun, the telescope was rapidly approaching its completion. The great speculum had been brought to the right shape, and was partially polished, and every day the announcement was expected that it was completed, or at least only required the final finishing touches. Suddenly a telegram arrived—an ominous thing. Was it to announce an imperfect figure? This would be a most annoying thing, for it would require the whole to be reground and repolished. But no, it was very brief, but it announced a terrible misfortune. It was a pressing request to come down at once. The whole speculum had hurst into a thousand pieces.

It was a terrible blow, for it was the very misfortune which had been prognosticated by the English manufacturers and by the greater number of astronomers, including those who had had much experience in the construction and use of specula. The explosion had been terrific. The whole workshop was covered with jagged, torn masses of glass, varying in weight from ten or twelve pounds to an impalpable dust. Mr. Calver had had a narrow escape, but he and his workmen escaped without serious injury. The monetary loss was great, and bade fair to be greater, for with the loss of the speculum the rest of the telescope became useless. It might well seem that they were right who held the view that large silver-on-glass specula were impracticable, as from the difficulty in annealing large masses of glass they might be expected to break at any moment.

Within an hour or two of receiving the telegram announcing this terrible mishap Mr. Common was in the library of the Royal Astronomical Society. While there he was met by a friend, a fellow astronomer, who, being aware that news was daily expected of the completion of the great speculum, asked him for the latest intelligence. Mr. Common calmly handed him the fateful telegram. He was thunderstruck, for it was so unexpected, and he was one of those who had looked for much gain to astronomy to accrue from the construction and subsequent employment of this grand new instrument. After expressing, no doubt imperfectly enough, his sorrow, sympathy, and disappointment, he naturally put the question, "What can you do now?" The answer came gently enough: "Do? Why, I have telegraphed over to Paris to see if I can't get two more disks of glass. It will be one to spare in case of another explosion."

Success must crown indomitable courage like this. The new disks arrived, and were duly transferred to Mr. Calver. One was selected, and, after much labor, ground, polished, and finished. The remaining portion of the instrument and the observatory were pushed on as quickly as possible. On August 1, 1879, the instrument was complete, and the grandest and most powerful telescope in existence stood finished before its maker, designer, and owner.

An instrument of this large aperture will take a long time to thoroughly test, but it has stood triumphantly all the tests which have been applied hitherto. It has been tested on the moon, a most crucial test in experienced hands, on Jupiter and Saturn, and on faint companions to bright stars. In all cases satisfactory results have been obtained.[1] This proves that the telescope must he at least of fine quality, and it bids fair to turn out of the highest excellence. It has been used to take photographs of the moon, with results very satisfactory to those who are experienced in these matters. There can be no doubt, therefore, of its claims to be a success, so that ere long it will take its place, in the eyes of most astronomers, as the greatest optical instrument in existence, and the credit of having manufactured and of possessing the most powerful telescope in existence has now passed from America back to England.

It may be legitimately asked. What will be the future work of this grand instrument? Will it be used to increase our knowledge of astronomy, or will it be allowed to rest in idleness like so many other fine instruments? It is to be trusted, and it may be safely anticipated, that the former will be its fate. It will wear out, not rust out. There is much in astronomy which this grand telescope can do. It can be used for observing the faint and difficultly visible satellites of Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. All these pressingly want observing and measuring, and there are few telescopes of sufficient power and excellence to do the work wanted. It can be easily done with the new one. Then there is the important question to be settled, Are there other satellites to those planets than those known? To this telescope will fall the task of searching for a third and more distant satellite of Mars, for a fifth satellite to Jupiter, for a ninth and tenth satellite to Saturn, for a fifth and sixth satellite to Uranus, and perchance half a dozen new moons of Neptune. Moreover, there are the extremely interesting problems connected with the minor planets. Does Vesta, Juno, or Pallas, possess a satellite or satellites? If so, their discovery would be a great thing for astronomy. Astronomers suspect that away beyond Neptune there may be still another giant planet, still another member of the solar system. If so, it will be very faint, and it will require a powerful telescope to search for and discover it.

There is yet another field in which this new telescope may reap great advantages for astronomy. It is suspected that more than one of the stars, those distant suns, may be attended by opaque, dull planets. Mathematical analysis has already pointed to the existence of these attendants. It remains for the telescope to discover them. If the new Ealing reflector be really of the very highest excellence, it will be with that instrument we ought to look for these attending planets, these members of a foreign solar system.

Lastly, there is the great field of photography. The new telescope takes instantaneous photographs of the moon two and a half inches in diameter, photographs which can be enlarged with ease to good pictures of the moon a foot in diameter—pictures which will be valuable for astronomy, not mere interesting curiosities of science. It will, moreover, take photographs of Venus. Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn, showing much detail, and capable of being enlarged to half an inch in diameter. These planetary photographs will be of great use, as recording in unmistakable characters the true position and aspect of these planets and their satellites at different known epochs.

The foregoing sketch will show that in constructing this new instrument Mr. Common has contributed in a most important degree to the advancement of astronomy.—Popular Science Review.

  1. Lately this telescope has shown the outer satellite of Mars three weeks before it was thought possible it could be seen with the great telescope at Washington.