Thursday, March 30

The Life of Thomas Romney Robinson – Astronotes

Article by: Mark Grimley

Thomas Romney-Robinson was the third director of the Armagh Observatory, long before the building of the Planetarium. He was born in Dublin in 1792 and became director of the Armagh Observatory in 1823. An office that he held for almost six decades, staying in the post for around 59 years. During his career, Dr Robinson had an impact on the local area of Armagh and the broader field of astronomy. Dr Robinson was almost 90 years old when his tenure as director ended, only when he died in office. Even in his older age he continued to work and observe the stars right up until his death in 1882. 

As a young man Dr Robinson also wrote poetry, which is now published in Juvenile Poems (1806), the same year that he entered Trinity College. The poems were written when Dr Robinson was between the ages of 7 and 13 years old. 

A Long Career 


A young Thomas Romney Robinson. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Robinson entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1806 and became a fellow in 1814. This lasted until 1821 when he relinquished his fellowship, married Elizabeth Rambaut, and took holy orders. Two years after leaving the fellowship behind (1823), Dr Robinson began his tenure as director of the Armagh Observatory. The role that Dr Robinson stepped into was ‘astronomer and museum keeper,’ though at this time the interests of the young astronomer were quite varied across different sciences. At the start of his role in the Armagh Observatory Dr Robinson was a rector in Enniskillen. But transferred to become rector in Carrickmacross, which is a much shorter journey to have to make. Coupled with his reputation for being a very tall man, at around 6 feet 4 inches, he was known as an excellent orator.

Dr Robinson developed as a public speaker while working as a rector, and many of his sermons were then published by Robinson himself. 

The cup anemometer, which with a few minor modifications, is still in use today, was invented by Dr Robinson in 1846. One of the cup anemometers that was designed by Dr Robinson can be seen on the roof of the observatory today, so his impact is still visible when you walk around the grounds. This anemometer was built in 1870 and it is the oldest one of its kind still in its original position. The cup anemometer measures wind speed and direction, and the data can be analysed over time to look for patterns and anomalies in the wind conditions. Gathering data on wind conditions came from the aftermath of the ‘Great Wind’ in 1839. This was a storm that was completely unexpected, and the measuring of the weather conditions may make it easier to predict any future storm. 

Following these events Dr Robinson helped to develop the first automated weather stations in Ireland and Britain, one of the seven stations created was located at the Armagh observatory. These stations automatically record specific data that can be added to the set of data recorded manually by the met observers at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (AOP). The data from the met station can be found through the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland website. This has played its part in AOP recording the weather continuously since 1795. The weather is recorded daily at 9am (or 10am during summer) and Robinson would have been directly involved in this and maintaining the records as well. 

Speaking of records, Dr Robinson was not only the longest active director of the Armagh Observatory but may hold the world record for any directorship of an observatory. Dr Robinson held the position of director for just under 59 years from 1823 until his death in 1882 at the age of 89 years old.  

The Leviathan at Parsonstown (Birr Castle) in County Offaly around 1860

During his extensive career in the Armagh Observatory he worked with William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, in Birr on the Leviathan telescope, which was the largest telescope that existed at the time, before the invention of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope more than 70 years later. The Leviathan telescope was 6 feet in diameter, or 183cm (imperial measurements were the standard at the time) and was a major advancement in telescopes at the time. This telescope helped add clarity to the objects that are much further away in our night sky, like galaxies that appear like smudges. 

The catalogue ‘Places of 5,345 Stars Observed from 1828 to 1854 at the Armagh Observatory’ was published in 1859; these stars were observed over the time that Dr Robinson was in office as director of the observatory. This publication was a precursor to the New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, or N.G.C. for short. the N.G.C. was compiled by the 4th director Dr John Dreyer, who was Dr Robinsons successor, in 1888. While these were both compiled in Armagh, they do address different subject matters. One, Romney Robinson’s catalogue, looked at the locations of stars in the sky whereas the N.G.C. categorized some of the Messier objects in our night sky. 


Robinson’s original wind anemometer. Image Credit: AOP

The legacy of Dr Robinson today includes the longest directorship of the Armagh Observatory, and the invention of the cup anemometer; which, with some minor changes to the design, is still used by meteorological observers today. There is one on the roof of the observatory building, which is the Robinson Anemometer. This one still has the 4 cups, but more modern anemometers will use 3 cups instead. You can see one in the meteorology station next to the Armagh Observatory. It is with the instruments at this station that staff at AOP have been recording the weather since 1794 and daily from 1795. The recording of the weather at the Armagh Observatory is one of the longest continuous records in the U.K. and Ireland; and it is still added to daily. 

Today the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium is still connected to the Birr Observatory. Together, with the Birr Observatory and Dunsink Observatory, AOP are in the application process for UNESCO World Heritage status.  

So, who was Thomas Romney Robinson?

Image Credit: WIkipedia

Dr Robinson was a big part of Irish astronomy for decades. A tall man who helped build a platform for future astronomers and brought astronomy to new heights throughout his lifetime, his legacy remains in the way that we record the weather, and the history made in the building of the Leviathan telescope. Our third director seemed to excel from an early age from his juvenile poetry to gaining fellowship in Trinity College at a relatively young age. Then to go on to be the longest serving director of the Armagh Observatory to date. 


Dr Robinson had also written poetry commemorating the creation of the Leviathan telescope:

“Welcome to thy new existence,
Child of Intellect and Might!
Welcome to thy wide Dominions,

Lord of Ether and of Light!

Thou shalt leads us on in triumps,
Yet to mortal power unknown;
Realms, which Angels only visit, 

Shall yield hommage at thy throne.”

(Page 107 of Church, State and Astronomy) 

Thomas Romney Robinson’s Bok of Poetry. Image Credit: AOP