An 18th-century astronomical tour

In the latest issue of the British Journal for the History of Science I have a review of Kurt Møller Pedersen and Peter de Clercq’s edition of the journal that the Danish astronomer, surveyor and mathematician Thomas Bugge kept of a fact-finding European tour. It is published as An Observer of Observatories: The Journal of Thomas Bugge’s Tour of Germany, Holland and England in 1777, a handsome volume at the reasonable price of £25. In fact, there are two editions, one a transcription and one a translation of the original manuscript, which raises some intriguing questions, as does the fact that there are digitised images of the whole available online. The print edition includes the many illustrations drawn by Bugge, but not the original text. In addition, it contains notes, appendices and a selection of additional images relating to instruments and places mentioned in the text. The following is an abbreviated and edited version of my review.

Bugge’s journal was discovered in the Royal Library in Copenhagen by Kurt Møller Pedersen over forty years ago. Although Pedersen quickly brought it to the attention of scholars, circulating a transcription and translation in the 1970s and ‘preliminary’ edition in 1997, this is the long-anticipated scholarly edition of a text that is of great significance to historians of scientific instruments, observatories and machinery in the eighteenth century. Bugge, who made his name as a surveyor for, and then director of, the survey of Denmark, was appointed to his professorship at the beginning of 1777. Later that same year he undertook his journey to England, via Hamburg, Amsterdam and Leiden. His aim was to see observatories, examine instruments and meet astronomers and instrument-makers before beginning renovations at the Round Tower observatory in Copenhagen (below).

As he passed through Germany and Holland he recorded information about trade, population, wages, soil, harbours, buildings, use and ownership of land, canals, mills, local authorities, institutions and more. He made judgements about the wealth or attractiveness of towns, the style of buildings and the quality of entertainments, including ‘Vauxhalls’ and plays. However, in London, ‘the undisputed centre of precision instrument-making’ (p. xviii), it is the stars and lesser lights of the remarkable scientific instrument trade that get top billing. Although the most famous of them all, John Bird, had died the year before, he remained ubiquitous, for his instruments, nearly always judged ‘beautiful’ (p. 100), ‘excellent’ (p. 135) and ‘perfect’ (p. 152), adorned many observatories. Bugge took ideas and information home, but chose to equip his observatory not with London instruments but those of Johannes Ahl, thereby both saving money and promoting local trade and know-how.

Bugge was clearly fascinated by novelties such as Alexander Cumming’s barograph clock, now in the Science Museum, but also by small additions and adjustments: spirit levels, mounts and illumination arrangements are drawn and described in detail. This text makes it clear that large observatory instruments are not bought off the shelf but are individually installed, trialled, adjusted, modified and customized by makers and astronomers.

Of the eleven observatories that Bugge visited, several were private, including those of Jacobus van de Wall in Amsterdam and Alexander Aubert near Deptford, judged ‘the most complete in Europe of its size’ (p. 160). Bugge was also shown Kew Observatory by Stephen Demainbray, the still-unfinished Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford by Thomas Hornsby, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich by Nevil Maskelyne. Interestingly, the last of these is rather briefly described: perhaps he had less time, or felt already he knew the instruments sufficiently through existing publications. For Bugge it was the Radcliffe, not the Royal, Observatory ‘which is no doubt the best in Europe, both as regards the arrangement and the instruments’ (p. 128).

The sections on the Greenwich and Radcliffe Observatories are sparsely annotated. The editors simply point to the existing literature, although it would have been useful to have indicated which instruments survive and, as elsewhere in the book, to have provided additional illustrations. The notes are much fuller with regard to many of the lesser-known objects, and the editors’ research here is impressive. They have also done a good job in making sense of the drawings and descriptions, including where Bugge himself made errors. There is, however, one issue which detracts from an otherwise faithful transcription and translation: on several occasions alterations have been made to the text, a practice which undermines the transcription even when the ‘correction’ is indicated in a footnote.

Although this edition is undoubtedly superior to those previously available, we may still ask why it has been produced in the form it has, since good-quality images of the manuscript are available online. Ultimately, an online, word-searchable transcription and translation, in conjunction with the scanned images, hyperlinked notes, introduction and other apparatus, would be more valuable. While historians of eighteenth-century instruments were already aware of Bugge’s journal, online availability would ensure that the snippets relating to topics such as theatre, prices, architecture or gardens come to the attention of historians in other fields who are handy with a search engine. However, through traditional publication, the editors have undoubtedly, and deservedly, drawn attention to their efforts and to this fascinating manuscript.

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5 thoughts on “An 18th-century astronomical tour

    • Thanks for giving the correct link! I’m not sure how it got scrambled, but I’ll correct it when I get back online.

  1. The link to the digitised images of the manuscript is now fixed (no idea what was wrong, as it looked fine from the back end!). I very much recommend looking at the original, as the illustrations are really lovely. I’ve also fixed the link to the BJHS review itself, which may have been taking people via the UCL library log on!

  2. […] An 18th-century astronomical tour – teleskopos: “Bugge’s journal was discovered in the Royal Library in Copenhagen by Kurt Møller Pedersen over forty years ago. Although Pedersen quickly brought it to the attention of scholars, circulating a transcription and translation in the 1970s and ‘preliminary’ edition in 1997, this is the long-anticipated scholarly edition of a text that is of great significance to historians of scientific instruments, observatories and machinery in the eighteenth century.” […]

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