Otago Museum has discovered that it is home to what appears to be the oldest telescope in New Zealand.
Both the Otago Museum and Space Place in Wellington have telescopes within their collections made by James Short (1710–1768), a highly significant 18th century telescope maker, who studied classics, divinity and mathematics at Edinburgh University. Space Place holds a telescope dated to 1758, but Otago Museum’s instrument is 22 years older, having been made in 1736.
The provenance of the telescope was uncovered as a result of research being undertaken by Dr William Tobin, a former Senior Lecturer in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Canterbury.
Engraved signature on 1736 telescope by James Short, Edinburgh,
donated by J W Begg; Otago Museum Collection. Photographer: Ian Griffin.
Otago Museum’s telescope has a 41/93 serial number, meaning it was the 93rd telescope made by Short, and the 41st of that particular size. Its main metal mirror has a diameter of about 60mm. This particular telescope was made in Edinburgh before Short moved to London in 1738 and was previously owned by local astronomer John Campbell Begg, who was instrumental in setting up Dunedin’s Beverly Begg Observatory. It was donated to the Museum by his son, John Wyndham Begg.
Captain James Cook took two of Short’s instruments on the Endeavour to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769.
Otago Museum Director Ian Griffin is thrilled that Dr Tobin has unearthed the history of its James Short telescope, again highlighting the depth and breadth of the Museum’s collection.
“We are delighted to be able to say we are home to the oldest telescope in the country, an announcement that is very timely as we approach the first birthday of the Perpetual Guardian Planetarium,” says Griffin.
“To the best of our knowledge, and based on the findings by Dr Tobin, this is the oldest telescope in the country – but of course, we’d love to hear from anyone who thinks they might have an older one.”
The Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies has offered to fund the instrument’s conservation, which will allow the Museum to have the telescope on display to its visitors in the near future.
“The Dodd-Walls Centre was established based on New Zealand's outstanding heritage in quantum optics. It is only fitting that we help support the preservation and display of New Zealand's oldest telescope as direct lineage of this optics tradition,” says Director of the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, Professor David Hutchinson.
Another strong link between the Begg family and the Otago Museum is the ‘Interplanetary Cycle Trail’ – a project that will see a scale model of the solar system at various points along the Otago Central Rail Trail. The project is a collaboration between the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust and the Otago Museum, and was inspired by Ian Begg, the grandson of John Campbell Begg.