Macfarlane Observatory

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At Glasgow University, the Macfarlane Observatory was established in 1757 with instruments donated by Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant in Jamaica. The instruments arrived to Glasgow in a deteriorated condition, and their suitability for mounting was in question before they were taken in hand by James Watt.[1] Watt had been trained in London and upon returning to Glasgow served as instrument maker to the university.

The benefactor Alexander Macfarlane had graduated MA from the university in 1728. Beyond his successful commercial career in Jamaica, he was an assistant judge and a member of the Legislative Assembly of Jamaica. Macfarlane purchased the astronomical instruments of Colin Campbell after 1742. Macfarlane died in 1755.[2] A portrait and biographical note appear on a Glasgow University site.[3]

The donation was opportune for Watt as well as the University; as Marshall writes

...within a month of [Watt’s] arrival in Glasgow, the University received a case of astronomical instruments...the sea voyage had thrown these delicate instruments out of gear, and they needed overhauling by an expert....[4]

In 1760 Alexander Wilson was installed as professor of practical astronomy, his interest in sun spots made Macfarlane Observatory an early contributor to solar physics as Wilson described the surface of the Sun. Observing the variation in width of the penumbra of a sunspot near the limb, he concluded the sunspots were depressions in the generally spherical photosphere; the phenomenon is called the Wilson effect to acknowledge his early observations.

In the eighteenth century, the social position of an observatory was greater than now: as Dava Sobel writes, "...The founding philosophy of the Royal Observatory, like that of the Paris Observatory before it, viewed astronomy as a means to an end. All the far-flung stars must be catalogued, so as to chart a course for sailors over the oceans of the earth."[5] An observatory represented a place of certitude of time and place, a place to set a marine chronometer for use at sea where longitude was found by the method of lunar distances; the establishment of the Macfarlane Observatory in 1757 was before the 1767 appearance of The Nautical Almanac based on the Prime Meridian at Royal Observatory, Greenwich.


  1. ^ H. W. Dickinson (2010) [1936] James Watt: Craftsman and Engineer, page 24, Cambridge University Press ISBN 9781108012232
  2. ^ DJ Bryden (1970) "The Jamaican Observatories of Colin Campbell and Alexander Macfarlane", Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 24:261–272
  3. ^ University of Glasgow Biography of Alexander Macfarlane
  4. ^ Thomas H. Marshall (1925), James Watt Chapter 3: "Mathematical Instrument Maker" Archived 15 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine, from University of Rochester Department of History
  5. ^ Dava Sobel (1995) Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Walker Publishing ISBN 0-8027-1312-2