Anusha Parthasarathy on India’s oldest modern observatory started by the British East India Company in 1786

On the eve of a swirling storm, the rain-drenched campus of the Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC) in Nungambakkam is dripping green. A signboard points to its prized possession, a 15-foot long granite pillar, weighing 10 tonnes and surrounded by smaller structures. Erected in 1792, these are the only remains of India’s first modern public observatory, the Madras Observatory, started by the British East India Company in 1786.

The British, who had established a stronghold in Madras and were eyeing the rest of the country, brought in sailor-surveyor-astronomer Michael Topping in 1785. And he came with his instruments.

Referred to as the most talented and highly qualified all-round surveyor who served the East India Company during the 18th Century, Topping was India’s first professional surveyor and he surveyed the seas between Madras and Calcutta.

Madras got its first astronomical observatory in 1786, founded by William Petrie, who set it up in his garden house in Egmore. In 1789 when Petrie returned to England, he offered his observatory to the government, which acquired it in 1790. “Remember this wasn’t a scientific observatory then. Only some astronomical observations were being made,” says Y.E.A. Raj, Deputy Director-General of Meteorology, RMC. “In 1792 it shifted to the present location of the RMC.”

In 1788, when Topping made his coastal surveys, he arranged for John Goldingham, who was then Petrie’s assistant, to make observations at Madras. Petrie’s observatory became India’s ‘Greenwich’.

This observatory, established for ‘promoting the knowledge of astronomy, geography and navigation in India’ (as referred to by Sir Charles Oakley, then Governor of Madras), whose oldest observation, as per records, is one that was made at Masulipatam by Topping. In 1796, the observatory began a meteorological register. “The granite pillar was the original transit instrument and its architect was Michael Topping, who was then called the chief surveyor,” says Y.E.A Raj, “It was much later that meteorological observations began to be made here.”

Goldingham remained the astronomer till 1830, after which Thomas Glanville Taylor took over. He compiled a catalogue of 11,000 southern stars. H.W. Brandes developed the first systematic weather map in 1820.

In 1893, Madras daily weather reports commenced and in 1899, some of the functioning of the Madras Observatory was shifted to Kodaikanal.

“The observatory operated out of there for a while. In 1971 the Kodaikanal Observatory became the Indian Institute of Astrophysics,” explains Raj. This observatory, earlier called the Solar Physics Observatory, at Palani Hills was chosen as the climate was suitable for research in solar physics.

The Madras Observatory was also vacated during the World Wars. “This campus was then being used by the army as barracks,” adds Y.E.A Raj, “It’s not clear where the observatory was functioning then. Some say it was on Mowbrays Road and others mention some place near the war memorial. But nobody is sure.”

Among the relics is a pendulum clock made by John Shelton in the 1760s, which still operates at the Kodaikanal Observatory. One of Petrie’s possessions, this clock is identical to the one used by Captain James Cook on his voyages.