26 Apr 2024

How the oldest telescope in New Zealand was discovered

4:05 pm on 26 April 2024
The telescope dating back to 1736 at Tūhura Otago Museum.

The telescope dating back to 1736 at Tūhura Otago Museum. Photo: Supplied / Tūhura Otago Museum

One of Aotearoa's oldest scientific instruments languished for years in a cardboard box until it was discovered to date back to the days of Captain Cook.

The Tūhura Otago Museum has become home to New Zealand's oldest telescope, dating back to 1736, and is now on public display.

"It shows the amazing stories that come out of museum artefacts," museum director and astronomer Dr Ian Griffin told RNZ.

Back in 2016 he received an email from researcher Dr William Topin, a retired professor of astronomy, who alerted him to the find.

"(He) wrote to me and said, 'I think you've got a really old telescope in your collection - I think you've got the oldest telescope in New Zealand.' And I said, really?"

The museum looked into the query, and, Griffin says, "about two days later our curator of humanities turned up in my office with a cardboard box that was labelled, 'Very old telescope'!"

The telescope was made by the acclaimed Scottish craftsman James Short.

"It turns out the telescope dates back to 1736. We suddenly discovered that we had something that we didn't really know that we had."

Similar instruments made by Short (1710-1768) were used by Captain James Cook on the HMS Endeavour to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769.

"Two telescopes that Short made were actually on one of the Cook voyages, coming out to New Zealand," Griffin said.

"Short was one of the best telescope makers in the world and his telescopes were going on these voyages of exploration because of their quality."

The telescope was disassembled in a cardboard box.

The telescope was disassembled in a cardboard box. Photo: Supplied / Tūhura Otago Museum

When the box was opened, the telescope had been completely taken apart. After its initial discovery in 2016, it was slowly restored and is now in a new 'Director's choice' exhibit at Tūhura Otago Museum.

"The conservation team here at the museum made sure it could be reassembled," he said.

"And they did a fabulous job you know, making sure all the bits worked and came together.

"And it's been reassembled and it's back to ... well, I would say good as new, and it's presently located in a new exhibition that we've got in a stairwell here at the museum.

"It just looks stunning when you look at it in the cabinet where it's on display at the moment."

The telescope was donated to the museum by the son of astronomer John Campbell Begg, the founder and director of Dunedin's Beverly-Begg Observatory, who died in 1965.

"It was donated back to the museum by his son, but we really don't know how John Campbell Begg got it," Griffin said.

The telescope was made in Edinburgh, "and obviously, it's got down here to Dunedin at some point".

"There's a strong relationship obviously between Edinburgh and Dunedin ... but we don't actually understand how it happened and we haven't found the records of that yet so that's one of the mysteries we've got.

"And of course the other thing here is that, who knows, there might be other old telescopes in other museums around the country. We didn't know we had this one until an accidental researcher did a little bit of research.

"So who knows what's out there? There might even be older telescopes, and that's very exciting."

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