Lithuanian Society of Regional Studies, Vilnius (Lithuania)
Clocks by English Makers in the Vilnius University Astronomical Observatory
In the Vilnius University Astronomical Observatory, which was established in 1753, the average time of stars and the Sun was measured using two separate clocks-regulators made by the London makers William Hardy and John Shelton. How did these devices made by world famous clockmakers end up at Vilnius University?
Thomas Żebrowski (1714–1758), the first director of the observatory, not only found donors for the observatory’s telescopes, but also made efforts to acquire a good astronomical clock. On 30 September 1756 he wrote to his teacher Professor Joseph Stepling in Prague: “Our observatory, considered a famous one, is awaiting its equipment. Meanwhile, I bought a clock, made by an English master and paid for by one of our colleagues. This wonderful creation was made by Mr. Ellicott, a resident of London, currently the best mechanic in this field”.
During the time when the famous astronomer Marcin Odlanicki-Poczobutt (1728–1810) headed the observatory, there were already three clocks with second hands in the observatory. During his visit to London in 1768 Poczobutt, with the help of the director of the Greenwich Observatory Nevil Maskelyne, acquired Shelton’s clock and Jesse Ramsden’s transit device. Shelton, an apprentice to the famous clockmaker George Graham, specialized in the making of astronomical clocks.
In the beginning of the 19th century, with the rapid advances in scientific equipment manufacture, many of the astronomical devices in the observatory became obsolete. The new director of the observatory Jan Sniadecki (1756–1830) sent his assistant Piotr Sławiński (1795–1881) abroad in 1819 to find out about innovations in technology and also gave him the task of acquiring a new clock. In Greenwich, Sławiński became acquainted with a device made by the clockmaker W. Hardy. This clock had a pendulum filled with mercury and a new construction anchor. In 1880, it was brought to Vilnius and set up in the White Hall of the observatory. After almost 50 years Hardy’s clock was working very precisely as determined during a Struve Geodetic Arc measurement expedition.
It is a pity that of all the old astronomical clocks made by English makers, and which were valuable as monuments of science history, only Shelton’s masterpiece survived until the present day. It is now in the Lithuanian National Museum. It was given to the telegraph station in the tower of Gediminas Castle when the Vilnius University observatory was closed in 1882.