Thomas Hornsby, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy, was lying on his sick-bed in the Radcliffe Infirmary when he observed a small black disk transiting the face of the sun. It was the planet Venus. The year was 1769.
This was a rare and momentous astronomical event. More than that, it was a phenomenon of worldwide significance – Captain Cook among others was inspired to make his expedition to Tahiti in order to observe it more clearly – because it had profound implications for the precise location of Earth’s position in the solar system (and the pinpointing of Longitude).
Closer to home, and closer to the infirmary, it inspired the building of one of Oxford‘s finest, most distinctive and best-loved buildings – the Radcliffe Observatory, named after its benefactor, the royal physician Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714) a statue of whom stands proudly on the front lawn.
The Observatory’s foundations were laid in 1772 and it was completed in 1794. Its chief architect was James Wyatt, and its distinctive octagonal design was based on the ancient Hellenistic Tower of the Winds, an inspiring illustration of which had appeared in Stuart & Revett’s Antiquities of Athens published in 1762.
Inside, there are five spacious rooms, ranged over three floors, connected by a handsome circular staircase. And in the viewing chamber itself, at the top of the building, is displayed an antique telescope (donated by the seventh Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill’s grandfather) as a reminder of the building’s original purpose.
The Atlas and Hercules-borne globe which tops the roof seems to bobble mysteriously on the skyline. You get magical glimpses of it from across Port Meadow, peeping through gaps in the houses along Plantation Road, or hovering over the streets of Jericho. And with the opening up of the Radcliffe Infirmary site you can now walk up close and admire the fine shape of the building and the inlaid plaques of coade stone embellished with signs of the zodiac. The crab of Cancer is especially distinctive.
It reminds us of Oxford’s scientific contribution and expansive vision. A world encompassed. A universe even. Reminds us also of our cloudy weather system and low-lying setting. For, after a couple of attempts to re-establish it in the Science Parks, all but one of the telescopes was relocated in 1935 to South Africa, where the skies are distinctly less murky. The upshot is that these days the Radcliffe Observatory is more observed than observing – but none the less celestial for that.