Curious artefact: the orrery

We've teamed up with the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford to gain insights into scientific apparatus that revolutionised mankind's understanding of the world and the cosmos. Dr Sophie Waring is your guide to the orrery...

You can see fine working examples of orreries, such as this one, on display at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

You can see fine working examples of orreries, such as this one, on display at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Mankind has always been curious about our place in the cosmos. For millennia we, rather smugly, believed that Earth was at the centre of the universe with celestial bodies orbiting around us. This was challenged by astronomers who made heliocentric (sun-centred) models of the universe after observing the movement of the planets. The first of these models was described by mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543. He justified his system with astronomical observations and a rich geometric description of his model. It is this sun-centred model of the universe that an orrery usually depicts.

The great patron of scientific thinking, the Earl of Orrery, was given one of the first models and bequeathed his name to the invention. English clock makers George Graham and Thomas Tompion built the first modern orrery around 1704 while Christiaan Huygens published details of his newly-built planetary machine in 1703 from Paris.

The clockwork nature of these contraptions reflected our new mechanistic explanations of the universe made possible by Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Orreries would reflect and inspire the sense of awe people had in the 18th century as they discovered their place within a ‘clockwork universe.’

You can see working orreries on display at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

Words: Dr Sophie Waring, Modern Collections Curator, Museum of the History of Science, mhs.ox.ac.uk

This originally featured in issue 5 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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