Monday, 5 January 2009

Sir Henry Thompson and the Thompson telescopes

Sir Henry Thompson, 1st Baronet (1820-1904) was a surgeon and amateur astronomer who donated several important telescopes to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Trained at University College London's Medical School, he had a brilliant and lucrative medical career, with a special interest in diseases of the urinary system. His other interests were wide and he was a painter and writer of fiction as well as having interests in music, gastronomy and a host of other arts and sciences. He was created Baronet in 1899.

He built an observatory at his home, Hurtside House at East Molesey, in 1880 and equipped it with large telescopes of the latest design. He subsequently presented these telescopes to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and paid for another. All were made by Sir Howard Grubb in Dublin. These were the Thompson 9-inch Photoheliograph (presented to the ROG in 1891), the Thompson 26-inch Photographic Refractor (paid for by the £5000 he offered to the ROG on 4 January 1894 and mounted in 1896) and the Thompson 30-inch Photographic Reflector (presented to the ROG in 1896 to act as a counterpoise on the same mount as the 26-inch refractor. The Photoheliograph was initially mounted in the Lassell Dome but from the late 1890s all three Thompson telescopes were mounted together under the dome of the New Physical Observatory. In the 20th century the 26-inch and 30-inch telescopes were moved to the Observatory's new home at Herstmonceux in Sussex, where they remain today on display to the public at the Observatory Science Centre.

The Thomspon 30-inch Telescope in the dome of the New Physical Observatory, from E. Walter Maunder, 'The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a Glance at its History and Work' (1900).

Rebekah Higgitt

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