In 1935, Dundee got a stunning view of the night sky when Mills Observatory was finally opened after development was stalled for more than 20 years.
After yesterday’s solar eclipse, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive into the history of the UK’s first purpose-built public astronomical observatory, featuring a papier-mâché dome that has stood up to eight decades on Balgay Hill.
The observatory wouldn’t be what it is today without the Dundonian John Mills. A linen and twine maker by day, Mills was an avid astronomer by night, and even established his own private observatory on the slopes of the Law, near what is now Adelaide Place.
Mills was also a member of the church and was greatly inspired by Reverend Thomas Dick, a philosopher and author of a number of books on astronomy and Christian philosophy.
The Reverend was keen to show that science and religion could go together, believing that the greatness of God could be best appreciated through the study of astronomy, to which he devoted his life. He also pleaded for every city to have public parks, public libraries and, of course, a public observatory.
Although John Mills died in 1889, he wanted to ensure that Dundee continued his astronomical work, leaving a bequest to Dundee City Council with the terms of building an observatory in the city.
Setbacks and change of plans
After city council received the bequest, they weren’t sure exactly how they would be able to accommodate Mills’ wishes, as they had no experience of a bequest of his nature.
Hoping they could help, the council decided to donate the money to Dundee University College in the hope that they would be able to meet its conditions.
Seeking advice from experts like the Royal Greenwich Observatory on the feasibility of such a project, the advice they received did not give a positive image and it was thought that only very limited public access would be possible , so the college refused the money. , deciding that the project did not match their plans.
A Trust was then formed within the Town Hall, and plans began to build the observatory at the top of the Law.
While the plans were being created, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the whole project on hold.
Not only could they not continue construction, but the planned site was instead reserved for the war memorial, which was erected after the end of the war.
It wasn’t until the early 1930s that the team returned to the drawing board and with the Great Depression came the idea that the observatory would bring much needed work to the local construction industry.
Scottish Astronomer Royal Professor Ralph Samson has been recruited as a consultant for the project and he would prove to be a fantastic asset.
After reviews of several sites, he came out strongly in favor of Balgay Hill as being by far the most suitable, both for its astronomical suitability and also for public access. With the site overlooking the river estuary and the sky protected from the main city lights by trees providing a purer atmosphere.
Construction and openness
Professor Sampson collaborated with city architect James MacLellan Brown to design a much more modern building than the one originally planned before the war.
They opted for a sandstone structure with the blocks extracted from Leoch, near Rosemill.
One of the building’s most unique features is not the seven-meter dome itself, but rather what the dome is made of – papier-mâché.
Despite other observatories showcasing the unique building material, Mills Observatory is the only one to still have the dome in place to this day, although it has been restored with waterproofing materials at least twice during of its history.
The dome was built by Grubb Parsons and is manually operated with a steel frame.
The Observatory was officially opened by Professor Sampson on October 28, 1935 and presented to City Council by Mr. Milne of the Mills Trust in the presence of Lord Provost Buist.
A congratulatory message has been sent by the Astronomer Royal of Greenwich, Sir H Spencer Jones.
The telescopes of the observatory
The original telescope provided by the Mills Trust was an 18-inch Newtonian reflector from Grubb Parsons and was electrically driven. The remains of the original telescope can be seen in the upper viewing area of the Observatory.
In early 1951, Mills Observatory housed a 19-inch pilot model, but although it was described as “the first of its kind in the world”, it was unfortunately only intended for photographic work and therefore was not also useful for the amateur audience.
In February 1951, it was suggested that the pilot telescope be transferred to the Observatory at St Andrews University and that Mills Observatory would then receive in exchange the 10-inch Cooke refractor telescope previously used as a training instrument for the students.
At first, the city council refused.
Professor WHM Greaves had succeeded Professor Sampson as Astronomer Royal for Scotland and had been called upon to comment on the matter. Given the scientific benefits of the move and the lack of interest shown by University College Dundee, he recommended that the transfer take place.
This was done at the university’s expense, with the understanding that the two telescopes were on mutual loan. The 10-inch refractor had to be modified slightly to fit the Mills dome, and the dew plug could not be used safely. However, it turned out to be a far superior instrument for public viewing than the old Newtonian reflector.
Originally built in 1871, it was owned by Walter Goodacre, president of the British Astronomical Association (BAA), who lived in the village of Four Marks, near Winchester.
The telescope has been used there by many famous hobbyists involved in the work of the BAA and has always been described by them as “the excellent 10 inch Cooke refractor”. It was particularly good at observing lunar and planetary details and although it was not designed for photographic work, the lens is so good that with modern cameras good photographs can be taken.
The main telescope is now a 16 inch Dobsonian reflector which offers spectacular views of the Moon and planets and breathtaking views of deep space objects.
The Observatory now also has a 12-inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain reflector which is fully computerized and can find 30,000 objects in the sky and a solar telescope which allows viewers to observe the sun safely during the months summer.
The Observatory has also acquired a number of smaller telescopes over the years.
Discoveries and inspirations
Since its opening to the public, the Observatory has never ceased to inspire generations and has also led to extraordinary discoveries.
While studying at the University of St Andrews, astronomer Robert H. McNaught was a regular visitor to Mills Observatory and became a friend of former curator Harry Ford.
In 1990, he discovered two minor planets, 6906 John Mills and 6907 Harry Ford, paying homage to his friend and also on behalf of the Observatory.
Harry Ford took office in 1967 and organized a number of exhibitions and “open houses” where the work of local enthusiasts was exhibited, in the years that followed.
Ford also held exhibitions of the Observatory’s and local society’s work at the BAA Exhibition Meetings in London, which aroused great interest among the assembled enthusiasts and led many to do so. a special trip to Dundee while on vacation.
Well-known television and radio personality Dr Patrick Moore hailed the Observatory’s work as “quite unique in its experience”. He himself visited the Observatory on several occasions and opened the improved facilities in June 1984.
During his speech at the inauguration, Dr Moore said that in the future, as in the past, Mills Observatory will play a big role in the advancement of amateur astronomy in Britain and encourage some to pursue careers in astronomy.
In 2005, the Observatory hosted its very first visit by an Apollo astronaut when David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, visited the city.
Sadly, the site remains closed due to coronavirus restrictions and could not be used for the June 10, 2021 partial solar eclipse, but the site is no stranger to the crowds gathering for part of it. eclipse action.
There wasn’t too much room in the Observatory in May 1984, as locals hoped to glimpse the upcoming eclipse from the dome.
Below, a large crowd uses all the space the Observatory has to offer as they eagerly await an eclipse due to take place in August 1999.
The observatory hopes to reopen soon with an easing of restrictions and we’re sure it still has many years of inspiration for Dundonians young and old alike.