Wondrous devices

On display at the Hudson River Museum: astronomical ideas of a bygone era


Information is readily available for astronomy enthusiasts these days, but being curious about the Earth and what’s beyond the stratosphere is nothing new.

And at the Hudson River Museum, that curious nature is at the forefront of its exhibition, “Wondrous Devices.”

On display through Dec. 30, the exhibit features what devices and materials people in the 19th century used to learn about astronomy. It was inspired by the museum’s recent exhibition, “The Neo-Victorians” — art inspired by aesthetics from the 19th century to look at ways to further the conversation about that time period.

Marc Taylor, manager of the planetarium and science programs at the museum, was able to borrow materials from Tesseract, a dealer for antique scientific instruments located in Hastings-on-Hudson, and the Hastings Historical Society.

Since the museum is housed within the Glenview mansion at 511 Warburton Ave. —  built around 1876 — Taylor and his team tried their best to center the exhibition to reflect the research and milestones of that time.

“Not all of the items are from that period,” he said, “but the idea is that they illustrate what the foundation of knowledge would have been around the time.”

One of the historical materials in “Wondrous Devices” is “The Geography of the Heavens,” a textbook by Elijah Hinsdale Burritt. In it, Burritt covers the history of astronomy, the mythology behind constellations, and also includes an atlas. When Taylor saw the atlas, he realized Burritt’s views weren’t completely off. The only thing missing was a drawing of Pluto.

“It’s interesting to look at the atlas because their picture of the solar system, the arrangement of the planets, it’s not that different from what we have today,” Taylor said. 

Astronomical celebrity

“Wondrous Devices” also features instruments from Hastings-on-Hudson’s own astronomical celebrity, Henry Draper. Draper is best known for being one of the first to take images of the night sky, a practice known as astrophotography.

“A lot of people don’t realize that that was done here,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t done in some distant alley in the west somewhere, and it wasn’t done at Yale or MIT. It was done by a guy who was a retired doctor who built his own observatory.”

Other instruments, like the Walking Cane, also teaches visitors a lot about the advancements in astronomy. The Walking Cane is a telescope made by an unknown German person from a pair of lenses that uses a walking cane as support — all for someone who is looking at celestial bodies on the go. Taylor said it fascinates people who examine it.

“People do love the idea that somebody might have been carrying around these pair of lenses in there, in their satchel, or in their pocket, (where) they would whip them out to act as spies, or to spot some bird somewhere,” Taylor said. “And it’s really not that different from the things that we have today, where you would be carrying around a phone that has various apps and performs various functions.”

In terms of the challenges associated with putting together an historical exhibit like “Wondrous Devices,” Taylor recalls having to explain the way telling time itself was difficult in astronomical balance, an item created by French clockmaker Henri Robert that’s supposed to synchronize a clock when the sun crosses the meridians.

“As I researched this, I found out that it was one of the many … ways that people tried to make clocks more accurate to synchronize clocks with others,” Taylor said. “It was very difficult to write a description that explained how this thing works and what it was supposed to do because it’s so foreign to what we need to work today.”

In 2018, however, Taylor thinks it’s important to educate others so they can understand how our understanding of astronomy has progressed since the 19th century.

Observe and learn

“Part of it is appreciation of the fact that we’ve come kind of far thinking about the fact that people had to solve these problems first,” he said. “And once the problems were solved, there were other things that came up which then had to be addressed, and so forth. Also, it’s just understanding what has happened in the past, what the milestones are.”

With visitors and school groups coming in and out of the museum at all times, Taylor hopes they take the time to observe the items closely, absorbing as much information as they can.

“It’s a fairly small exhibit,” he said, “so I think a lot of people are sort of pleasantly surprised to come around the corner and see that there.”