Searching for Halley's Comet at Greenwich Observatory

A signed drawing in ink and monochrome watercolour by William Heath Robinson. This cartoon was reproduced in ‘The Sketch’ on 17 November 1909 (p. 175), the first in a series of six under the collective title of ‘Science Jottings’ that were published in 'The Sketch' weekly from 17th November to 22nd December 1909. Halley's comet had reappeared in the skies during September 1909 and was expected to make its closest approach to Earth on 19 May 1910. In response to this widely publicised event, Robinson shows several people sitting on the roof of a nondescript building, many of whom seem to be drawn as 'boffins'. The focus is on a truly ‘Heath Robinson’ telescopic equipment (he was best known for his humorous drawings of mechanical inventions), including a series of additional lenses being held up to achieve maximum possible magnification. The small, mischievously smiling comet appears at the top right. In the distance, chimneys belch out smoke into the night sky.

This light-hearted take on astronomy's endless quest for bigger and better telescopes illustrates the growing popular interest in astronomy, particularly surrounding events such as the return of Halley’s Comet, and demonstrates that the Royal Observatory has long been intimately connected in the popular imagination with such important moments in astronomy.

Object Details

ID: ZBA5194
Type: Drawing
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Robinson, William Heath
Places: London
Date made: 1909
Exhibition: Unseen: The Lives of Looking by Dryden Goodwin
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Primary support: 420 mm x 290 mm; Mount: 560 mm x 406 mm

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