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Beijing Ancient Observatory

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Ancient Observatory

The Beijing Ancient Observatory is a pretelescopic observatory located in Beijing, China. The revolutionary tools used within this ancient observatory were built in 1442 during the Ming Dynasty, and later amended during the Qing.

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Celestial Globe at the Observatory

As one of the oldest observatories in the world, the Beijing Ancient Observatory grounds cover an area of 10,000 square meters. The observatory itself is located on a 15 meter tall brick platform and about 40 x 40 square meters wide, an extant portion of the old Ming Dynasty era city wall that once encircled Beijing. Several of the bronze astronomical instruments are on the platform, and other armillary spheres, sundials, and other instruments are located nearby at ground level. It is operated as a museum in affiliation with Beijing Planetarium.

Instruments of Beijng Ancient Observatory

The armillary sphere is an instrument used to measure the coordinates of the celestial bodies. This instrument is constructed of two bronze disks-one being known as the ecliptic armillary (for tracking the sun), and the other deemed the equatorial armillary (tracks bodies that are not the sun).

The quadrant is an instrument built in 1673 and used in order to measures the altitudes and zenith locations of the celestial bodies.

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Equatorial Armilla at the Observatory

The theodolite is an instrument built in 1715 and used for measuring both altitude and azimuth coordinates of celestial bodies. The azimuth theodolite is a relatively similar instrument lacking only the ability to record altitude.

The astronomical sextant is an instrument used for measuring the angular distance between celestial bodies, and is also used for measuring the angular diameter of the moon and sun.

The celestial globe was built in 1673 and used to determine the time in which the celestial bodies will rise and set; as well as the altitude and azimuth of the bodies at any given time.

History of Ancient Observatory

It was said that in 1227, the Jin Dynasty transferred the ancient astronomical instruments from Kaifeng to the first observatory in Beijing. In 1279, the succeeding Mongols under Kublai Khan built a new observatory just north of the current observatory. After the Mongols, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding Ming Emperor, transferred the instruments from Beijing to Nanjing. When the Yongle Emperor came to power he had craftsmen make copies of the instruments in Nanjing, including the armillary sphere, the abridged armilla and the Yuan guibiao sundial, and the copies were used in the Beijing observatory.

Beijing Ancient Observatory

Altazimuth at the Observatory

The current observatory was completed in 1442. It served the Ming and Qing astronomers in their star-gazing reports for the Emperor. As he was considered the Son of Heaven, the movements of the heavenly bodies were an important affair. Another function was to assist sea navigation, and apparently Muslim scholars were also recruited for this expertise. In the mid 17th century, after winning an astronomy contest, the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest was awarded complete charge of the astronomy observatory by the emperor. In 1673, he supervised the rebuilding of some of the instruments. He and other Jesuits helped to further develop the observations of the stars and the planets.

During the later stages of the Qing Dynasty, members of the Eight-Nation Alliance stole some of the instruments. However, as World War I neared closure, the instruments were returned to China by the French and German governments. An early seismograph, of Zhang Heng's design used to be housed at the observatory. Some of the instruments from the Ming era are now at Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing.