Let us enumerate a few of the questions which will be naturally asked by one who seeks to learn something of those glorious bodies which adorn our skies: What is the Sun—how hot, how big, and how distant? Whence comes its heat? What is the Moon? What are its landscapes like? How does our satellite move? How is it related to the earth? Are the planets globes like that on which we live? How large are they, and how far off? What do we know of the satellites of Jupiter and of the rings of Saturn? How was Uranus discovered? What was the intellectual triumph which brought the planet Neptune to light? Then, as to the other bodies of our system, what are we to say of those mysterious objects, the comets? Can we discover the laws of their seemingly capricious movements? Do we know anything of their nature and of the marvellous tails with which they are often decorated? What can be told about the shooting-stars which so often dash into our atmosphere and perish in a streak of splendour? What is the nature of those constellations of bright stars which have been recognised from all antiquity, and of the host of smaller stars which our telescopes disclose? Can it be true that these countless orbs are really majestic suns, sunk to an appalling depth in the abyss of unfathomable space? What have we to tell of the different varieties of stars—of coloured stars, of variable stars, of double stars, of multiple stars, of stars that seem to move, and of stars that seem at rest? What of those glorious objects, the great star clusters? What of the Milky Way? And, lastly, what can we learn of the marvellous nebulæ which our telescopes disclose, poised at an immeasurable distance? Such are a few of the questions which occur when we ponder on the mysteries of the heavens.
The history of Astronomy is, in one respect, only too like many other histories. The earliest part of it is completely and hopelessly lost. The stars had been studied, and some great astronomical discoveries had been made, untold ages before those to which our earliest historical records extend. For example, the observation of the apparent movement of the sun, and the discrimination between the planets and the fixed stars, are both to be classed among the discoveries of prehistoric ages. Nor is it to be said that these achievements related to matters of an obvious character. Ancient astronomy may seem very elementary to those of the present day who have been familiar from childhood with the great truths of nature, but, in the infancy of science, the men who made such discoveries as we have mentioned must have been sagacious philosophers.
The earliest rudiments of the Astronomical Observatory are as little known as the earliest discoveries in astronomy itself. Probably the first application of instrumental observation to the heavenly bodies consisted in the simple operation of measuring the shadow of a post cast by the sun at noonday. The variations in the length of this shadow enabled the primitive astronomers to investigate the apparent movements of the sun. But even in very early times special astronomical instruments were employed which possessed sufficient accuracy to add to the amount of astronomical knowledge, and displayed considerable ingenuity on the part of the designers.
Professor Newcomb thus writes: "The leader was Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546, three years after the death of Copernicus. His attention was first directed to the study of astronomy by an eclipse of the sun on August 21st, 1560, which was total in some parts of Europe. Astonished that such a phenomenon could be predicted, he devoted himself to a study of the methods of observation and calculation by which the prediction was made. In 1576 the King of Denmark founded the celebrated observatory of Uraniborg, at which Tycho spent twenty years assiduously engaged in observations of the positions of the heavenly bodies with the best instruments that could then be made. This was just before the invention of the telescope, so that the astronomer could not avail himself of that powerful instrument. Consequently, his observations were superseded by the improved ones of the centuries following, and their celebrity and importance are principally due to their having afforded Kepler the means of discovering his celebrated laws of planetary motion."
The direction of the telescope to the skies by Galileo gave a wonderful impulse to the study of the heavenly bodies. This extraordinary man is prominent in the history of astronomy, not alone for his connection with this supreme invention, but also for his achievements in the more abstract parts of astronomy. He was born at Pisa in 1564, and in 1609 the first telescope used for astronomical observation was constructed. Galileo died in 1642, the year in which Newton was born. It was Galileo who laid with solidity the foundations of that science of Dynamics, of which astronomy is the most splendid illustration; and it was he who, by promulgating the doctrines taught by Copernicus, incurred the wrath of the Inquisition.