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Orrery

Pronounced /ˈɒrəri/Help with IPA

The orrery was invented by George Graham about 1710; the first example was constructed by the London instrument maker John Rowley. It was a device of arms and balls and gears, run by clockwork, that showed how the planets and their satellites moved around the sun as time passed; the Earth typically took about ten minutes to go round once, so it could hardly have been an enthralling spectacle by the standards of today.

We ought to call it a graham, after its inventor, but John Rowley made a copy for Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, and ingratiatingly named it in his honour. It’s really a reference to a geographic area, since the Boyles took their title from an ancient term for a part of County Cork, Ireland. (Boyle was described later that century as “one of the literary ornaments of the reign of Queen Anne”; he was a relative of the more famous Robert Boyle, he of Boyle’s law.)

The orrery became a popular amusement and teaching device; no progressive educational establishment was without one. But not everybody was enthralled by it; in 1833 the Astronomer Royal, John Herschel, called it a “childish toy”, and Charles Dickens wrote an unflattering description of a public lecture that featured one in The Uncommercial Traveller: “My memory presents a birthday when Olympia and I were taken by an unfeeling relative — some cruel uncle, or the like — to a slow torture called an Orrery ... It was a venerable and a shabby Orrery, at least one thousand stars and twenty-five comets behind the age. Nevertheless, it was awful”.

Page created 25 Sep. 1999

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-orr1.htm
Last modified: 25 September 1999.