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”.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!