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Historicist: The Toronto Magnetic Observatory

The challenging early years of one of Toronto's first scientific institutions.

The Toronto Magnetic Observatory as painted by William Armstrong in 1852.

In the nineteenth century, Edward Sabine was one of the foremost figures in magnetic research. Following distinguished service in the War of 1812 he remained with the British military, moving into the branch which concerned itself with scientific research and polar exploration. By the 1830s, Sabine’s eminence permitted him to embark upon a global “magnetic crusade,” collecting magnetic readings with the expectation that the data could be linked towards general magnetic theory and to the practical application of navigation.

At the heart of Sabine’s project was the decision in 1839 to establish new observatories across the British Empire, where observers would record regular magnetic readings. Historian Andrew Lambert notes that “while Sabine’s fixed observatories lack the drama of a naval expedition, they produced extensive quantities of data for his empire of numbers,” and multiple historians note Sabine’s reputation as an admirable administrator and a meticulous collector of data. The observatories he established at this time were in four very distant parts of the earth: Cape Town, Saint Helena, Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land), and eventually, Toronto.

Sabine’s original plan called for the Canadian observatory to be near Montreal, on the island of St. Helen’s, and in September of 1839 Lt. Charles James Buchanan Riddell set off to Montreal for the purposes of selecting a suitable site and establishing the observatory there. Upon arriving, however, Riddell found the city’s location to be unsuitable, as metals in the surrounding rock reportedly interfered with the instruments. Riddell requested arrangements to get his Royal Artillery staff and their families, along with their equipment, to Toronto, which was believed to be generally free of such magnetic interference.

That October, Riddell sent a dispatch describing his modest detachment as “three non-commissioned officers, two gunners and drivers, two women and five children together with about forty-eight cases of instruments, etc., measuring about eight or ten tons, intended for use at the observatory.” Viable transportation options between Montreal and Toronto were few in autumn of 1839, and Riddell adds that “I have also to request that in case navigation of the Rideau Canal is closed before the arrival of the instruments, a requisition be sent in for them to be forwarded by bateau up the St. Lawrence to be towed where it is possible by steamer.”

Edward Sabine, as pictured in the December 2, 1872, issue of Popular Science Monthly.

Riddell arrived in Toronto on October 24, 1839. Toronto was still a very new and small city at this time, and given the recent rebellion of William Lyon Mackenzie and the uncertainty of sustained peace with the United States, security of the observatory’s site was a concern.

Proximity to Fort York could have provided the observatory and its staff with strategic protection in the event of an attack, but Riddell pointed out that such a location would have drawbacks, writing that “the number of meteorological instruments which must be placed outside the observatory, as well as an apparatus for atmospheric electricity which is expected in the following year, also the experiments and observations that will be required to be made in its vicinity, are all strong reasons against placing the observatory in the immediate neighbourhood of a garrison of seven or eight hundred men.”

He instead opted for a site that seemed dry and secure, albeit “rather farther from the main road than the former [proposed location] and at a very inconvenient distance from the town (about two miles).” The location was granted to them by the University of Toronto (then known as King’s College), and was just north of what is now College Street, near King’s College Road—given on condition that the land revert back to the school at the termination of Sabine’s research project.

The first magnetic readings, however, were not taken at this site. According to Riddell’s letters, readings were needed as soon as possible, so as to compare the Toronto data with that which was being simultaneously gathered at other stations. In November, he wrote that “if the erection of the observatory is not commenced almost immediately, it must be delayed for nearly six months, which would occasion the loss of comparative observations with the stations that might never again be visited by the naval expedition.” Despite Riddell’s efforts, construction on the observatory was unable to begin until the end of winter. With few other options, his small team stored their equipment at an unused barracks at Fort York, and made their initial observations there.

Diagrams drawn by Lt. Charles W. Younghusband showing the layout of the Toronto Magnetic Observatory, and published by Edward Sabine in 1845.

The initial observatory was very much a military operation. In 1845, Sabine wrote that “the personal establishment at each Observatory was fixed at one officer, three non-commissioned officers, and two gunners, one of the latter to act as an orderly, and the other as the officer’s servant.” Additional officers were posted during the 1840s, appearing to bring the total of observatory staff up to 10. Continues Sabine: “In this point of view, therefore, the observations… may be regarded as a contribution to science rendered by the officers and soldiers of the Royal Artillery as a corps.” Commanding officers at all four of the new observatories were authorized, if necessary, to withdraw officers from magnetic research activities in order to support military defence; although not necessary at Toronto, this was indeed required at the Cape Town observatory in 1842 during a conflict between British and Boer forces.

Observation equipment arrived in Toronto in December of 1839, reportedly intact with the exception of two thermometers. By February, Riddell noted that his men were recording observations.

Edward Sabine is depicted on the far right of The Arctic Council planning a search for John Franklin, painted by Stephen Pearce in 1851.

In September of 1840, Riddell and those under his command took possession of the new, purpose-built site, where readings continued. In Edward Sabine’s 1845 publication Observations Made at the Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Toronto in Canada, Vol. I (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1845: London), Riddell describes the observatory site as consisting of a main observatory building, three smaller buildings housing various instruments including the anemometer and dip circle, and a fifth building serving as a barracks. The primary observatory structure was a log building, with a rough-cast exterior and plastering on the inside. Given the nature of magnetic research, no iron or brick could be used in the construction, with fixtures being a combination of stone masonry, copper, and brass. It was split into two main rooms, the largest of which measured 50 x 20 feet and contained instruments; the smaller room was 18 x 12 feet and intended as an office and computing room. Heating in the observatory was limited to a fireplace in this smaller room.

Riddell requested a leave of absence for health reasons only four months later, enclosing a medical certificate from Toronto physician Dr. Christopher Widmer, which Riddell explained as “recommending me to remove to a warmer climate for the remainder of the winter on account of chronic diarrhea from which I have been suffering for some time.” Following Riddell’s departure, the observatory was temporarily under the command of Lt. Charles W. Younghusband, then only 20 years old, until the arrival of the new superintendent, John Henry Lefroy, in 1842.

Lefroy had previously been in charge of the observatory at St. Helena, and may be best remembered today for an early magnetic survey of the Canadian northwest and for convincing the local government to assume custodianship of the observatory following the conclusion of Sabine’s project. Lefroy’s chief function in the 1840s, however, was to effectively manage an observatory and oversee the collection of valuable data through a variety of trying conditions.

John Henry Lefroy, ca. 1880, photographed by John Watt Beattie.

The original intention was that the Toronto observatory would only collect data for three years, and thus the observatory was only built to last that long. As such, the log building required regular upkeep and was frequently in need of repair. Letters from both Younghusband and Lefroy reveal that the space was also considerably cramped, and that the volume of work often exceeded the available labour. The relative remoteness of the observatory’s location meant that time was lost retrieving stores and rations from the fort. Lefroy’s letters to the fort’s commander complain of inferior candles “not fit to the purposes to which they are applied in the magnetic observatory,” and of low-quality bread which the men blamed for digestive trouble. In 1846, Younghusband writes of the trials of conducting observations in close proximity to a shooting competition held on the nearby university grounds, complaining to the King’s College bursar that “yesterday afternoon five different discharges passed through the windows of the observatory on the ground floor.”

Although many of those under Riddell, Younghusband, and Lefroy are known to have filled their roles admirably, there were also some discipline and social problems in the 1840s, and several men stationed at the observatory were dismissed due to problems with intoxication. In 1846, Lefroy wrote that he had discharged Gunner and Driver George Cooper after Cooper and Cooper’s wife had engaged in “repeated acts of drunkenness”; Cooper’s replacement, Charles McKee, was similarly dismissed the following the year, Lefroy writing “I was under the necessity on the 27th of February [1847] of turning this man and his wife out of my house, chiefly in consequence of the repeated intoxication and misconduct of the latter. I had also seen enough of the propensity for liquor of Gunner McKee to have decided on parting with him.”

The observatory as it looked in 1880, at its original location. Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Despite these difficulties, scientific data was diligently collected and sent, through military channels, to Sabine. In 1851, Sabine’s research project began drawing to a close, as he began publishing the collected results of the findings at the observatories. Chiefly remembered from Sabine’s work at this time is the discovery of a connection between changes in magnetic intensity and the 11-year solar cycle of sunspots.

Recognizing that the end of Sabine’s project was near, Lefroy began petitioning for the continued existence of the Toronto observatory in 1851, recognizing that the growth of the Province of Canada would make an observatory a valuable asset, providing opportunities for science education, the training of engineers and surveyors, and continuing valuable research, particularly if reoriented to include astronomy in its mandate. After securing additional local support, the observatory was transferred to the local government, and the University of Toronto assumed its control. In 1855, the original building was enclosed by a more durable stone structure which stood on the site until the first decade of the 20th century, when it was disassembled and rebuilt at its current location at 12 Hart House Circle, where it now serves as the home of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Additional material from: Gregory Good, “Between Two Empires: the Toronto Magnetic Observatory and American Science before Confederation” in Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1946, p. 34-52; Andrew Lambert, Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber and Faber, 2009: London); Edward Sabine, Observations Made at the Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Toronto in Canada, Vol. I (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1845: London); Edward Sabine, Observations Made at the Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory at Toronto in Canada, Vol. II (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853: London); A.D. Thiessen, “The Founding of the Toronto Magnetic Observatory and the Canadian Meteorological Service” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 34, 1940, p. 308-348; A.D. Thiessen, “Her Majesty’s Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory, Toronto, Part VI” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 35, 1941, p. 205-224; A.D. Thiessen, “Her Majesty’s Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory, Toronto, Part VIII” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 36, 1942, p. 457-472; A.D. Thiessen, “Her Majesty’s Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory, Toronto, Part X” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 39, 1945, p. 221-230; A.D. Thiessen, “Her Majesty’s Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory, Toronto, Part XII” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 40, 1946, p. 365-372.