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Coats Observatory is the oldest surviving public observatory in Scotland. Opened on 1st October 1883 the observatory has been welcoming visitors ever since, offering a unique opportunity to view the night sky through the powerful telescopes housed in the observatory dome.
The idea for building an observatory in Paisley dates back to 1880, when the proposal to purchase a telescope was made at that year’s AGM of the Paisley Philosophical Institution. Thomas Coats of Ferguslie, member of the famous Coats thread-manufacturing family, offered to meet the costs involved.
Following the purchase of the telescope it was realised that a suitable building would be needed in which to place it. A piece of ground lying between High Street and Oakshaw Street had been acquired by Thomas’ brother Peter for the purpose of extending the Museum and Library complex. It was decided to construct a purpose-built observatory on this land instead.
As well as the telescope and building Thomas Coats provided an endowment of £2000 towards the upkeep and development of the building. This gesture saw the Paisley Philosophical Institute agreeing to name the place ‘Coats Observatory’ in his honour.
Prior to opening in 1883 a smaller building was constructed to the south of the observatory tower. This is known as Transit House and inside was a small telescope positioned in such a way that it only moved vertically. Its purpose was to note the time that certain stars passed overhead and to set a clock accordingly. Setting clocks in this way was the most accurate method of timekeeping then available, as the passing of the stars across the sky is caused by the rotation of the Earth, which never varies and takes exactly 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds.
The main reason for carrying out these observations was to find distant astronomical objects in the sky, as the co-ordinate system used to find them is based on time. However, this method of setting clocks by the stars is so accurate that the decision was made to connect some of the clocks in Paisley, including that of the Town Hall, to the observatory, thus ensuring that the people of Paisley had astronomically-corrected time.
During the first few years of operation extra scientific apparatus was added to Coats Observatory, including weather-recording equipment, seismometers for measuring earthquakes and a variety of astronomical equipment. The most significant addition came in 1898 when a larger telescope was installed to work alongside the original. Both of these telescopes are still in operation today, a fine testament to the skills of the Victorian scientists and engineers that built them. These instruments, representative of the best equipment from the best scientific apparatus makers of the day, now form the bulk of the Science Collection held by Paisley Museum.
The Paisley Museum Re-Imagined project will see displays revamped at Coats Observatory, with more of the collection on display than ever before and interactive digital content bringing science to life. Once reopened we will continue to offer our very popular public viewing nights where visitors can marvel for themselves the wonders of the universe visible through the observatory telescopes.
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