The Past And Future Of The Orrery

From the beginning of time, human beings have always had a fascination with the solar system. Traditionally, an orrery was a mechanical model including the sun, the earth and its moon. Planets were added as they were discovered. It was used to illustrate the relative positions of all these bodies and how they moved within the solar system.

In earlier times it was believed that the earth was at the center of the solar system and the sun rotated around it. Copernicus challenged this theory and he was later backed up by other astronomers and mathematicians. Galileo used a telescope to examine the skies. He saw the craters of the moon and found that Jupiter had four moons moving around it. His refusal to accept that the sun moved around the earth lead to him being put under house arrest for years.

However, by the beginning of the 1700s, it was accepted that the earth indeed revolved around the sun. A well known English clockmaker, George Graham, made a the first modern model showing the earth orbiting the sun. A copy of this was given by instrument maker, John Rowley, to his patron Charles Boyle. The model was named after him and before long orreries became very popular, eventually including all the planets known at the time and even some moons.

Many types of orreries exist today, including ones where humans are used to represent the motion of the planets. One of these is found in Northern Ireland at Armagh Observatory. This model is built to scale with the earth, five planets, two comets and an asteroid represented. Stainless steel tiles on the ground show the orbits and people jump from one tile to another.

One major problem with any model of the solar system is one of scale. However, another problem is the actual distance of planets from the sun. Despite these problems, orreries are very useful as teaching tools. Even a simple one can be helpful in the classroom. The complexity depends on how many bodies are portrayed. For example, if moons are included they must be made to orbit the planets as the planets go round the sun, thus making construction more difficult.

Many online simulations of orreries are available today. One of these is the electric one at the University of St Andrews. It shows the inner and outer solar systems separately and is easy to use. These orreries are a pleasure to watch as the different bodies whir about all over.

Today highly advanced software applications can be purchased, featuring smooth camera navigation and realistic orbital speeds. One can orbit planets and even land on Mercury, Mars or Venus to explore. All that is needed to use such an application is a device with modern hardware. Interested enthusiasts often experience hours of enjoyment using such applications.

Orreries are very useful as educational tools for teachers wanting to explain astronomy to their students. The digital applications offer hours of entertainment for astronomy enthusiasts. Then there are the beautifully constructed orreries still constructed by artisans today for which people are prepared to pay high prices. Human beings continuing fascination with the solar system means that many different types of orreries exist today and will continue to do so in the future.

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