Thais and Telescopes – The Remarkable History of Astronomy in Thailand

In the Autumn of 1608 a small French news pamphlet caused great excitement across Europe. It described the arrival at The Hague of ambassadors from Siam, the first ever visit of Siamese to Europe, a sign of rising Dutch influence in the East Indies. The last two and half pages of this same pamphlet however also briefly described a peculiar demonstration at The Hague by a “humble and god fearing spectacle maker from Middleburg” of a device whereby “one could see far-off things as if they were nearby”. The telescope had been born, a device that would find application in navigation, warfare, surveying and of course astronomy where it would transform our understanding of the universe and our position within it. And by chance Siam’s first ambassadors to Europe were at The Hague at this historic moment starting a long connection between Siam and astronomy.

French pamphlet
The opening pages of the pamphlet “Ambassadors from the King of Siam” that also announced the world’s first telescope

The Origins of the Telescope

The humble spectacle maker that demonstrated a working telescope at The Hague was Hans Lipperhey. His hometown Middleburg in the southern Netherlands had become a centre for high quality glass making in the late sixteenth century. Skilled in lens making techniques Lipperhey’s crucial technical innovation was to cover the outer edge of the eye piece lens with a circular “diaphragm” which blocked light from the outer and most distorting part of the lens. Suddenly even lenses of mediocre quality produced not just a magnified image but a clear image and the world’s first functioning telescope was built.

Hans Lipperhey
Hans Lipperhey, inventor of the telescope, as depicted in 1656

Keen to profit from his development by gaining a patent, Lipperhey wrote immediately to his local authorities who in turn wrote a letter of recommendation to the central authorities at The Hague. And so it was that in late September 1608 Stadtholder Count Maurits arranged a demonstration of this new device to a few officials on the roof of Maurits Tower, his personal apartments in the Dutch government’s Binnenhof building. By chance however, at the time Lipperhey had arrived with his telescope The Hague was crowded with diplomats from across Europe who had been attending a peace conference between the new Dutch Republic and their former sovereign the King of Spain. Thus the commander-in-chief of the Spanish army Ambrogio de Spinola was invited to attend the demonstration. The military implications were immediately obvious to all, with Spinola commenting “From now on I can no longer be safe, for you will see me from afar”. Maurits’ half-brother Prince Hendrick reassured Spinola “We shall forbid our men to shoot at you.”

Sketch of Maurits Tower in The Hague
Maurits Tower in The Hague from where the first demonstration of a telescope was made
(Charcoal drawing by Willem Pietersz Buytewech c.1600)

News of this fabulous device spread quickly across Europe. Within a couple of weeks competing inventors arrived at The Hague to demonstrate their own devices, although these seem to have been inferior to that of Lipperhey. It wasn’t long before others turned their telescopes heavenwards to discover previously unseen stars. Most famously within a year Galileo Galilei in Pisa was using his own telescope to study the details of the moon and in early 1610 announced the discovery of Jupiter’s moons.

Siamese at the Dutch Court

Halfway across the world the Dutch had been making discoveries of a different kind during the early seventeenth century. In 1601 the first Dutch ship had arrived in Pattani seeking spices and by the end of 1602 the Dutch had established a small colony there. In mid-1604 Cornelius Speckx and his nephew became the first Dutch to travel to Ayutthaya to deliver a letter to King Naresuan requesting trading privileges.

old map of Ayutthaya
Cornelius Speckx spent nearly two years in Ayutthaya establishing a trading post for the Dutch

Speckx stayed in Ayutthaya until 1606 by which time King Ekathotsarot was on the throne. When he finally left for Batavia he was joined by a rather impractical delegation comprising of fifteen Siamese courtiers who were charged by their king with carrying gifts to the Dutch “king” in Holland. In Batavia the Dutch admiral in charge of the fleet returning to Europe took on board only the two chief ambassadors, the remaining courtiers being sent back to Ayutthaya. The fleet carrying the two ambassadors left Batavia in January 1608 and arrived in Holland on 2nd September that year.

Eleven days later these first ever Siamese ambassadors were received by Count Maurits at The Binnenhof and presented to him both gifts and a letter inscribed on a scroll of gold from King Ekathotsarot. These Siamese ambassadors were still at the Dutch court two weeks later when Lipperhey arrived with his telescope. The Siamese would undoubtedly have heard about and very possibly seen first hand the world’s first telescope.

mural at Wat Suwannaram
A mural at Wat Suwannaram showing Dutch soldiers preparing to defend the city whilst a Siamese courtier uses a small telescope to examine a woman’s breasts !

Dutch Surveying in Siam

The Siamese ambassadors returned to Siam after 17 months in Europe but surviving records do not tell us what they reported upon concerning their journey. But we do know that within a few years telescopes had arrived in Siam itself. The Ayutthaya Chronicles record that during the reign of King Songtham (r.1611 – 1628), a footprint of the Buddha was discovered in rocks near Saraburi. The king ordered a temple to be built at the site, called naturally Wat Phra Phuttabat (Temple of the Buddha’s Footprint).

Wat Phra Phuttabat
Wat Phra Phuttabat in Saraburi province is still an important temple

King Songtham ordered two brigades of farangs “to survey and cut a wide passage for a land route all the way straight to the boat landing, to cut down the jungle with knives and to pound the surface level so it was pleasingly smooth to form a finished imperial highway.” In order to make the road as straight as possible a Dutch engineer with a telescope was employed to survey the construction route by climbing tall trees to take sightings of the mount where the footprint was located.

King Songtham Road
King Songtham Road in Saraburi, surveyed by a Dutchman with his telescope in the early seventeenth century

This 20km stretch of straight road between Tha Rua on the Pasak River and Wat Phra Phuttabat still exists, officially called King Songtham Road. The locals however, still know it as “Thanon farang song klong” or “Foreigner looking through a telescope road”.

Diplomatic Astronomy

Eight decades after those first ambassadors had traveled from Ayutthaya to Europe, diplomatic relations were reaching a splendid peak as the court of King Narai exchanged numerous embassies with the courts of Europe, especially that of King Louis XIV of France (Read more about this in Siamrat’s earlier article here). In September 1685 the first of Louis XIV “great embassies” arrived in Siam. In the delegation of court officials were six Jesuit priests trained in the latest mathematics and astronomy. The Royal Academy of Paris had equipped them with thermometers, barometers, quadrants, orreries, compasses, clocks and a variety of telescopes ranging up to 24 metres in length.

The French ambassadors and the Jesuit astronomers followed the king to Lop Buri where the Jesuits prepared to observe a lunar eclipse predicted for the 11th December. Initially they were lodged in a bamboo house where they quickly found that constant vibrations caused havoc with their pendulum clocks and carefully positioned telescopes. But on 10th December the king invited the Jesuits to join him at his “country retreat”, a palace now known as Kraison Siharat Palace, then located on a peninsula within a large reservoir outside of Lop Buri city.

Kraison Siharat Palace
The modern day remains of King Narai’s “country retreat” Kraison Siharat Palace

The Jesuits set up their equipment on “the water terrace” beside the reservoir. A 1.5 metre telescope was set up for the king’s use whilst the Jesuits set up other telescopes for their scientific observations. The lunar eclipse commenced about 3am at which time the king was called to join the observations. The king soon requested to look through a longer 3.5 metre telescope being used by one of the priests. In order to move and adjust this telescope for the king it was necessary for the priests to stand in the royal presence, an exceptional honour which all those present noted.

Observing the lunar eclipse from the water terrace
A contemporary drawing of King Narai and the lunar eclipse observations of 11th December 1685

King Narai had long been interested in scientific and technical knowledge and he clearly enjoyed his observations of the lunar eclipse, commenting on the spots (i.e. craters) seen on the moon and engaging the Jesuits with many questions about the observations and what could be learnt from them.

The 1688 Solar Eclipse

Following the great success of the 1685 observations King Narai was readily persuaded to erect an observatory building similar to that in Paris. Furthermore, when just a few days later the French ambassadors embarked for the return journey to France he wrote a letter to King Louis XIV inviting him to send more Jesuit missionary-astronomers. King Louis XIV obliged by sending sixteen new Jesuits to Siam, these arriving in late September 1687. On their arrival they were greeted by the original Jesuit contingent and at Lop Buri they admired the newly constructed Wat San Paulo observatory.

wat san paulo observatory
A contemporary drawing of Wat San Paulo, its tower modelled on the Paris Observatory. In reality this building was never fully completed due to King Narai’s death.

Another lunar eclipse was predicted for 16th April 1688 which King Narai, who had been seriously ill since February, observed from his Lop Buri palace. The Jesuit astronomers made their observations from Wat San Paulo which turned out to be the only time the observatory was used.

ruins of Wat San Paulo
The ruins of Wat San Paulo’s observation tower can still be seen today in Lop Buri

Two weeks later on 30th April a partial solar eclipse swept across Siam. Starting just after dawn at 6.40am the event lasted just under two hours with 73% of the sun’s diameter covered at mid-point. Due to the king’s ill health the Jesuits were requested to set up their equipment at the palace in Lop Buri so that the king could attend the observations. In the event he joined the Jesuits for less than half an hour because “the weather was not as good as one would have hoped.”

King Narai observes a partial solar eclipse
King Narai observes a partial solar eclipse at his Lop Buri palace on 30th April 1688

Despite King Narai’s interest in the mathematical science of astronomy, for many others in his kingdom the eclipse was a sign of ill-boding. With the king seriously ill and foreigners at court contending for influence it was a time of high political tension. Less than three weeks after the partial eclipse King Narai was dead, possibly hurried to his grave by poison, and his chief minister Phetracha took the throne whilst disposing ruthlessly of all opponents. Under this new regime the French were expelled from Siam and it would be two hundred years before relations with Europe would again reach the same level.

King Mongkut’s Eclipse Expedition

It was King Mongkut (Rama IV. r.1851 – 1868) who most famously revived the royal interest in telescopes and astronomy. Mongkut was intellectually curious and had a keen interest in western science and technology. Prior to becoming king, he had spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk during which time he had learnt how to accurately calculate the occurrence of eclipses. At his new hill-top palace in Petchaburi he constructed an observatory so that he could indulge his interest in astronomy.

Chatchawan Wiangchai Observatory
Chatchawan Wiangchai Observatory built by King Mongkut at his hill-top palace in Petchaburi

On 18th August 1868 a total solar eclipse passing over southern Thailand presented King Mongkut with a prime opportunity to display both his skill in the science of astronomy and the superiority of the new western sciences over traditional beliefs. The king himself calculated the path and the exact timing of the eclipse and then invited both British and French diplomats and scientists as well as court astrologers, nobles and member of the royal family to observe the event at the village of Wakor in Prachuap Khiri Khan province south of Hua Hin.

planisphere and telescope
King Mongkut’s personal star chart and telescope on display at the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology, Wakor

The British delegation were led by Sir Harry Ord, Governor of the Straits Settlements. The French appear to have focused more on the science, setting up their own observation camp led by the Director of Marseilles Observatory together with two astronomers from the Paris Observatory.

king mongkut's expedition at wakor
King Mongkut (Raised on a podium) attending the solar eclipse observations at Wakor village, 18th August 1868. Sir Henry Ord, the British Governor of the Straits Settlement, is standing in the centre, left from the king.

On the day of the eclipse observations were nearly spoilt by poor weather but at the last moment the clouds parted and the eclipse was witnessed for almost 7 minutes duration, exactly as predicted. For King Mongkut it was a compelling demonstration to his court of the powers of western science as well as his own skills in this new art.

Unfortunately once again the event confirmed for many their traditional belief that an eclipse was a very bad omen. Within weeks eight people who had attended the expedition to Wakor had died of malaria including the king himself who passed away on 1st October 1868.

King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology
The King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology is today located at the site of King Mongkut’s eclipse expedition

Today the site of that famous expedition to Wakor is marked by the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology which provides educational facilities for Thai school children.

Astronomy Under Ramas V and VII

King Mongkut’s son and heir, the fifteen year old Chulalongkorn, also very nearly expired from the same malarial infection after the Wakor expedition. Despite this experience King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) carried on his father’s enthusiasm for astronomy. In April 1875 another solar eclipse was predicted to pass across Thailand just north of the 1868 path. King Chulalongkorn invited a team of British astronomers to make observations who arrived from Britain with just a few days to spare. The British team was accompanied to the observation site by various members of the royal household although the king himself did not attend.

British expedition of 1875
The British solar eclipse expedition of 1875

In 1929 King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) continued this royal tradition by inviting both British and German astronomers to observe a solar eclipse from Pattani province. Unfortunately on the day in May heavy cloud prevented any observations from being made.

Modern Astronomy in Thailand

Despite the disappointment of the 1929 expeditions the organiser, Colonel Phra Salvidhan Nides, went on to become Thailand’s first lecturer in astronomy at Chulalongkorn University.

thai national observatory
The Thai National Observatory on Mount Inthanon, Chiang Mai (http://www.narit.or.th/)

In 1977 Chiang Mai University led the way in developing the nation’s first courses in astrophysics. This led eventually to the establishment in 2009 of the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT) in Chiang Mai. NARIT organises collaboration with Thai and international universities and manages the Thai National Observatory located on Doi Inthanon , Thailand’s highest mountain. Their 2.4m reflector telescope with “Ritchey-Chretien” optics is a far cry from Hans Lipperhey’s primitive instrument likely witnessed by Siamese ambassadors four hundred years ago.

Where To Go

References

  1. “The Netherlands, Siam and the telescope. The first Asian encounter with a Dutch invention”, Henk Zoomers, The Origins of the Telescope Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2010
  2. “The Role of Eclipses and European Observers in the Development of ‘Modern Astronomy’ in Thailand”, Wayne Orchiston et al, 2019.
  3. Siam & The West 1500 – 1700, Dirk van der Cruysse. Silkworm Books, 2002.
  4. A Relation of the Voyage to Siam 1685, Guy Tachard. White Lotus Press, 1999.
  5. Thailand’s Political History, B.J. Terwiel. River Books. 2005.
  6. http://www.narit.or.th/

Header Image : A display of King Mongkut with one of his telescopes at the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology, Wakor

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