The oldest telescope in New Zealand

The telescope and the box it came in (below). Photo: supplied
The telescope and the box it came in (below). Photo: supplied
This week, Ian Griffin shares the story of how Tūhura Otago Museum discovered that it had the oldest telescope in New Zealand, dating back to 1736, in the collection.

I first heard about this historic telescope not from my own collections team but in an email from an astronomy colleague, William Tobin.

William Tobin, an emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Canterbury, was not just a scholar but a historian.

After his retirement, he relocated to France, dedicating his days to writing papers on past astronomers. His expertise led him to become one of the world’s authorities on Leon Foucault, the renowned figure behind the pendulum. His knowledge and passion for the subject were unparalleled.

In 2016, I received an email from William asking if we had a particular telescope in our collection, which, if we did, would make it the oldest telescope in New Zealand, surpassing telescopes held by Te Papa and Space Place.

He mentioned he had heard about it via an internet search because he was researching telescopes made by James Short. I forwarded the email to the collections team.

About two days later Tūhura’s curator of humanities turned up in my office, smiling and, I’m not joking about this, clutching a big cardboard box with a handwritten label which said "very old telescope".

After he retired to France, William Tobin had another claim to fame.

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied
William was furious about being disenfranchised in the Brexit vote. As someone who had lived away from the UK for many years, he was not allowed to vote in the Brexit referendum. But, thanks to the electoral rules, he could run for Parliament.

So, in 2019, William Tobin ran in the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. His opponent was Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the UK.

William’s platform was "Don’t vote for Tobin, let Tobin Vote."

He received precisely five votes in the election.

Tobin was no normal politician and sadly died in 2022. But thanks to him, we know the Otago Museum has New Zealand’s oldest telescope.

It is presently displayed in the "Director’s Choice" exhibition on the museum’s stairwell.