Posted on June 2, 2017
The Manila Observatory
I’ve spent some moments in the Manila Observatory during a number of meetings of the Philippine Astronomical Society. The late Father Victor Badillo, who worked as a scientist and astronomer in the establishment, graciously allowed us to hold our meetings in their premises and to conduct stargazing activities on the building’s roof deck. He also showed us the 3.5-inch Questar telescope which Father Francis Heyden, one of the most notable scientists who worked in the Observatory, owned. Sometime in 2001, I brought my newly-arrived Astroscan to the Manila observatory for a stargazing session- these were memorable days.
The Manila Observatory was not originally built in its present site in the Ateneo De Manila Campus in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. It was originally built in the suburbs of Intramuros Manila- “the Inner City”. This suburb is now named Padre Faura named after founder of the Observatory in 1865 (formerly known as Observatorio Meteorologica De Manila). The Observatory engaged in weather observations and forecasting but later expanded into the study of meteorology, astronomy and geomagnetism. It was then established by the American colonial government as the Philippine Weather Bureau. In 1897, a 19-inch refracting telescope was installed in a dome of the Observatory.
While browsing my collection of old books, I came across the book of Joseph Earle Stevens, “Yesterdays in the Philippines”, written in 1899 and reprinted by the Filipiniana Book Guild in 1968. As I scoured bookstores sometime in 1979, I found and bought a copy of Steven’s book for just Php 17.50.
The Introduction to the Filipiniana Book Guild edition, written by E.D.Hester, describes Stevens as follows:
“No more is known of Joseph Earle Stevens than what is revealed in Yesterdays in the Philippines, including the portrait on the frontispiece: a pleasant, probably arrogant, young Bostonian proto-sahib…Stevens’ life in Manila was socially bound within a small Anglo-Saxon community of traders, bankers, and clerks. He found the living good and comfortable. He relished low-level luxury basically afforded by meager native wages, club life, and the amenities foreign to all but the Brahmins of his Victorian Boston…”
Stevens’ picture in Yesterdays in the Philippines
As I was browsing Steven’s account, I stumbled upon his description of the Manila Observatory. Stevens described the Observatory in very generous terms and I couldn’t help but feel proud that, once upon a time, the Philippines had a state-of the-art observatory.
According to Stevens:
“Manila is said to have the most complete astronomical, meteorological, and seismological observatory anywhere east of the Mediterranean.”
Stevens met Padre Faura, a legendary figure in history, face to face. My only affiliation with his memory is the big medal bearing his visage, the Padre Faura Award Medal, awarded to me by the Philippine Astronomical Society for my contributions to Astronomy in the Philippines.
Stevens’ description of Padre Faura, who was also a teacher, gave us a hint of the man being amiable, accommodating, and eager to share his knowledge to people who have the curiosity for such things.
According to Stevens:
“…Padre Faura gave us a long discourse on typhoons, earthquakes, and various other phenomena…He seemed much impressed by the United States, and at our departure presented us with one of the monthly observatory reports…”
The observatory reports were exhaustive and provided great detail on the natural phenomena observed and recorded by the observatory.
Stevens continues with his account on this:
“the monthly observatory reports] give the whole story of the movements of the earth, winds, heavens, tides, stars, and clouds at every hour of the day and night, for every day during the month, and for every month during the year.”
The monthly observatory report had the title of Boletin del Observatorio de Manila. An online source, www.manresa-sj.org, gives us an idea of the importance of the work of Padre Faura:
“Faura’s monthly Boletin del Observatorio de Manila was in much demand. The observatory became so important that the Spanish government designated it an official institution and secondary stations were set up throughout Luzon. The aneroid barometer, designed by Faura for use in the Philippines and the most accurate weather gauge in the area, became a household article. The observatory went on to establish a time service, make seismological observations, publish a seismological bulletin, and eventually undertake astronomical studies. After his death the street nearest the observatory was named after him.”
Stevens himself found good reason to visit the Observatory on the strength of its reputation:
“Not to miss anything of such reputation, several of us [ note: these were probably members of a club he visited] decided to make a call on Padre Faura, who presides over the institution, and who is well known scientifically all over the world. At the observatory we were cordially received by an assistant, who spoke English well enough to turn us off from using Spanish, and were conducted over the establishment.”
He then described to us, in a manner reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, why the Manila Observatory was the most complete astronomical, meteorological, and seismological observatory in this part of the world:
“Here were machines which would write down the motions of the earth in seismological disturbances, and which conveyed to the ear various subterranean noises going on below the surface. Still other instruments were so delicate that they rang electric bells were mutterings took place far underground, asnd thus warned the observers of approaching trouble. Another, into which you could look, showed a moving black cross on a white ground that danced at all the slight tremblings continually going on; and the rumbling of a heavy cart over the neighboring highroad would make it tremble with excitement.”
He was describing here the seismographs which were housed in a massive structure:
“A solid tower of rock twenty feet square extended up through the building from bottom to top, and was entirely disconnected with the surrounding structure. On this column all of the earthquake-instruments were arranged; and any sort of an oscillation that took place would be recorded in ink on charts arranged for the purpose. Various wires and electric connections were everywhere visible, and an approaching disturbance would be sure to set enough bells and tickers a-going to arouse one of the attendants.”
He accurately described the building and the meteorological section of the Observatory:
“The great school building in which the observatory was placed was fully six hundred feet square, with a large court-yard in the center containing fountains and tropical plants in profusion. After leaving the lower portions of the building, we ascended through long hallways to visit the meteorological department above. Barometers, thermometers, wind-gauges, rain-measurers, and all sorts of recording instruments filled a most interesting room…”
He and company climbed all the way to the top of the Observatory which, was at that time, probably one of the tallest structures in the city. From the Internet, I was able to find this image of the view of the surroundings- the city of Manila itself seen from the Observatory:
“Vista Desde el Observatorio, View from the Manila Observatory, Ermita, Manila, Philippines, 1887 From the old photograph album book “Escuela Normal de Manila, Exposicion de Madrid Ano 1887” Bilioteca Digital Hispanica Copyright: National Library of Spain
Stevens described the view as follows:
“From the roof of the observatory a splendid view of the city, Bay, and adjacent country may be had, and Manila lay before us steaming in the sun.”
Stevens went on to describe the astronomical section of the Observatory:
“Before leaving, we saw the twenty-inch telescope, constructed in Washington under the direction of the Padre who was our guide, which is soon to be installed in a special building constructed for the purpose.” /
These were the glorious days for Philippine astronomy and science.
From the Manila Observatory Archives archives.observatory.ph