Archive for April 15, 2019

Our Lady of Paris

Posted in Architecture, History with tags , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

As I write, a catastrophic fire is raging in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Having started on the roof (or perhaps in a space underneath it), the flames spread rapidly through the mediaeval timbers of the building, bringing down the ceiling onto the nave, and causing the spire to collapse.

Restoration work on the roof started just four days ago and the area where the fire began was surrounded by scaffolding. Though nobody yet knows for sure what caused the fire, it seems likely to have been something to do with the ongoing repairs.

Watching the video streamed live from the scene with increasing horror, it seemed to me that the firemen were helpless to halt the advancing inferno. They just couldn’t get enough water onto the top of the huge structure quickly enough to contain the blaze. It was heartbreaking viewing. I fear very little will be left standing and most of the interior will have been completely destroyed, as this drone picture suggests:

At least there seem to have been no fatalities, although one brave fireman is reported to be seriously injured.

The loss of an iconic building like Notre Dame is shattering event for anyone who has been there, as I have on several occasions. Nobody who has seen the splendour of the 13th Century Rose Windows, for example, will ever forget the experience, so the destruction feels like losing a part of one’s own life. But above all it is a terrible loss for the people of Paris, as Notre Dame is the embodiment of so much of that beautiful and ancient city’s history.

Nobody put this better than Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris:

Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thus—to mention here only a few of the chief details—whereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbey—the Church of the Mystics—Gothic art—Saxon art—the ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Luther—papal unity—schism—Saint-Germain-des-Prés—Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie—all are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a third—something of all.

I’m sure Parisians will be in a state of shock tonight and that will turn to something very close to grief. Mere words from me won’t help much, but let me in any case express my profound sadness and sympathy to my French friends and colleagues in Paris and around the world.

But if I know them at all, the French will soon set about the task of rebuilding, probably creating something majestic and extraordinary to replace what has been lost.

UPDATE: the morning after, it seems the fire was brought under control quickly enough to save the walls and towers, and at least one of the Rose Windows.

That this has been achieved owes everything to the courage and skill of the Pompiers, 500 of whom fought the blaze last night. Magnifique.

Grubb Parsons: the Irish Connection

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

The other day I stumbled across an interesting article that discusses, among other things, the famous telescope and optical instrument manufacturing company, Grubb Parsons. The piece is a few years old but I didn’t see it when it came out. It’s well worth a read.

Grubb Parsons was still a famous company when I was at school, but it closed down in 1985. The main works were in Heaton, in Newcastle Upon Tyne, not far from where I was born; my father went to Heaton Grammar School.

Grubb Parsons made a huge number of extremely important astronomical telescopes, including the Isaac Newton Telescope, pictured above at the works in Heaton.

Interestingly, the names ‘Grubb’ and ‘Parsons’ both have strong Irish connections.

Howard Grubb was born in Dublin in 1844 and in 1864 he joined the optical instruments company set up there by his father Thomas Grubb. When his father died in 1878 Howard Grubb took over the Grubb Telescope Company and consolidated its reputation for manufacturing high quality optical components and devices. He was knighted in 1887.

Back in 1845 Thomas Grubb had helped build the famous ‘Leviathan‘ telescope for William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle in County Offaly.

Charles Algernon Parsons, who took over the Grubb Telescope Company after it was liquidated in 1925, and relocated it to Tyneside, was the youngest son of William Parsons ( just as Howard Grubb was the youngest son of Thomas). He no doubt kept the name Grubb in the company name because of its associated reputation.

Parsons had a wide range of business interests besides telescopes, mainly in the marine heavy engineering sector, especially steam turbines. When I was a lad, ‘C A Parsons & Company’ was still one of the biggest employers on Tyneside. It still exists but as part of Siemens and is a much smaller operation than in its heyday.

One final connection is that Sir Howard Grubb and Sir Charles Algernon Parsons both passed away in the same year, 1931.