Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Jesse Ramsden

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Detail of 1789 mural quadrant. The bevelled plate is a vernier scale. Similar details may be seen in the photos of a mural quadrant in Oxford made by John Bird
Ramsden's three-foot theodolite at the Science Museum
c.1795 Barrel microtome designed for cutting thin slices of twigs for examination. Described as the first cutting engine with measurable fine advance. The rotating blade was difficult to make and sharpen. Claimed to have been invented by Alexander Cumming. On display at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford

Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800) FRSE was an astronomical and scientific instrument maker.

1735 October 6th. Born at Salterhebble, Halifax

After serving his apprenticeship with a cloth-worker in Halifax, he went in 1755 to London, where in 1758 he was apprenticed to a mathematical instrument maker.

About four years afterwards he started business on his own account and secured a good reputation with his products.

Ramsden created one of the first high-quality dividing engines. This led to his speciality in dividing circles, which began to supersede the quadrants in observatories towards the end of the 18th century. His most celebrated work was a 5-feet vertical circle, which was finished in 1789 and was used by Giuseppe Piazzi at Palermo in constructing his catalogue of stars.

He was the first to carry out in practice a method of reading off angles (first suggested in 1768 by the Duke of Chaulnes) by measuring the distance of the index from the nearest division line by means of a micrometer screw which moves one or two fine threads placed in the focus of a microscope.

Ramsden's transit instruments were the first which were illuminated through the hollow axis; the idea was suggested to him by Prof. Henry Ussher in Dublin. He published a Description of an Engine for dividing Mathematical Instruments in 1777.

Ramsden is also responsible for the achromatic eyepiece named after him, and also worked on new designs of electrostatic generators.

1786 He was elected to the Royal Society

1791 He completed the Shuckburgh telescope, an equatorial mounted refractor telescope.

In about 1785, Ramsden provided a new large theodolite (see photo) for General William Roy of the Royal Engineers, which was used for a new survey of the distance between Greenwich, London and Paris. This work provided the basis for the subsequent Ordnance Survey of the counties of Britain. For his part with Roy in this work he received the Copley Medal in 1795.

1800 November 5th. He died at Brighton

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