The Solar System in a box

By BLUNT, Thomas, 1800 

Drum Orrery with planetarium, tellurian and lunarium attachments

Planetaria, calendars, and dials
  • Author: BLUNT, Thomas
  • Publication place: London
  • Publisher: T. Blunt [22 Cornhill
  • Publication date: c1800].
  • Physical description: Brass instrument composed of drum box housing the wheelwork, engraved and graduated on top, the edge indented, mounted on a pillar and tripod foot, and the accessories: detachable crank handle; a central sphere representing the sun; the tellurian arm with engraved pocket globe A New Terrestrial Globe by J. Newton 1800’, brass twilight and index pointers, on a functional multi-wheeled geared mechanism; the lunarium arm, with two spheres for the Earth and the Moon on a multi-wheeled geared mechanism; seven articulated mechanical arms, each mounted with spheres to illustrate the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth (the Moon on a separate arm), Mars, Jupiter (with four moons), Saturn (with ring and seven moons), Uranus (with six moons); all contained within original locking mahogany case.
  • Dimensions: Drum box diameter: 225mm (8.75 inches). Pocket globe diameter: 70mm (2.75 inches). Height: 480mm (19 inches). Max span: 480mm (19 inches).
  • Inventory reference: 15639


A rare complete orrery fashioned for the travelling astronomer.

Thomas Blunt (1735/45–1823) was an English scientific instrument maker based in London. He apprenticed with Edward Nairne and later became his business partner, setting up a shop with him on Cornhill from 1774 to 1793. They sold telescopes and microscopes, surveying and marine instruments, reading glasses, globes and electrical machines”, for which Nairne was famous. Blunt was member, and for some time Master, of the Spectacle Makers’ Guild, and by 1794 he had acquired the honour of Mathematical Instrument Maker to His Majesty”. He separated from Nairne and opened a new shop just two doors down, and trained three of his sons.

The present orrery can be labelled Martin-type” due to its simplified mechanism, which was popularised by the leading British scientist Benjamin Martin (1704/05–1782), who was also known for publishing one of the earliest English dictionaries. He wrote and lectured on science and astronomy, eventually setting up a shop on Fleet Street where he sold, and potentially also built, instruments of all types from reading glasses to solar microscopes. His low prices and itinerant speaking helped make scientific knowledge accessible to the British public, and in 1764 he was asked to re-supply Harvard with instruments after a fire at the university. Towards the end of his life he failed to win a fellowship to the Royal Society and fell into bankruptcy, but he was still acknowledged by contemporaries to be one of the greatest mathematicians of the age on his death.
Martin was particularly concerned that elaborate orreries demanded too high prices and were thus only found in the collections of wealthier patrons. He therefore suggested a system where the planets would be moved by only two gear wheels each, reducing the mechanism to its simplest form. The periods would not be as accurate as those of grand orreries, but they would be sufficient for demonstration purposes.

In this example, the orrery can be set up in three ways by means of its attachments:
1. Planetarium, with arms for each planet, to display the scale and movements of celestial bodies in the Solar System.
2. Tellurian, carrying the larger Earth-globe, to show the Earth’s movement and its relationship with the Sun, therefore explaining the progression
of day and night, the change of seasons and eclipses.
3. Lunarium, with the Earth and Moon spheres, to show the Moon’s rotation and its relationship with the Earth and the Sun.

Brass orreries of any type rarely to appear on the market. 


From the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon (1910–2014), American horticulturalist, philanthropist and art collector. 

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