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Documenting the Moon with James Nasmyth

05/19/14

So what do you do when you retire at the ripe old age of 48 after a successful career developing things like the steam hammer (great for trains) and hydraulic press (excellent for manufacturing)? Apparently back in the early 19th century, golfing and luxury cruises weren’t on the itinerary. Scottish inventor and engineer James Nasmyth instead decided to kick back, relax, and start making mind-numbingly detailed sketches of the moon. You know, as one does.

After building his own 20-inch reflecting telescope, inadvertently inventing what is now known as the “Nasmyth Focus” still in use today, he began his research, eventually publishing the book The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, co-created with British astronomer James Carpenter. Since photography was, at the time, more adept at capturing things less than 238,900 miles away—say, for instance, seated family portraits and bucolic landscapes—Nasmyth and Carpenter were forced to get creative. Starting with Nasmyth’s chalk drawings, the two created plaster models of the lunar surface, lighting them from various angles, and taking photos. The result was a combo of art and science, Nasmyth taking some creative license to jazz things up a bit, adding some fantasy to a relatively undocumented landscape.

Despite its embellishments, the work was still embraced by astronomers, and, as Nasmyth himself once bragged, regarded as “the best examples of the moon’s surface which had yet been produced.” We’ll forgive the guy a bit of arrogance; he was doing this stuff in his off-time.