World Wide Words logo


Pronounced /ˈɒrəri/Help with IPA

The orrery was invented by George Graham about 1710; the first example was constructed by the London instrument maker John Rowley. It was a device of arms and balls and gears, run by clockwork, that showed how the planets and their satellites moved around the sun as time passed; the Earth typically took about ten minutes to go round once, so it could hardly have been an enthralling spectacle by the standards of today.

We ought to call it a graham, after its inventor, but John Rowley made a copy for Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, and ingratiatingly named it in his honour. It’s really a reference to a geographic area, since the Boyles took their title from an ancient term for a part of County Cork, Ireland. (Boyle was described later that century as “one of the literary ornaments of the reign of Queen Anne”; he was a relative of the more famous Robert Boyle, he of Boyle’s law.)

The orrery became a popular amusement and teaching device; no progressive educational establishment was without one. But not everybody was enthralled by it; in 1833 the Astronomer Royal, John Herschel, called it a “childish toy”, and Charles Dickens wrote an unflattering description of a public lecture that featured one in The Uncommercial Traveller: “My memory presents a birthday when Olympia and I were taken by an unfeeling relative — some cruel uncle, or the like — to a slow torture called an Orrery ... It was a venerable and a shabby Orrery, at least one thousand stars and twenty-five comets behind the age. Nevertheless, it was awful”.

Page created 25 Sep. 1999

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 25 September 1999.