Cambs carpenter who was years ahead of his time

TODAY is Galileo’s birthday – he was born on February 15, 1564. But we don’t have to go back 450 years to find someone building his own telescopes and making astronomical discoveries.

In the 1860s a remarkable man was doing the same thing in Huntingdonshire.

John Wheatley was born to a poor family at Earith and spent most of his life as the village carpenter at Bluntisham. But he did many other things as well.

As a young man he read a book about astronomy and became fascinated with the subject. There was no way a village carpenter could afford to buy a telescope in those days so Wheatley made his own.

Good glass wasn’t available then so most telescopes were reflectors, using a mirror made from a mixture of copper and tin instead of a glass lens.

Wheatley built a furnace outside his workshop and cast his own mirror, then spent six weeks carefully grinding it to the correct curve. The metal was very brittle and his first three attempts all cracked.

But by Christmas 1865 he had a perfect mirror 18 inches in diameter. Four years later an observatory in Australia set up a 48-inch reflector in the “Great Melbourne Telescope” – so on a smaller scale our Bluntisham village carpenter was using the same technology as the foremost observatories in the world.

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Not long afterwards new inventions meant that silvered glass could be used for reflectors and Wheatley could get workable lenses for tubular telescopes as well. He made several and used them to make important observations, corresponding with some of the leading astronomers of the day.

He wasn’t just an astronomer. He was a talented musician, so he made his own cello. He was a devout Nonconformist and played an important part in building the Bluntisham Meeting House and Sunday School in the 1870s, carving the decorative woodwork that can still be seen there.

The Norris Museum has a circular table he made with patterns cut from different woods, complete with his description of how he made it and even which trees the wood came from – oak, maple and walnut, all from Bluntisham.

We’ve still got that 18-inch telescope mirror as well, together with the pitch pipe Wheatley made for starting the hymn-singing in the Meeting House.

This awesomely talented man died in 1888, still the Bluntisham village carpenter.