The Orrery — The Regency Solar System in Miniature

Though I have not yet read a Regency novel in which an orrery has been introduced, these complex and often exquisite objects were very popular during that decade. Many cultured gentlemen, or gentlemen with pretensions to culture, would have had an orrery on display in their library or book room, often alongside a terrestrial globe, usually paired with a celestial globe.

A brief history of the orrery and some personal recollections of these elegant devices …

The simplest description of an orrery is that it is a mechanical model of the solar system, often powered by internal clockwork, which demonstrates the movement of the important heavenly bodies. There are many mechanical devices stretching back into antiquity which were constructed to model the solar system and/or other celestial objects. In that context, the orrery is a relative newcomer. About 1710, two of the most renowned English clockmakers, George Graham and Thomas Tompion, built two proto-types of the device which was to become the orrery. These proto-types were models of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon, traveling in their respective orbits, driven by clockwork. Soon thereafter, John Rowley, the noted London instrument-maker, saw one or both of these devices. He then built a larger, more complex version which included the Sun, all the known planets of the solar system and the Earth’s Moon. The clockwork mechanism inside Rowley’s device put all of these heavenly bodies into their relative motions. Some sources suggest this first device was constructed for the Prince of Savoy, but other sources indicate that the first device was constructed for, and named after, Rowley’s patron, the Earl of Orrery. Thus was the orrery born.

Through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, orreries were constructed in a wide range of sizes and levels of complexity. The smallest and least complicated orreries were very like the proto-types built by Graham and Tompion, they modeled only the Sun, the Earth and the Moon. The largest and most complex orreries depicted not only the Sun and the known planets of the solar system, but also all of the known moons of those planets. Until 1781, planetary orreries had only six planets. Those built after 1781 had seven planets, as that was the year in which Uranus was discovered. Some of these more complex orreries included an armillary sphere, a model of the heavens beyond the solar system into which the orrery would be set.

Orreries could be driven by two different types of mechanisms. The deluxe models contained a clockwork mechanism which could be wound up, typically with a key, just like a clock. This mechanism would then put all of the heavenly bodies into motion in their respective orbits. The motion of the less lavish orreries were driven by a series of gears which was powered by a small hand crank. These orreries would only remain in motion so long as someone turned the handle, while the deluxe orreries could run independently for as long as an hour, depending on the design of the clockwork which powered it. Many had some type of switch or lever which would allow them to be turned on and off, so they did not have to be left going until the clockwork ran down. In some cases, pillar clocks had a small orrery built on a platform on the top of the clock.

The materials from which orreries were made varied widely, from gold, silver or brass, to precious woods, semi-precious stones, ivory, glass, papier mâché and mother-of-pearl. The internal gears and clockwork of most orreries were typically made of brass. The armatures which held the various planets and moons were also usually made of brass, though on the more expensive models they might be gold- or silver-plated. The planets and the moons could be made of many precious and decorative materials. The Sun of many orreries was a gleaming gold ball. The Earth might be made of papier mâché or of tiny pieces of glass in the form of a miniature globe. The Earth’s moon was often made half of ebony and half of ivory, to show its light and dark sides. Semi-precious stones were commonly used to make the planets of an orrery. For example, yellow tiger’s eye might be used for Mercury, blue lapis lazuli might be used for Venus, and red stones like carnelian or jasper might be used for Mars. Various colors of quartz, or mother-of-pearl were often used to make the moons of those planets which had satellites. The bases of the orreries might be made of wood or brass, engraved, painted or covered with a varnished paper on which might be displayed a calendar, the phases of the moon, planetary tables, and/or the signs of the zodiac. If an orrery was surrounded by an armillary sphere, in most cases they were made of brass, but like the armatures, they might sometimes be of gold or silver.

Below are links to a number of illustrations of orreries which I found on the net:

Many years ago I lived for a time in Dublin, Ireland. While I was there, I had the good fortune to be introduced to an older couple who collected antique clocks and scientific instruments. They had turned the first floor of their elegant eighteenth-century Dublin townhouse into a museum where they displayed their extensive collection of these fine objects every Wednesday evening. I was honored and privileged to have been invited to tea after closing on more than one occasion. It was then, when all the museum patrons had departed, and only I, and one or two other avid aficionados remained, that they would open the cases and set the orreries going. Some were powered by clockwork, others had to be operated by a small hand crank. I was delighted when I was offered the opportunity to turn the crank on one of the more elaborate orreries in their collection. It is impossible to appreciate the true allure of these objects until you see them in person, in motion. All of the small planets made of various colored gemstones in orbit around a golden Sun, and all the tiny moons of each planet in orbit around them, accompanied by the soft whirring sound of the clockwork in motion, or the faint grinding of the brass gears. I instantly understood why orreries were so highly prized by the educated and cultured gentlemen, and occasionally ladies, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No computer animation or even a full-size planetarium, regardless of their precision or accuracy, can offer the same intimate fascination as these miniature solar systems in motion.

I can imagine any number of opportunities for an orrery to play a part in a Regency novel. It might be a favorite object of the hero, or the heroine, either of which might have an interest in astronomy, perhaps left to them by a beloved parent or mentor. It might be used to hide a secret missive, the presence of which would be discovered when the orrery is disassembled because it has ceased to run. One or all of the planets might be the hide-in-plain-sight location of one or many precious stones. The possibilities are endless. I hope that sometime soon, one or more authors of Regency novels will consider incorporating an orrery into an upcoming story. I, for one, would be most gratified to know the orrery would not be lost to the mists of time and its fascination and elegance will survive into the twenty-first century.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to The Orrery — The Regency Solar System in Miniature

  1. One of my heroes–a scientifically minded rake!–actually owned an orrery and it appears in my book “The Rake’s Reflection”. Thank you for more details about these instruments!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oh, YUMMM!!! I love the idea of a scientifically minded rake!!! I am definitely going to be getting a copy of your book, right away!!! I always enjoy your stories!

      Thanks for posting so others will also be able to enjoy your story, too.

      The Rake’s Reflection can be acquired from Uncial Press.


  2. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   Venus Occults Jupiter | The Regency Redingote

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