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H9917 Theodolite, 8' surveyors transit, with carrying cases (2), metal / glass / wood / leather / textile, made by Troughton and Simms, London, England, 1855-1865, used at Sydney Observatory Red Hill Station, New South Wales, Australia, 1890-1931. Click to enlarge.

An 8”surveyors transit theodolite

Made 1855-1865
Theodolites have been used to measure horizontal and vertical angles by surveyors since the 1500s. They allow a surveyor to fix a position on the surface of the earth, marking latitude, longitude, and height above sea level, and then map out roads, towns, and plots of land.

Transit theodolites first appeared in the 1840s, the term transit indicates that the telescope can be rotated about the horizontal axis pivoting through 180 degrees and allowing the viewer to easily see both forwards and backwards through the instrument. By 1868 they had become a "favourite instrument" of surveyors, and in the 21st century they are still used in a modern form. The manual method of reading the theodolite has been superseded by automatic reading, and the body of the instrument has become more compact and lighter.

With rapid urban expansion, one of the most important needs of the new colony was to survey and map the landscape of both Sydney, and the Colony's interior. Theodolites, such as this one, were instrumental to the colony's surveyors, and would have played an important part in their everyday work.

This theodolite was made by Troughton and Simms, who were significant scientific instrument makers of the 19th century. The Museum has other sizes of Troughton and Simms theodolites in the collection, as well as other instruments such as telescopes.

This transit theodolite remains of national significance due to its pioneering role in Australian science and its association with Australia's earliest surveyors and astronomers. It is also significant for its association with nineteenth century surveying instruments and instrument makers.

J. A. Bennett, The Divided Circle, Christies Pty, 1987 pg 90
W. D. Haskoll, Land and Marine Surveyors, London, 1868, pg 81.
J. A. Bennet and O. Brown, The [Compleat] Surveyor, The Whipple Museum of the History of science, 1982. pg 17

Written by Erika Dicker, Assistant Curator, November 2007.


Object No.


Object Statement

Theodolite, 8' surveyors transit, with carrying cases (2), metal / glass / wood / leather / textile, made by Troughton and Simms, London, England, 1855-1865, used at Sydney Observatory Red Hill Station, New South Wales, Australia, 1890-1931

Physical Description

A theodolite in two main parts, a horizontal circle and a vertical circle with a telescope. The horizontal circle has a vernier scale, with three microscope eyepieces to aid in reading of vernier scale. The horizontal circle sits on a support with three adjustable legs. Two 'A' frames form a support for the vertical circle, telescope, and a spirit level. The vertical circle has two eyepieces for reading the vernier scale around its perimeter. Another spirit level can be fixed over the top of the vertical circle, supported by two inverted 'Y' legs on the 'A' frame. A trough compass fits into a slot under the calibrated disc on the theodolite. The compass consists of a long rectangular metal box with a glass window in one side. Inside the window is a long metal needle that is pointed at both ends. The needle moves on a central axis. Accompanying the theodolite are attachments for suspending a plumb-bob, various pieces for securing theodolite during assembly and an eyepiece. The theodolite has two wooden storage boxes with hinged lids. Each wooden box fits into a leather case that can be closed using two metal buckles.

Observatory Stock number 247.



510 mm


250 mm


355 mm





This transit theodolite was made by Troughton and Simms in London, England between 1855 and 1865.

In 1782 John Troughton purchased Benjamin Cole's shop in Fleet Street, London enabling him to sell his own signed products. His instrument making business supported several dynasties of Troughton's before becoming Troughton and Simms and later still Cooke Troughton & Simms. This firm was one of the most well respected firms of instrument makers of the 1800s.

While his brother enjoyed some early success the business really expanded once Edward Troughton (1756-1835) took over the business in 1807. Edward and his brother John were both designers and manufacturers of instruments and the quality of their work won them contracts with the leading Government bodies of the time. These included The Royal Society, the Greenwich Royal observatory, the Board of Longitude, the Board of Ordinance and the East India Company.

One of the main factors in the success of the business was the use of a dividing engine which could speed up the labourious process of marking the small divisions of measurement necessary for scientific instruments. This machine was based on that designed by Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) which had won a prize from the British Board of Longitude in 1775. As a result of this the Board of Longitude was allowed to instruct Ramsden to allow up to ten other instrument makers to copy his machine. One of these was John Troughton and the new machines established both Ramsden's and Troughton's reputations. The dividing engine speeded up both accuracy and production and rather than spending 12 weeks, six days a week and eight hours a day graduating two meridian circles this machine enabled the same job to be completed in around 10 hours.

The workshop produced a broad range of instruments from large telescopes and theodolites through to smaller mathematical instruments. Before 1835 most of the optics appear to have been supplied by Dollond as Edward Troughton was reputed to be colour blind. It is also important to note that from the early years the precision engineering of castings and turnings of their instruments were mainly outsourced to Maudslay Field & Donkin or Ransome's & May.

One of Edward Troughton's apprentices William Simms was taken into partnership in 1826 and after Edward died in 1835 Simms became the manager of the establishment and company became Troughton & Simms. Under Simms the company continued to expand and produced instruments for Britain and her colonies as well as for markets in Europe and America. When William Simms died in 1860 the estate was worth around £80,000. The company was next managed by William Simms (junior) and his cousin James who carried the firm into the industrial age.

The 1860s they moved the company from Fleet St to two acres of land at Charlton on Woolwich Road and by 1866 the factory employed 61 men and 20 boys. For the 1874 transit Troughton & Simms made only five transits and four portable azimuths but did refurbish some older telescopes lent for the occasion. Telescopes and transits of the period they were often hybrids with the structure ordered from Grubb's or Troughton & Simms with lenses from Cooke.

However by 1887 the company was able to produce all the parts necessary for their instruments and the company employed nearly 200 people. James Simms died in 1915 and the company was turned into a limited liability company by his two sons William and James. Things however were not so easy for the two sons and in 1922 the business was brought out by their rival T. Cooke & Sons becoming Cooke, Troughton & Simms.

Todd, David, P., Stars and Telescopes, Sampson Low, Marston, and Co., 1900
Chaldecott, J., 'Printed Ephemera of Some Nineteenth Century Instrument Makers', in Blondel, C., Parot, F., Turner, A., Williams, M., (eds), Studies in the History of Scientific Instruments, Rogers Turner Books, London, 1989
King, H., C., The History of the Telescope, Dover Publications, New York, 1955
McConnell, A., Instrument Makers to the World; a History of Cooke, Troughton and Simms, William Sessions, York, England, 1992



This theodolite was used in the surveying of the boundaries of New South Wales and South Australia. It was also used at the Observatory's Red Hill Station, until the station closed in 1931. After this date, the theodolite was placed on display at Sydney Observatory, and its wooden case also appeared in the exhibition "Red Cedar in Australia" at the Museum of Sydney in 2004.

Red Hill Station was a branch of Sydney Observatory, established in the Beecroft area, the land being set aside in 1886. A year later Sydney Observatory undertook to take part in the 1887 international star mapping program (the Astrographic Catalogue project), and was delegated the task of photographing the stars in a large zone of the southern sky.

Sydney Observatory acquired an astrograph, or star camera, which photographer James Short used at Red Hill Observatory, in 1890, to take several photographs of the stars.

The Red Hill Observatory was only set up on a permanent basis from 1899. Star mapping then began there in earnest and continued until Short's retirement in 1931 when the site was closed and all equipment moved back to Sydney Observatory in the city.

The site of Red Hill Station is now a nature reserve, named Observatory Park, and contains a small stone memorial to the astronomical history of the area.

Helen Barker, Local Colour, Official Organ of Hornsby Shire Historical Society,
Vol 4, No 7. 1987.
Red Hill Observatory Park, Its History and Regeneration, Hornsby Shire Council, 1999.

Cite this Object


An 8"surveyors transit theodolite 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 28 May 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=An 8"surveyors transit theodolite |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=28 May 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.

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