Newall’s legacy in engineering and astronomy 

Inside of a telescope dome which is open. A very long white telescope is shown pointing out of the open roof of the dome.

In 1957 Newall’s telescope was donated to the National Observatory of Athens. The telescope is still in use today. Despite its size the instrument is so evenly balanced that it can easily be moved by the observer. Credit: Theofanis Matsopoulos

Robert Newall was a Scottish 19th-century visionary from Dundee who made discoveries in many areas. He revolutionised the manufacture of wire rope, built the largest telescope of his time, and even served twice as mayor of Gateshead.

Robert Stirling Newall (1812-1889) invented a machine that made extremely strong wire ropes. These were perfect for use by the shipping and the mining industries. Newall became very rich from his invention. During the Crimean War, he also helped lay vital communication cables. He was even involved in rescue missions.

Newall’s cosmic curiosity led him to pay Thomas Cooke to build the colossal Newall telescope in 1870. It was the biggest telescope in the world at the time. His 9 metre long telescope dominated his Ferndene estate in Gateshead. After his death in 1889 the telescope was donated to the Cambridge observatory. This telescope is now in the National Observatory of Athens.

Due to light pollution, Gateshead was not the best place to put a telescope. Newall wrote to a good friend in 1885 to say that since 1870 there had only been one perfect night for observing the night sky.

Did you know... 

Newall’s telescope was so big that it could be seen by passengers on the train to Scotland.

Relevance today

The Newall telescope is still operational today in the much sunnier skies of Athens, Greece! It continues to inspire visitors from all around the world.

Related artefacts

Sketches of the Moon and a sunspot group made by artist Henry Holiday using the Newall Telescope at Gateshead 1870-1871

The painter Henry Holiday made these sketches by looking through the Newall telescope. These drawings are what he saw.

The images on the right show three sketches Holiday made of craters on the Moon (top left, top right, bottom left) and one sketch of a sunspot (bottom right).
Note: for the sketch of the sunspot Holiday used a solar filter on the telescope to make it safe. Never look directly at the Sun without special equipment!

Original sketches held at University of Cambridge, Institute of Astronomy.

Hand drawn sketch of a Moon crater.
Hand drawn sketch of Moon craters.
Hand drawn sketch of a Moon crater.
Hand drawn sketch showing sun spots (which look like black slodges)
A bearded man sitting on a platform looking into the eye piece of a very long telescope that is on a several metre high mount.

The Newall Telescope at Ferndene, Gateshead in 1872. Credit: Apollo - University of Cambridge Repository.

Photograph of Robert Stirling Newall and his telescope in Gateshead

In 1870, the Newall telescope at Ferndene, Gateshead, was the world's largest refracting telescope. Crafted by Thomas Cooke, a York-based instrument maker, it shared its design with the blue Cooke telescope showcased in this exhibition.