John Roach's Instruments in Sydney


By Julian Holland


Reprinted from
Rittenhouse - Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise,
Vol. 6, No. 1 (November 1991), pp. 20-24

NOTE:  This version is not exactly as printed
 and also includes additional illustrations.


Most of the surveying instruments used in the Colony of New South Wales in the nineteenth century were imported from England.  Towards the end of the century some large instruments were purchased from German manufacturers.  Among the surviving instruments once used for official work in New South Wales it is therefore surprising to find three by John Roach of San Francisco, two surveyor's compasses and a solar compass.

Born in Ireland, John Roach (1813-1891) was in business in New York by 1834, advertising himself variously as a "philosophical instrument maker" and "optician".  He offered a wide range of apparatus including cameras, galvanic batteries, thermometers, and achromatic objective lenses.  Roach also made surveying instruments, which he seems to have specialised in after his move to San Francisco in the mid 1850s. (1)

The two surveyor's compasses are marked "S.G.O. / 71" (right) and "S.G.O. / 72" (left) respectively, indicating that they once belonged to the Surveyor-General's Office in New South Wales.  The solar compass is merely marked "S.G.O.", suggesting that it was the only instrument of its kind in the Surveyor-General's Office.

John Roach's trade label is in the lids of the two wooden boxes for the surveyor's compasses, obscured by another label in one (SGO 71).  The dark blue label with gold lettering lists six awards granted to Roach between 1862 and 1875, so it seems likely that the surveyor's compasses were made after 1875.

Since the Surveyor-General's Office appears to have maintained a parallel series of SGO numbers for each type of instrument in their inventory, it should be possible to date one instrument relative to another.  A surveyor's compass marked "SGO / 69", manufactured by Barker & Son of London probably not before 1880, suggests that the Roach instruments were acquired after that date. (2)  When other numbers in the sequence can be correlated it may be possible to give a firmer date.  The three American instruments may have been new when they came to Sydney and purchased by the Government, or they may have been the property of a surveyor migrating from California who may have continued to use them after his arrival in New South Wales.  Unfortunately the Surveyor-General's Office inventory records appear to have been destroyed many years ago.

Surveyor's compass, signed "J. Roach / SAN FRANCISCO" and marked "SGO / 71.
Note the vernier on the face reading to one second of arc.

Other trade labels in the box lids provide further clues to the date of the instruments.  Roach's label in the box for SGO 71 is obscured by the brittle and discoloured label of H. A. Alexander & Co., "Mathematical and Scientific Instrument Makers" of 19 Macquarie Place, Sydney, an address just across the way from the Lands Department building in Bridge Street.  H.A. Alexander & Co. are recorded at this address in the Sydney directories for the years 1891 to 1894.  The sale and repair of surveying instruments was an important feature of their business.  Their trade label illustrates a theodolite and reports "new axes fitted to theodolites if broken, or straightened if bent, & guaranteed perfect".  It is likely that the firm repaired or serviced the Roach instrument.  

The box for SGO 72 has a small label reading "CHAS. F. G. KOPSCH / Scientific Instrument Maker / and Nautical Optician, / 8 BRIDGE-ST., / SYDNEY.".  Charles Kopsch was born in Sydney in 1866.  It is not known when he took over the business begun in the 1870s by his father, Gustavus Kopsch (1832?-1898).

Solar compass signed "JOHN ROACH / Maker / SAN FRANCISCO". 
This highly unusual instrument consist of a base plate from a transit instrument or railroad compass, surmounted by the solar attachment.  Note the telescope mounted to one side.

When the article was written this instrument and the surveyor's compass, SGO 72, were in the Department of Civil and Mining Engineering at the University of Sydney.  They have since been transferred to the Macleay Museum: solar compass (95/020), surveyor's compass (95/019).

The original form of solar compass - patented by its inventor William Austin Burt in 1836 - was widely used in the United States by the 1850s, especially as manufactured by W. & L. E. Gurley of Troy, N.Y. (3)  Others saw the potential for new types of solar instruments, including William Schmoltz (1827-1891).  Born in Stuttgart and trained in Europe, Schmoltz settled in San Francisco in the early 1850s, setting up business as a mathematical instrument maker. (4)  As Roach worked at 429 Montgomery Street, while Schmoltz's address was 430 Montgomery Street, the two men must have been familiar with each other's products.

Detail of Roach solar compass.

Schmoltz received a patent (# 72,687) for his solar transit in December 1867.  The following year Roach exhibited a "Solar Transit Compass" at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute fair, and was awarded a gold medal.  Roach's prize-winning instrument is not known to exist, nor is any detailed description available that would enable a comparison with Schmoltz's patent or the instrument in Sydney.  In 1871 Roach advertised as "manufacturer of solar transits" and other instruments. (5)  W. & L. E. Gurley purchased the rights to Schmoltz's patent in 1874 and for the next ten years manufactured numerous instruments with the solar attachment, paying Schmoltz a $5 royalty for each one sold. (6)  As the case for the solar compass in Sydney is lost, there is no trade label that might help to date the instrument.  Presumably it arrived in Sydney with the Roach surveyor's compasses.

Two of the Roach instruments, SGO 72 and the solar compass, were included in a 1905 list of instruments to be disposed of by the Surveyor-General's Office. (7)  They were transferred the following year to the University of Sydney.  The other surveyor's compass remained in the Lands Department.

Smart located three Roach instruments and noted that two others - one of which has, apparently, recently come on the market (8) - had been serviced by Gurley.  A transit instrument signed "John Roach Maker 218" was also recently offered for sale. (9)  A very heavy wye level marked "John Roach Maker San Francisco 730" is now in the National Museum of American History, a donation from the U.S. Geological Survey.  Together with these instruments, the three in Sydney provide us with a better understanding of John Roach's business and craftsmanship.


(1) Charles Smart, The Makers of Surveying Instruments in America since 1700 (Troy, N.Y., 1962), pp. 144, 147.  See also Roach's advertisements in the New York and San Francisco directories.

(2) This instrument, now in the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney (inv. 80/001/04), matches item No. 1133 in the undated catalogue of F. Barker & Son of 12 Clerkenwell Road, London.  This reference was supplied by Dr J. A. Bennett of the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

(3) William H. Skerritt, et al., "The Solar Surveying Instruments of the W. & L. E. Gurley Company", Rittenhouse 3 (1988): 15-22.

(4) Smart, pp. 148-149.

(5) Roach's advertisement in San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Visitor's Guide.

(6) Skerritt, et al., p. 19; Smart, p. 149.

(7) Trigonometrical Branch letterbook, pp. 404-06.  No other American instruments appear on the list.

(8) The Antiquarian Scientist, Catalog 21 (Winter 1989), item 482.

(9) Perceptions Scientifica  (Winter 88/89), item 22.


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Julian Holland 1991-2005