A blast from the past

//A blast from the past

Going through all the old ASE material while building the new website, I came across this. Hoping to regularly bring to light a little of our illustrious history. This appeared (probably) in The Scotsman on  October 28, 1937:


Edinburgh City Observatory

An honourable history

[BY DR HECTOR MACPHERSON, F.R.S.E., F.R.A.S.]

The announcement that the Edinburgh Astronomical Association propose to take the Calton Hill Observatory on lease from the Town Council is a very welcome one. Since the death of Mr J.M. Field in April last, the Observatory has been closed, and there was a possibility that it might remain permanently closed.

The Calton Hill Observatory has had a long and honourable history. It dates from 1776, when an optician, James Short, who became famous as a maker of reflecting telescopes, settled in the city. He conceived the idea of setting up an observatory and opening it to the public on the payment of fees, and he made application to the Town Council for permission to erect such a building on the Calton Hill. The Council agreed to this, with the provisio that on Short’s death the building would become the property of the Town Council. Unfortunately, the building was left unfinished. Apparently there was not enough capital at the beginning, and a good deal of money was needlessly wasted in the effort to make the exterior of the Observatory resemble a fortress! So the building remained in a half-finished state. After Short died, it reverted, in terms of the agreement, to the Town Council, in whose hands it remained for some time as a “white elephant”.

Thomas Henderson

In 1811 a number of enthusiastic amateurs banded themselves together under the name of the “Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh.” The Institution was anxious to do practical work in astronomy, and made application to the Council for the use of the unfinished Observatory. This was readily granted; doubtless the Council was only too glad to get rid of the encumbrance. The Observatory was now completed, and the members of the Institution busied themselves in practical astronomical work. A few years later, a young man from Dundee was admitted as a member of the Institution. This was Thomas Henderson, who from a law office in his native town had been appointed to the advocate’s clerkship in the capital. Henderson was a capable clerk, and soon secured promotion, for he became successively secretary to the Whig leaders, the Earl of Lauderdale and Francis Jeffrey, afterwards Lord Advocate and a Judge.

Henderson’s real interest, however, was not in law, but in astronomy. He had begun to study the stars while a mere boy, and he joined the Astronomical Institution immediately he arrived in Edinburgh. The use of the Observatory was a great boon to him, for it enabled him to learn how to handle instruments of precision and to make accurate measurements. So proficient did he become that in 1832 he was recognised as one of the leading astronomers of the day, and was appointed to the important post of His Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape. During his time in South Africa, he succeeded in measuring the distance of the bright southern star, Alpha Centauri. This was a remarkable achievement. The measurement of a star-distance had baffled astronomers for centuries. True, he shares the glory with two German astronomers of the front rank, Bessel and Struve, who were independently at work in the same field. This in no way detracts from the importance of his work.

First Astronomer-Royal for Scotland

Before he had reduced his observations Henderson had returned to Edinburgh as a director of the Observatory in which he had begun his work. In 1828 the Universities Commission took into consideration the teaching of astronomy in Edinburgh University. A Chair of Practical Astronomy had been established in 1785, and a certain Mr Robert Blair was appointed; but he had neither observatory nor instruments. Accordingly he delivered no lectures, held no classes, and for forty years drew his salary for doing nothing. Latterly he wend to live in London, while still drawing the emoluments of the Chair. He died in 1828, and the Universities Commission recommended that his Chair be left vacant until an Observatory was acquired. The Government of the day entered into negotiations with the Astronomical Institution and secured possession of the Calton Hill Observatory. Steps were not taken to fill the vacant Chair, which was conjoined with the directorship of the Observatory. On the holder of the joint office was conferred the title of Astronomer-Royal for Scotland. The Calton Hill Observatory now became the Royal Observatory.

There was only one man in Scotland who was qualified for the post of Astronomer-Royal. This was Henderson, who had just returned from South Africa. There were other applications – strangely enough, one from Thomas Carlyle, who was deeply chagrined by his failure to secure the appointment, notwithstanding the fact that his knowledge of astronomy was very slender.

Piazzi Smyth

Henderson’s tenure of office was brief – ten years in all. Half-way through his term he announced that he had succeeded in measuring the distance of the nearest star – an achievement which, incidentally, shed lustre on the Royal Observatory. He died in 1844, the only Scotsman who has ever held the post of Astronomer-Royal, and was succeeded by Charles Piazzi Smyth, the son of an English naval officer, Admiral Smyth, who had considerable repute as an amateur astronomer, and who named his son “Piazzi” after the famous Italian astronomer of that name.

Piazzi Smyth’s tenure of office extended from 1845 to 1889. He was a man of marked ability, but carried through no very important researches. His chief interest was in the Pyramids. Useful routine work was accomplished during his directorate, but towards the close it was becoming evident that the increasing smokiness of Edinburgh militated against delicate astronomical work on the Calton Hill. It so happened that at this time the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, who had built and equipped a fine private observatory on his estate at Dunecht, in Aberdeenshire, decided to present his instruments, as well as his library, to the Scottish nation. This munificent gift necessitated the building of a new Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill, which was opened in 1896, under the direction of Dr Ralph Copeland, who had succeeded Piazzi Smyth as Astronomer-Royal.

Sir William Peck

The Calton Hill Observatory was now again “on the market.” Remarkably enough, it reverted to the Town Council, who decided to convert it into a City Observatory, mainly for educational purposes. Two Edinburgh members of Parliament, Mr Robert Cox, of Gorgie, and Mr William McEwan, the donor of the McEwan Hall, presented two fine telescopes, a reflector and a refractor respectively. The Council appointed as City Astronomer Mr William Peck, a young man who had come into prominence as an able lecturer of astronomy. He held the post until his death in 1925. Eight years before his death he was knighted. As City Astronomer he delivered courses of lectures to crowded audiences; he was, indeed, one of the ablest exponents of the science. Young people especially derived great profit from his lectures. It was a real treat for intelligent youths of both sexes to go to “hear Peck.”

During his tenure of office, the Observatory was increasingly used as a show place, where school children, students, members of all kinds of societies, were given the opportunity of seeing the celestial bodies. After Sir William Peck’s death, his assistant, Mr J.M. Field, carried on the good work, though without the title of City Astronomer. His lamented death last April closed a chapter in the Observatory’s life. All lovers of astronomy will hope that under new auspices another chapter is about to open, and that the Observatory will be not only a show place, but a place where research work of value may be carried through.


Published on: October 28, 1937. Chances are, this was in The Scotsman.

2018-07-23T10:23:53+00:005 June 2018|