The Superintendent Posts

The posts of Superintendent fall into two classes – those created as a result of the 1818 Longitude Act and those created by the Astronomer Royal.


Superintendents of the (HM) Nautical Almanac (Office)

When the post of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac was created as a result of the 1818 Longitude Act, responsibility for overseeing the production of the Nautical Almanac (first published in 1767) passed from the Astronomer Royal to the Board of Longitude. Following the departure of the first post holder Thomas Young in 1829 (a year after the Board was abolished); the post was assigned without the allowance of £300, to the Astronomer Royal, John Pond, the very person from whom the responsibility was taken to start with. Pond retained responsibility for almanac until 1831, when the post was re-assigned (this time, with the allowance) to William Stratford who then set up the Nautical Almanac Office. The post remained independent of the Observatory until 1936, when the Nautical Almanac Office was made a branch of the Observatory and placed under the direction of the Astronomer Royal. At this point, the post of Superintendent was regraded at the salary of a Chief Assistant. In the meantime, three former Greenwich Assistants, John Russell Hind, Arthur Downing and Philip Cowell had held the post: Hind from 1853–1891  Downing from 1892–1910 and Cowell from 1910–1930. It was under Downing’s leadership, that the prefix HM was added.

In 1996, the post, but not the Office was abolished, the new incumbent, Andrew Sinclair, being given the title of Head of the Nautical Almanac Office. His took early retirement in 1998 at the time the Observatory was closed. At that point, HM Nautical Almanac Office was transferred to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It was transferred to the Hydrographic Office in 2006.

Superintendents based at the Royal Observatory:

1829–1831      John Pond (Astronomer Royal)

1936–1969      Donald Sadler
1970–1989      George Wilkins
1989–1996      Bernard Yallop

Heads of HM Nautical Almanac Office while still part of the Royal Observatory:

1996–1998      Andrew Sinclair

Superintendent of Chronometers

As well as the post of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, the 1818 Longitude Act created the post of Superintendent of Chronometers with an annual allowance of £100 a year. The first Superintendent was Thomas Hurd. He had nothing to do with the Observatory and was appointed in 1819. On 23 July 1821 (RGO5/229), the post was assigned to John Pond who was paid the £100 allowance in addition to his salary as Astronomer Royal. From that time on, the post was always held by the Astronomer Royal.

Following Pond’s retirement in 1835, the post was held by his successor George Airy, but with the separate allowance being incorporated into his salary as Astronomer Royal and the title falling out of general use, though it still appeared in the Navy List which was published annually.  In 1881, the Superintendent post passed to William Christie. Soon afterwards, all references to it seem to disappear – perhaps because the post was formally abolished, or perhaps more likely, because the use of the title simply faded away as it was synonymous with the post of Astronomer Royal.

Post holders from the Observatory:

1821–1835        John Pond
1835–1881        George Airy
1881– ?            William Christie


Superintendent of Magnetic(al) and Meteorological Department

The post of Superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department was created by Airy in 1840. The first holder of the post was James Glaisher who was transferred from the Circle Department. Originally, both the Magnetic Observatory and the post were intended to be only temporary. After having had the funding extended on a number of occasions, the Observatory and post became permanent. When Glaisher resigned at the end of 1874 he was replaced by William Ellis, who in turn was replaced by William Nash when he retired at the end of 1893. It was around this time that the word Magnetic in the title was substituted for Magnetical on a consistent basis. Nash retired at the end of 1903 and was replaced by Walter Bryant. Bryant died in office on 31 January 1923 and was replaced by William Witchell. When Witchell retired on 26 April 1948, the post was left vacant until Herbert Finch was promoted into it in 1950. The title continued to be used in the published magentic results up to and including 1956, at which point, Woolley (the newly appointed Astronomer Royal), decided to change their format. This included dropping the title of Superintendent against Finch's name. Finch continued to head the department (which became known as the Magnetic department in 1960/61), before retiring on 31 March 1964. He can be regarded as the last of the Superintendents. He was replaced as Head of Department by Brian Richard Leaton (Dick Leaton).

Post holders:

1840–1874        James Glaisher
1875–1893        William Ellis
1894–1903        William Nash
1904–1923        Walter Bryant
1923–1948        William Witchell
1949                 Post Vacant
1950–1964        Herbert F Finch


The quasi Superintendents

There are various references in the post 1850s literature to Superintendent posts other than the three mentioned above. A detailed analysis suggests these additional posts did not formally exist, but have the appearance of so doing because of Airy’s use of language in his annual reports to the Board of Visitors. When describing the role of individuals, Airy drew on a collection of words and phrases such as ‘superintends’, ‘has superintendence of’, ‘is Superintendent of’, ‘is charged with the care of’and so on. On the whole, these various words and phrase were used interchangeably with periods when some were used more than others.

The use of the term ‘Superintendent of’ became particularly prevalent in the 1870s, appearing numerous times in the reports written between 1872 and 1876, but disappearing completely in the report for 1877 where even the word superintend(s) was used sparingly.

The list below has been compiled from the 1872–76 reports.With the exception of the Superintendent of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department where the use of the title Superintendent is both long standing and used elsewhere (such as in the Civil Services Estimates and the Navy Estimates), the fluctuating styling of the others suggests that they were more a figure of speech than formal job titles.

Magnetic and Meteorological related:

  1. Superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department (1872, 1873, 1874, Glaisher)
  2. Superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department in all its branches (1875, Ellis)

Computer related:

  1. Superintendent of Supernumerary Computers in the Astronomical Department, and specially charged with the Meridional Transits (1872, Dunkin)
  2. Superintendent of Supernumerary Astronomical Computers, especially charged with the reduction of the Meridional Transits; and intrusted with the care of the Library and Manuscripts (1873, Dunkin)
  3. Superintendent of Supernumerary Astronomical Computers; charged with the reduction of Meridional Transits and observations generally, and especially with all computations of the more advanced deductions from observation (1874, Dunkin)
  4. Superintendent of Supernumerary Computers, more especially of those who are employed on meridional reductions and on the more advanced inferences from observation (1875, Dunkin)
  5. Superintendent of Supernumerary Computers, especially of those engaged in the Transit-reductions and in the advanced computations (1876, Dunkin)

Time and money related:

  1. Superintendent of the Time Department, and of the Money Accounts and the Stationary Stores (1872, Ellis)
  2. Superintendent of Clocks, Chronometers, Galvanic Communications, Time Signals; also of Stationary Stores, and of Money Accounts of the Observatory (1873, Ellis)
  3. Superintendent of Clocks, Chronometers, Galvanic Communications and Time Signals; also of Stationary Stores, and of the Money Accounts of the Observatory (1874, Ellis)
  4. Superintendent of the Time Department generally, of Stationary Stores, and of Money Accounts (1875, Criswick)

Altazimuth related

  1. Superintendent of the Altazimuth (1872, Lynn)
  2. Superintendent of Observations with the Altazimuth, and their reduction (1873, Lynn)
  3. Superintendent of Reductions of Altazimuth Observations (1874, Lynn)
  4. Superintendent of the Altazimuth and the reductions of the observations made with it (1875, Lynn)
  5. Superintendent of the Altazimuth, charged with the care of that instrument and with the reduction of observations (1876, Lynn)


  1. Superintendent of the Equatoreals, the Library, the Manuscripts, and the printed works for distribution (1872, Carpenter)
  2. Superintendent of Reductions of Meridional Circle Observations; charged also with the superintendence of the binding of Books and Manuscripts (1873, Criswick)
  3. Superintendent of Reductions of Circle Observations (1874, Downing)
  4. Superintendent of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department (1875, Maunder)
  5. Practically the Superintendent of the Great Equatoreal [in addition to conducting the work of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department] (876, Maunder)

If printed material produced by the Royal Observatory is excluded, references to Superintendent posts (other than the three separately listed above), are few and far between. Where they do occur, it is usually in the context of beefing up someone’s profile. Maunder for example, was appointed on 6 November 1873 as ‘Photographic and Spectroscopic Assistant’. He is described by Airy as Superintendent of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department in the 1875 annual report, but not those for 1874 or 1876. In the early 1900s he begins to be styled outside the Observatory as ‘Superintendent of the Solar Department’, perhaps as a result of his increasing fame both as a popular author and as a leading figure in the British Astronomical Society – the phrase being useful as a succinct, if not strictly accurate way of ascribing to him the importance and authority that his more correct title of Assistant would not. Not only does Maunder appear never to be so described by Christie, a ‘Solar Department’ only seems to have come formally into existence after World War II, long after Maunder was dead. There is however a one-off reference to ‘the Solar Department’ by Dyson in his 1916 report of the Visitors.