Contemporary Account from 1839


Date: 1839
Author: George Airy, Astronomer Royal
About: In his 1856 History and description of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College. (Metcalf and Co, Cambridge [Mass.]), William Cranch Bond reprinted as an appendix (pp.xcvii–ciii), the response he got from Airy to a letter he had sent on 10 April 1839, asking about "the history and present constitution of the Royal Observatory of Greenwich" Airy's reply contains information on salaries, costs of telescopes, and other information not readily available elsewhere.
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Letter from the Astronomer Royal of England to Hon. John Quincy Adams.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England, June 8, 1839.

Sir, — I have lately received from Mr. Christopher Hughes (whose acquaintance I had the good fortune to make on his visit to Cambridge, England, several years since) a series of questions, proposed by you, relating to the history and present constitution of the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, dated 10th April, 1839. I do myself the honor of addressing my answers upon these matters immediately to yourself; conceiving that, if these answers, or any subjects connected with them or suggested by them, shall require further explanation from me, any apparent difficulties in the way of immediate communication will thus be effectually removed.

On the supposition that you have preserved a copy of the questions, I refer to each question by its number only. Supposing that your object may be to collect information relating to existing observatories in general, I have in one or two cases mentioned the circumstances of other observatories.

I regret that there is a great deficiency of authentic documents (at least within my reach) relating to the early history of the Observatory. I regret, also, that at this moment I am not able to furnish a complete list of the prices of the instruments. I hope, however, to receive a more complete list before despatching; if it arrives too late, I will send it by a future opportunity.

With profound respect, I have the honor to be, Sir, your very obedient servant,

G. B. Airy.

John Quincy Adams, Esq., &c, &c.



Answers [from Airy] to Mr. Adams's Questions, dated April 10, 1839.

1. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was built at the expense of the government in the reign of Charles II. (about 1670), and the buildings have always been repaired or extended at the expense of the government.

The instruments used by Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, were not furnished by the government, and were taken away by his executors; since that time the instruments have always been furnished by the government, except in two instances, where instruments have been presented. The observations are now printed at the expense of the government. Thus every expense connected with the Observatory is defrayed by the government. The Observatory was at first connected with the Ordnance Department of the Executive (I believe from the accidental circumstance, that Sir Jonas Moore, the personal friend of Flamsteed, and one of the original proposers of the Observatory, was then Master-General of the Ordnance). In the year 1816 or 1817 it was transferred to the Admiralty Department.

The estimates for the annual expense of the Observatory are inserted under the "Scientific Branch" of the Admiralty Account in the Parliamentary estimates, and are voted annually by Parliament.

In the original institution of the Observatory, no provision was made for the printing of the observations, or for the communication of the results to the public in any way, and no obligation to that effect was imposed on the Astronomer Royal. When Flamsteed had held the office about thirty years, and had published nothing, the Royal Society applied to the Queen to appoint a Board of Visitors (one of them being Sir Isaac Newton, then President of the Royal Society) to superintend the Observatory generally, and with power to require a publication of the observations. For a full detail of the quarrel which followed, I would refer to Baily's Account of the Life, &c. of John Flamsteed, which may probably be found in the libraries of the scientific bodies in America. An edition of the observations was printed by them; but another edition was afterwards printed by Flamsteed himself. Halley, the next Astronomer Royal, printed nothing of observations. Bradley and Bliss left manuscripts, but the right of government to them was disputed, and they were ultimately printed by the University of Oxford. It was not till 1767, on Maskelyne's accession, that the King (George III.), on the petition of the Royal Society, ordered that the observations should be printed annually; and since that time there has been no doubt that the observations are the property of the government, and are to be printed annually.

The Board of Visitors, above alluded to, existed without alteration (as I believe) till 1830, and it was by that Board, as I imagine, that representations were made to the government which led to the purchase of instruments in Halley's time, to the regular printing of the observations in Maskelyne's time, &c. The President and Council of the Royal Society (or part of them), with a number of persons invited by them, either Fellows of the Society, or strangers, met once a year at the Royal Observatory, inspected the instruments, and discussed the general business of the Observatory. They had, I believe, no power, except to recommend measures to the executive. The meeting was rather numerous. In 1830, the old Board was abolished, and a new one appointed by name, from the Royal and Astronomical Societies.* All vacancies are filled by the President of that Society in which the vacancies occur; this Board has no power to invite Assessors; its powers as to making representations are the same as those of the old Board.

On the first appointment of the new Board there was exhibited in it a rather vexatious spirit towards the then Astronomer Royal (Mr. Pond). Since my appointment as Astronomer Royal, the Board has scarcely interfered in anything, except in matters which I have myself suggested. The Visitors receive no pay; lately it has been ordered that their bare expenses be paid.

I have given a rather comprehensive answer to No. 1, touching upon the subject of other questions, and embracing points not at all alluded to in the questions, because probably there is no other active institution whose history serves so well to suggest the points to which attention ought to be given, in founding a new institution of similar character, as well as the amount of changes which in future years may be required in all the branches of such an institution.

I omitted to mention that the Astronomer Royal's account of disbursements, and bills for expenses of all kinds connected with the Observatory, were formerly audited by the Board of Visitors; this audit was found to be insufficient, and the accounts are now transmitted, in the same way as those of any other department under the Admiralty, to the government officers.


2. For a plan of the building first erected, I refer again to Baily's Account, &c. (cited above).

There were a small house, one large room above it covering nearly the whole house, with lofty windows on all sides, intended, I suppose, for gazing astronomical observations, (but quite useless for the purposes of modern astronomy,) a garden or lawn about eighty feet square, and a small low building in one corner of it, in which Flamsteed's really useful instruments were placed. The place was very small. The situation, in the middle of the Royal Park of Greenwich, has probably prevented the necessity of an enclosure so large as would elsewhere be required, inasmuch as it was impossible that houses could be built close to the enclosure.

The history in Halley's time is so defective, that I am not certain whether the building, which is to this time the principal observing building, was erected then or not, but I should think that it was; it was certainly erected before 1750, when Bradley's regular observations begin. It consists of a room about twenty feet square, for the transit, and a similar room for the quadrants, (both on the ground-floor, and with no good rooms above them,) and a central computing-room, with rooms for an Assistant above. It is not connected with the dwelling-house. When this was erected, the enclosure was nearly doubled. In Dr. Maskelyne's time, two small detached rooms were covered with revolving domes, for equatorial instruments; their situation is particularly unfavorable. In the beginning of Dr. Maskelyne's time, the dwelling-house was extended. About the end of Dr. Maskelyne's time, the observing building was extended, in preparation for a mural circle, which was not erected till after his death; some new buildings were erected for library, &c., and for assistants' apartments; a building was erected to be covered with a revolving dome (called the south dome); and an addition was made to the enclosure. The whole enclosure was now about half an acre; it covered the whole of the small steep hill on which the Observatory stands, quite to the isthmus or neck that connects it with the table-land of the higher side of the Park.

About 1817, part of the steep dell behind the hill was enclosed as a garden for the Astronomer Royal. In 1837, part of the table-land beyond the dell was enclosed for the erection of a Magnetic Observatory. The dwelling-house, which was too small, was enlarged in 1836. Thus the present state of the buildings and grounds (1839) is nearly as follows: — Whole enclosure, about two acres and a quarter, of which one acre or more can never be available for building on account of the steepness, and is used as a garden and waste ground. Whole set of buildings: — 1. Dwelling-house of the Astronomer Royal, with the great dome above part of it. 2. Two domes (east and west dome) detached. 3. Detached range of buildings, including Flamsteed's small room, the quadrant-room (not used now), the transit-room, the circle-room, the library, the chronometer-room, the south dome, the computing-room, some assistants' apartments (not for their dwelling, but for their comfort or repose in the intervals of observation). 4. Magnetic Observatory, detached. 5. Carpenter's shop, gardener's shop, and other out-houses.

The extent of ground would not be sufficient, if there were not the safety from being surrounded by building which is given by the locality within a royal park.


3. The construction of the Observatory has been altered almost entirely by additions; nearly the whole of the original work remains. The collection of buildings is now exceedingly irregular, and in some respects inconvenient.


4. The Astronomer Royal is appointed by the first Lord of the Treasury, but his connection with the Admiralty is so close, that the first Lord of the Admiralty probably has the principal influence in his appointment. He holds his office by warrant under the sign-manual of the sovereign. The salary was formerly £100. Bradley and Bliss both held it with professorships at Oxford; but the salary has gradually been raised, and is now £800 (subject to a deduction for a fund for superannuation), and it is expected that the Astronomer Royal shall hold no other office.


5. The duties of the Astronomer Royal are not very definite; but undoubtedly he is to attend to the main points of astronomy to the best of his judgment, rather than to anything of a discursive nature. The appointment originated in the desire of discovering means of finding the longitude at sea, and therefore anything applying to longitude would specially require his attention. In this way the trials of chronometers first became a part of his duty, from which, by degrees, it arose that the care and regular supply of chronometers for the Royal Navy were imposed upon him, to the great injury of the astronomical efficiency of the Observatory. Lately, the chronometer business has been confined to rating the chronometers on trial for purchase, or Navy chronometers brought on shore, with occasional supplies of chronometers to ships by direction of the Admiralty, and with general superintendence of repairs. The duties are prescribed, first, by the Queen's warrant, which merely directs the Astronomer to apply himself with diligence to observing the heavenly bodies, for finding out the so much desired longitude at sea, (the same words as in the warrant originally given to Flamsteed). 2d. By the official instructions given by the Admiralty Board, (who have been empowered to issue instructions by the Queen in Council,) which enter a little more minutely into the duties, but necessarily leave the course of astronomical observations very indefinite **

The Board of Admiralty sometimes call on the Astronomer Royal for a report; but it is rather upon such matters as the state of the buildings and instruments, the conduct of the Assistants, &c., than upon the nature of the astronomical observations.

I have myself introduced the rule of reading a report to the Board of Visitors at their annual meeting, at the Observatory, and this report they have each year ordered to be printed (copies accompany this paper). If this custom be continued, there will probably be found a more complete series of Annals of the Observatory than has hitherto existed.


6. Besides the Astronomer Royal there are six Assistants, and a laborer, and a watchman; also a gate porter (some old sailor from Greenwich Hospital). The duties of the Assistants are to observe and to compute, entirely under the direction of the Astronomer Royal. None of these persons reside within the precincts of the Observatory, or even within the Park; they find homes for themselves from the salaries mentioned below (part of the salary being considered as compensation for want of dwelling-house).

The salaries are: — 1st Assistant, £ 350; 2d Assistant, £ 220 (in future instances this is to be £190); 3d Assistant, £190; 4th, 5th, and 6th Assistants, £130 each; Laborer, £43; Gate Porter, £15 12s.; Watchman, £32 10s.


7. The instruments in use at this time are a Transit-Instrument, ten feet long, constructed by Troughton, bought by the government; price, I think, £ 300; — a Mural Circle, six feet in diameter, constructed by Troughton, bought by the government; price, I believe, £ 600 ; *** — a Zenith Tube, or Zenith Sector, of small range, for the observation of γ Draconis only (which passes very near to the zenith of Greenwich), purchased by the government; I know not the price.

The Eastern Equatorial, or Shuckburgh's Equatorial, constructed by Ramsden, presented by Lord Liverpool.

The Western Equatorial, a very worthless instrument.

The Southern Equatorial, or Sheepshanks Equatorial: the object-glass made by a Parisian artist (I think by Cauchoix), presented by the Rev. A. Sheepshanks; the mounting by Mr. J. Grubb of Dublin, at the expense of the government, — its cost, £205.

Several Telescopes, prices unknown; some probably exceeding £100.

Several Clocks; the most expensive cost, I believe, £200.

I ought not to omit, that there is machinery for raising a large ball (five feet in diameter) on the top of the house, and dropping it precisely at one o'clock every day, as a signal by which the chronometers on board the ships in the River Thames may be rated. It was erected at the expense of the government. I know not the cost.

Besides these, there is the Magnetic Apparatus, yet imperfect; the expense hitherto incurred has been £ 30 or £40.


8. There is a Library, covering the walls of a room twenty feet square. It consists principally of the Transactions of Societies, and of mathematical and astronomical works, works on the literature of astronomy, Voyages, &c. In these respects it is a very good library; it has been collected partly at the expense of government, and partly from the presents of private persons and official bodies.


9. The best instrument-makers in London, at the present time, are, — William Simms (successor of Troughton, formerly his partner), 136 Fleet Street; Thomas Jones, 62 Charing Cross; George Dolland, 59 St. Paul's Churchyard.

.   .   .   .   .   .

The whole annual expense of the Observatory to the government, including salaries, additions and repairs to buildings, additions and repairs to instruments, and printing, exceeds £ 3,000.


* With a few official persons, as the Presidents of the two Societies, two Professors of the University of Oxford, and two Professors of the University of Cambridge, ex officio, — the whole number of the Visitors being about sixteen. This fluctuates, because all ex-Presidents are members of the Board.

** The Board of Visitors are empowered by their warrant under the royal sign-manual to direct the Astronomer Royal to make such observations as they may think fit; but I am not aware that they have ever exercised this power.

*** Another mural circle of the same size, constructed by Jones, has lately been sent from the Royal Observatory to the Cape of Good Hope.