Contemporary account from 1857


Date: 1857
Author: Maria Mitchell, American astronomer
About: Maria Mitchell shot to fame in 1847 when she became the second woman to discover a comet. In 1857, while on a trip to Europe, she visited and stayed with George airy at the Royal Observatory, the details of which she recorded in her journal. Extracts from the journal were later published under the title: Maria Mitchell: Life Letters and Journals (Boston 1896). Over the course of the years, Airy was host to many visitors. Mitchell sheds light on the domestic arrangements as well as recording details of her fellow diners General Sabine and Otto Struve, director of the Pulkowa Observatory.
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[Maria Mitchell: Life Letters and Journals (Boston 1896), pp. 94–100.]

The observatory was founded by Charles II. The king that 'never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one' was yet sagacious enough to start an institution which has grown to be a thing of might, and this, too, of his own will, and not from the influence of courtiers. One of the hospital buildings of Greenwich, then called the 'House of Delights,' was the residence of Henrietta Maria, and the young prince probably played on the little hill now the site of the observatory.

But Charles, though he started an observatory, did not know very well what was needed. The first building consisted of a large, octagonal room, with windows all around; it was considered sufficiently firm without any foundation, and sufficiently open to the heavens with no opening higher than windows. This room is now used as a place of deposit for instruments, and busts and portraits of eminent men, and also as the dancing-hall for the director's family.

Under Mr. Airy's direction, the walls of the observing-room have become pages of its history. The transit instruments used by Halley, Bradley, and Pond hang side by side; the zenith sector with which Bradley discovered the 'aberration of light,' now moving rustily on its arc, is the ornament of another room; while the shelves of the computing-room are filled with volumes of unpublished observations of Flamsteed and others.

The observatory stands in Greenwich Park, the prettiest park I have yet seen; being a group of small hills. They point out oaks said to belong to Elizabeth's time – noble oaks of any time. The observatory is one hundred and fifty feet above the sea level. The view from it is, of course, beautiful. On the north the river, the little Thames, big with its fleet, is winding around the Isle of Dogs; on the left London, always overhung with a cloud of smoke, through which St. Paul's and the Houses of Parliament peep.

Mr. Airy was exceedingly kind to me, and seemed to take great interest in showing me around. He appeared to be much gratified by my interest in the history of the observatory. He is naturally a despot, and his position increases this tendency. Sitting in his chair, the zero-point of longitude for the world, he commands not only the little knot of observers and computers around him, but when he says to London, 'It is one o'clock,' London adopts that time, and her ships start for their voyages around the globe, and continue to count their time from that moment, wherever the English flag is borne.

It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation's progress.

Mr. Airy is not favorable to the multiplication of observatories. He predicted the failure of that at Albany. He says that he would gladly destroy one-half of the meridian instruments of the world, by way of reform. I told him that my reform movement would be to bring together the astronomers who had no instruments and the instruments which had no astronomers.

Mr. Airy is exceedingly systematic. In leading me by narrow passages and up steep staircases, from one room to another of the irregular collection of rooms, he was continually cautioning me about my footsteps, and in one place he seemed to have a kind of formula: 'Three steps at this place, ten at this, eleven at this, and three again.' So, in descending a ladder to the birthplace of the galvanic currents, he said, 'Turn your back to the stairs, step down with the right foot, take hold with the right hand; reverse the operation in ascending; do not, on coming out, turn around at once, but step backwards one step first.'

Near the throne of the astronomical autocrat is another proof of his system, in a case of portfolios. These contain the daily bills, letters, and papers, as they come in and are answered in order. When a portfolio is full, the papers are removed and are sewed together. Each year's accumulation is bound, and the bound volumes of Mr. Airy's time nearly cover one side of his private room.

Mr. Airy replies to all kinds of letters, with two exceptions: those which ask for autographs, and those which request him to calculate nativities. Both of these are very frequent.

In the drawing-room Mr. Airy is cheery; he loves to recite ballads and knows by heart a mass of verses, from 'A, Apple Pie,' to the 'Lady of the Lake.'

A lover of Nature and a close observer of her ways, as well in the forest walk as in the vault of heaven, Mr. Airy has roamed among the beautiful scenery of the Lake region until he is as good a mountain guide as can be found. He has strolled beside Grassmere and ascended Helvellyn. He knows the height of the mountain peaks, the shingles that lie on their sides, the flowers that grow in the valleys, the mines beneath the surface.

At one time the Government Survey planted what is called a 'Man' on the top of one of the hills of the Lake region. In a dry season they built up a stone monument, right upon the bed of a little pond. The country people missed the little pond, which had seemed to them an eye of Nature reflecting heaven's blue light. They begged for the removal of the surveyor's pile, and Mr. Airy at once changed the station.

The established observatories of England do not step out of their beaten path to make discoveries – these come from the amateurs. In this respect they differ from America and Germany. The amateurs of England do a great deal of work, they learn to know of what they and their instruments are capable, and it is done.

The library of Greenwich Observatory is large. The transactions of learned societies alone fill a small room; the whole impression of the thirty volumes of printed observations fills a wall of another room, and the unpublished papers of the early directors make of themselves a small manuscript library.

October 22, 1857. We have just returned from our fourth visit to Greenwich, like the others twenty-four hours in length. We go again to-morrow to meet the Sabines.

Herr Struve, the director of the Pulkova Observatory, is at Greenwich, with his son Karl. The old gentleman is a magnificent-looking fellow, very large and well proportioned; his great head is covered with white hair, his features are regular and handsome. When he is introduced to any one he thrusts both hands into the pockets of his pantaloons, and bows. I found that the son considered this position of the hands particularly English. However, the old gentleman did me the honor to shake hands with me, and when I told him that I brought a letter to him from a friend in America, he said, 'It is quite unnecessary, I know you without.' He speaks very good English.

Herr Struve's mission in England is to see if he can connect the trigonometrical surveys of the two countries. It is quite singular that he should visit England for this purpose, so soon after Russia and England were at war. One of his sons was an army surgeon at the Crimea.

Five visitors remained all night at the observatory. I slept in a little round room and Miss S. in another, at the top of a little jutting-out, curved building. Mrs. Airy says, 'Mr. Airy got permission of the Board of Visitors to fit up some of the rooms as lodging-rooms.' Mr. Airy said, 'My dear love, I did as I always do: I fitted them up first, and then I reported to the Board that I had done it.'

October 23. Another dinner-party at the observatory, consisting of the Struves, General and Mrs. Sabine, Professor and Mrs. Powell, Mr. Main, and ourselves; more guests coming to tea.

Mrs. Airy told me that she should arrange the order of the guests at table to please herself; that properly all of the married ladies should precede me, but that I was really to go first, with Mr. Airy. To effect this, however, she must explain it to Mrs. Sabine, the lady of highest rank.

So we went out, Professor Airy and myself, Professor Powell and Mrs. Sabine, General Sabine and Mrs. Powell, Mr. Charles Struve and Miss S., Mr. Main, Mrs. Airy, and Professor Struve.

General Sabine is a small man, gray haired and sharp featured, about seventy years old. He smiles very readily, and is chatty and sociable at once. He speaks with more quickness and ease than most of the Englishmen I have met. Mrs. Sabine is very agreeable and not a bit of a blue-stocking.

The chat at table was general and very interesting. Mr. Airy says, 'The best of a good dinner is the amount of talk.' He talked of the great 'Leviathan' which he and Struve had just visited, then anecdotes were told by others, then they went on to comic poetry. Mr. Airy repeated 'The Lost Heir,' by Hood. General Sabine told droll anecdotes, and the point was often lost upon me, because of the local allusions. One of his anecdotes was this: 'Archbishop Whately did not like a professor named Robert Daly; he said the Irish were a very contented people, they were satisfied with one bob daily.' I found that a 'bob' is a shilling.

When the dinner was over, the ladies left the room, and the gentlemen remained over their wine; but not for long, for Mr. Airy does not like it, and Struve hates it.

Then, before tea, others dropped in from the neighborhood, and the tea was served in the drawing-room, handed round informally.