Treasury funding via the budget for Civil Services and Stationary Office

While Airy was astronomer Royal (1835-1881), the Treasury assented to the funding of two key scientific projects not covered by the Admiralty Estimates. These were the Lunar Reductions and a continuation of the programme of magnetic observations originally commenced in 1839. The funding was channelled though the budget for Civil Services. Also placed in the Civil Services Estimates until 1868/9 was the cost of employing the Observatory’s Supernumerary Computers. The cost of printing the volumes of Greenwich Observations was transferred from the Observatory to the Stationary Office (a department of HM Treasury) in 1835.


The background to the magnetic programme

In 1829, a project for the simultaneous observation of magnetic declination on about six pre-selected days each year at about 20 sites across Europe and the Russian Empire was initiated by Alexander von Humboldt in collaboration with Carl Gauss. The aim was to determine the extent and simultaneity of the disturbances. In 1836, Humboldt via the auspices of the Royal Society (who brought in the recently appointed Astronomer Royal, George Airy, to advise), managed to get the work extend across the British Empire.

Recognising the importance of the magnetic work, Airy persuaded the Admiralty to fund the building of a Magnetic Observatory at Greenwich, a sum of £566 being allocated in the1837/8 estimates for fencing in additional ground from Greenwich Park and erecting the building. As originally envisaged, the programme was restricted in its scope to observations being made on just four 24 hour periods in 1839 and four in 1840, and for this, the Admiralty made no provision for extra staffing. In 1840, hourly meteorological observations were also made on four days (the equinoxes and solstices) in conformity with a recommendation of Sir John Hershel.

During this period, Edward Sabine organised a campaign at the British Association and the Royal Society to secure the necessary support for a whole string of sea and land based observatories. Having gained the support of John Herschel, who insisted that the role of the observatories should be extended to include meteorological work, he was successful and government funding for a limited programme ensued.

On 18 June 1840, Lubbock reported from the Committee of Physics of the Royal Society to the Council in favour of a Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory near London. After correspondence with Sheepshanks, Lord Northampton, and Herschel, Airy wrote to the Council on 9 July, pointing out what the Admiralty had done at Greenwich, and offering to cooperate. In a letter to Lord Minto he stated that his estimate was £550, including £100 to the First Assistant while that put forward by Lubbock was for £3000. On 11 August, the Treasury assented, limiting its funding to the duration of Ross’s voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic regions (1839-1843). On 17 August, Wheatstone looked at the buildings at Greenwich and was satisfied. A revised estimate was sent to the Admiralty, viz. £150 outfit, £520 annual expense; and Glaisher to be Superintendent. The money for the rest of the financial year was immediately forthcoming, with an amount being placed on the estimates for the following year. And so began a dual system of funding, with the running costs of the Astronomical establishment falling on the Admiralty books and those of the Magnetic and Meteorological establishment on the Treasury.

In 1842, it was determined that a further three years should be funded. This period expired in December 1845, and upon urgent representation of the Geographical Society, the Treasury again consented to an extension.

In 1842, Airy pointed out to the Admiralty the out the inconvenience of furnishing separate estimates to both them and the Treasury – a point he was to make several times, including in 1846 when he proposed that the whole of the cost of the Observatory should be borne on the Navy Estimates – pointing out that ‘the whole Estimates and Accounts of the Observatory never appeared in one public paper’. He was rebuffed. The charge was eventually transferred to the Admiralty but only when there was a wholesale transfer of this and other publically funded scientific activity from the Treasury accounts to those of the Army and Navy in the year 1868/9. Inevitably there is a degree of blurring around the edges with the two different budgets. As an example, the Magnetic Superintendent James Glaisher was being paid as an Astronomical Assistant when he was appointed to the post of Superintendent on 1 November 1840. He retained his Astronomical Assistant’s salary, and was paid an additional sum from the Civil Services money until 1852 or 1853, when the full amount of his salary was once again paid by the Admiralty.


The Lunar Reductions

In order to make the historic Greenwich Observations more useful, Airy proposed a programme to reduce the Lunar Observations. On 31 May 31 1838, the Treasury assented to the undertaking of the Lunar Reductions and allotted £2000 for it: preparations were made, and in the autumn seven computers were set to work.

The financial picture is not entirely clear however, as while still Director of the Cambridge Observatory, Airy had also secured £500 on 3 August 1833 for a similar set of Planetary Reductions. Work commenced under Airy’s supervision at Cambridge on 27 February 1834. Airy was also responsible for supervising a new reduction of Groombridge’s observations, this particular project being completed by early January 1837.

The Planetary Reductions were worked on initially by just one computer, John Glaisher, the brother of Airy’s then assistant James Glaisher, with the work eventually being transferred to Greenwich. Exactly when the work was transferred to Greenwich is not clear. Airy was appointed Astronomer Royal with effect from 1 October 1835, but continued to base himself in Cambridge until the end of the year while alterations were made to the dwelling house at Greenwich. It is possible that John Glaisher moved to Greenwich at the time of Airy’s appointment, but it seems more likely that he remained in Cambridge. In February 1836 James Glaisher moved to Greenwich and John was appointed in his place as assistant at Cambridge. At this point, work on the reductions appears to have ground to a halt, being recommenced in mid 1836 at Greenwich by a specially established small team of computers under the superintendance initially of John William Thomas and after his death in 1840 by Hugh Breen senior. The Planetary reductions were completed in 1841 and the Lunar reductions by 1846.

The final cost of each set of reductions is not clear as the two projects were effectively merged. The following amounts have so far been identified in the estimates: £600 in 1840 (Lunar & Planetary), £600 in 1842 (Lunar) and £900 in 1843 (Lunar).


Supernumerary Computers

In 1842, Airy sought permission to employ an additional assistant. Before permission could be granted, he amended the request and asked instead to be authorised to employ ‘occasional computers’ to the same pecuniary value. The request was granted, and so began the regular employment of computers on a temporary and short term basis under such regulations as Airy might think fit. To start with, Airy seems to have simply redeployed some of the computers from the Lunar Reductions team on a somewhat ad hoc basis. As well as their computing work, some of the computers were also trained as stand in observers. In 1845, Airy had £120 to spend on their salaries. He was given a one off extra £120 in 1846 and the higher amount of £180 in 1847. Temporary or Supernumerary Computers continued to be employed on more or less the same basis for the best part of the next hundred years until 1936. Confusingly, up to and including the financial year 1867/8, the budget for all the computers (both astronomical and magnetic) was placed on the Civil Estimates, under expenditure for the Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory. In 1868/9, the costs were transferred to the Navy Estimates (Vote 5 Scientific Branch) where the expenditure was explicitly divided between the Astronomical and Magnetic Branches of the Observatory.

The organisation of the estimates for Civil Services The additional funding for the Planetary and Lunar Reductions together with that of the Magnetic Observatory was budged for under the Estimates for Civil Services. These estimates (also referred to as Miscellaneous Services), were divided into seven classes:


Class 1     Public Works and Buildings
Class 2     Salaries and expenses of Public Departments
Class 3     Law and Justice
Class 4     Education Science and Art
Class 5     Colonial, Consular and other Foreign Services
Class 6     Superannuation and retired Allowances, and Gratuities of Charitable and Other
Class 7     Miscellaneous, Special and Temporary Objects

The Observatory’s work came under Class 4 . Within the class, there were around twenty or so subheads, including ones for the British Museum and National Gallery, with a new subhead ‘Scientific Works and Experiments’ being created in 1843. It was under this subhead that the Observatory and its work were placed. Over the years, the position of the subhead within the class (and hence its vote number) varied between 16 and 12. Initially, it was comprised mainly of the expenses of the Magnetic Observatories.