Flamsteed Astronomy Society

I am a bit of a nut about Airy.  Joining the Royal Observatory from school in 1952, I worked with Airy instruments, wrote in books designed by Airy, and followed calculation steps worked-out by Airy.  You get that way.


Gilbert’s own words (-ish) speak for themselves.  He is passionate about Sir George.  And it’s infectious. The professional George Biddell Airy (1801-1892) is well documented:  seventh Astronomer Royal 1835-1881, mathematician, astronomer, engineer, and administrator.  He was a brilliant scholar and academic—Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at 25 (a post once held by Isaac Newton and now by Stephen Hawking), Plumian Professor of Astronomy at 27, and Astronomer Royal at 34.  He reorganised the Royal Observatory and established instrumentation and structures for staffing and procedure that put it in good stead for 150 years.


Gilbert set-out to tell us about Airy, the man — what made him what he was. In documented memory Airy has a dark side.  Allegedly arrogant, scornful,  obsessive, petty and a perfectionist slave-driver.  Gilbert explained how Airy has suffered from the biased views mainly of just two men—assistants at the Observatory, James Glaisher and Walter Maunder.  Glaisher had felt restricted by Airy who took a too narrow view of his functions for him.  Maunder wrote the early history of the Observatory but was writing in some cases about events long before he joined (or was even born!).

Airy is a historian’s dream.  For years he kept daily ‘scribbling notes’ about his activities, each carefully dated.  His son Wilfrid edited them and published them as an Autobiography in 1896 (re-published this year).  Order ruled Airy’s life.  He kept everything including domestic bills etc.  He issued a General Order at the Observatory forbidding the destruction of any paper records —the Airy Archives at Cambridge occupy 125 yards of shelving!


Airy had a fierce sense of duty and morality—the archetypical set of Victorian Values.  He was effectively Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government and served on committees about the magnetic compass on steel ships, the gauge of the railway tracks, and how to make Big Ben run accurately.  These duties occupied 50% of his time.  He made sure the salary was commensurate and negotiated £1100 pa (including a £300 pension for Mrs Airy).  His predecessor John Pond had got £600.  Airy was offered a knighthood four times, and only accepted in 1872.    He was energetic, focused, and a risk taker outside the office.  He was a keen walker and once hiked from Cambridge to Bury St Edmonds, 29 miles.  He visited the Lake District (Cumberland) frequently and took it upon himself to be a one-man conservation board for the countryside.  He established Airy’s Bridge near Styhead.


He had poor eye-sight (probably why he was thought scornful of observing tasks) and measured and analysed his own optics.  He diagnosed and described astigmatism (maybe the first such description) and had spectacles especially made to his own prescription to correct it.

Gilbert Satterthwaite

photo Mike Dryland

Gilbert with James Airy

Great Great Nephew of Sir George Airy

photo Mike Dryland


Airy’s staff, in general, seem to have been very loyal.  Dunkin described him as strict and demanding but fair.  When he retired Airy handed over a structured, qualified, and well-paid team.  In 1870 the longest serving assistant had 37 years service and the shortest serving 13 years.  Airy could show great consideration for others.  Before becoming Astronomer Royal, he defended his predecessor John Pond against criticism he felt was unwarranted. Gilbert feels Airy himself was unfairly judged over the ‘Neptune Affair’.  In 1845 Airy was alerted by John Couch Adams who had calculated an orbit for an undiscovered 8th planet, based on deviations in the orbit of Uranus discovered in 1781 by William Herschel.  Airy asked Challis at Cambridge to search for the planet because Greenwich lacked a suitable telescope.  Challis dragged his feet, and the result was that Neptune was discovered by Galle and d’Arrest on September 23, 1846 at the Berlin Observatory, based on Leverrier’s calculations.  The British public felt that discovering new planets was a British preserve, and Airy was castigated.  But says Gilbert, Greenwich had neither the remit nor the instrumentation for the job.

Finally, Airy the family man.  He proposed to his wife-to-be 2 days after their first meeting but they didn’t marry for 6 years.  They had 9 children and tragically lost 3.  Airy’s second son and eldest daughter both died on June 24, Arthur in 1839 and Elizabeth in 1852.  But their family life at Greenwich and Playford near Ipswich was clearly a source of great joy to George.  After he retired in 1881 he continued to live in Greenwich, in the White House on Crooms Hill overlooking the Park.  He served on the Board of Visitors and was active to the end.  On his 90th birthday he was to be found conducting the turning-on ceremony for the clock illumination at St Alphege’s Church.   He died in 1892 and is buried at Playford.   It is very appropriate that among the monuments to Airy (notably the Transit Circle itself) is a crater on the Moon named for him back in 1837.


 Mike Dryland

Reading List —

The Astronomers Royal by Emily Winterburn (NMM)


Greenwich Observatory 1675-1975 Vol 2  by A J Meadows


Airy’s Transit Circle


Sir George Biddell Airy


The Royal Observatory Greenwich by E. Walter Maunder (1900)

George Airy by Anna Airy

after Collier

Royal Astronomical Society


A Fresh Look at Sir George Airy

—Gilbert Satterthwaite October 4, 2004