Edinburgh astronomer who instigated One O’Clock Gun to be honoured

A forgotten astronomer who instigated the One O’Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle and the “Time Ball” service on Calton Hill for sailors is to be honoured with an exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of his birth.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 4th April 2019, 7:00 am
Charles Piazzi Smyth
Charles Piazzi Smyth

Charles Piazzi Smyth was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland aged just 26 and held the post for more than 40 years.

Based in the Royal Observatory on Calton Hill, his theories would go on to change the practice of astronomy around the world, particularly his belief that polluted skies were obscuring stars.

He and his wife Jessica spent their honeymoon exploring the peaks in Tenerife, with the subsequent research paving the way for future observatories at high altitude around the world. He led the way in the technique of infra-red astronomy by studying heat emitted by the moon, and was a pioneering stereo photographer and weather forecaster.

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Jessie Piazzi Smyth, photographed on the 1856 expedition to Tenerife which showed that observatories should be at high altitude. Image Credit: Courtesy of Brian May

Piazzi Smyth was also obsessed by the Egyptian pyramids and, along with his wife, conducted the first major survey of the Great Pyramid of Giza, part of which went on display in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this year to mark his bicentenary.

A collection of his photographs, paintings and drawings are on display from today at the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill. It overlooks the William Henry Playfair-designed observatory building where he was based until he resigned in protest at the condition of the building and its facilities.

A groundbreaker, he is best known for the Time Ball he installed on top of the Nelson Monument to act as a signal to ships in the Firth of Forth, and the subsequent idea of adding an audible element from Edinburgh Castle.

Donald Wilson, culture convener at the city council, said: “This fascinating exhibition will really shine a light on one of Scotland’s most important astronomers. Throughout his 40 years as Astronomer Royal, Piazzi Smyth did much of his work from Calton Hill. With his invention of the Time Ball service, it’s extremely fitting to house this exhibition in the Nelson Monument.

Charles Piazzi Smyth, who became Scotland's royal astronomer at the age of just 26 and held the post for more than 40 years

“For hundreds of years, Calton Hill has been a cherished place for stargazers and has association with many prominent individuals from Scotland’s history such as David Hume, Robert Burns and William Henry Playfair. Now it’s time to spread the word about Edinburgh’s forgotten astronomer and his place in history.

Andy Lawrence, professor of astronomy at Edinburgh University, added: “Astronomers tour the world to observatories because of his work. His scientific work underpins much of our work today.”