Edinburgh exhibition remembers forgotten astronomer

Charles Piazzi Smyth
Charles Piazzi Smyth
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Edinburgh’s forgotten astronomer’ Charles Piazzi Smyth is to be remembered in a new exhibition at the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.

The fascinating exhibition aims to establish Smyth’s place in Edinburgh’s history.

Housed in the iconic Nelson Monument, the exhibition displays Smyth’s photography, paintings and drawings, alongside a newly commissioned short film and interviews.

The location carries great significance as in 1852 Smyth started the Time Ball service, which involved hoisting a large ball from the top of Nelson Monument which would drop at exactly one o’clock every day as a time signal to ships docked in Leith.

In 1861 he added an audible element and set up the One O’ Clock Gun, stretching a cable all the way from Calton Hill to another clock on Castle Rock, which fired the Gun.

The cable is no longer in place but both the Time Ball and One O’ Clock Gun remain active, providing a daily reminder of his legacy to the city.

A pioneering early photographer, accomplished artist, writer, meteorologist, traveller, investigator of pyramids and ground-breaking astronomer, few have heard of Smyth or of his innovative work, the influence of which is still felt around the world today.

Housed in the Nelson Monument Museum, the new exhibition aims to bring about a new awareness of his work and that of his wife Jessica, forming part of a series of activity around the 200th anniversary of his birth.

In 1845 at the age of just 26, Smyth was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the Calton Hill Observatory.

Professor Andy Lawrence says, “Piazzi Smyth and his wife Jessie are great Edinburgh characters but are forgotten in the city where they worked. Astronomers tour the world to observatories because of Charles’ work. His scientific work underpins much of our work today.”

Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, Monday to Sunday 10am–5pm, free (£6 to climb tower), 0131-556 2716