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Charles Piazzi Smyth

15 Royal Terrace

15 Royal Terrace

Charles Piazzi Smyth succeeded Thomas Henderson as Director of the Royal Observatory in 1846. Born in Naples, Italy, he was named Piazzi after his father’s friend Giuseppe Piazzi the astronomer. At the age of sixteen he was appointed assistant to Sir Thomas Maclear at the Cape of Good Hope, where he observed Halley’s comet, the Great Comet of 1843 and took an active part in the verification and extension of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille’s arc of the meridian.

In addition to obtaining the post of Director of the Royal Observatory, Charles Piazzi Smyth was also appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. Shortly after his appointment, the observatory was placed under the control of Her Majesty’s Treasury Department. Upon appointment he discovered that the fabric of the Observatory was in urgent need of repair which was too expensive for the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution to fund. In 1847, therefore, all ownership was transferred to the Government to enable this important work to proceed.

At this time Piazzi Smyth concentrated on completing the reductions of Thomas Henderson's observations and to publish the results. At the time of his death Henderson had only published half of the 60,000 observations he had made in the previous 10 years.

In 1853 he was responsible for installing the Nelson Monument Time Ball on Calton Hill. The precise timing of the ball was controlled electrically from the Observatory.

A supporter of Newton's hypothesis that mountain summits would be the most appropriate place for astronomical observations, he obtained a government grant in 1856, enabling him to travel to Tenerife and confirm this theory.

In 1861 he worked with Frederick James Ritchie and Master Gunner Findlay to set up the One o’Clock Gun on the Half Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle.

Four years later, accompanied by his wife Jessie, he travelled to Egypt to measure the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Frustrated by lack of government funding, the controversial scientist resigned from the post of Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1888. Retiring with his wife to Ripon, Yorkshire, the peripatetic astronomer, photographer and artist lived in the area until his death in 1900.

Although he initially occupied 1 Hillside Crescent, a property purchased by the Government for the Astronomer Royal, he oversaw the building of a new residence at 15 Royal Terrace - closer to the observatory than the former residence - and depicted above. The new residence was designed to complement the observatory itself and housed some scientific equipment and library facilities.