Charles Piazzi Smyth

1819 - 1900

Eccentric Astronomer Royal for Scotland who instigated Edinburgh's "One O'Clock Gun". Born in Naples, son of English amateur astronomer, Admiral William Henry Smyth. In 1846, Smyth succeeded Thomas Henderson (1798 - 1844) as Astronomer Royal for Scotland based at the Calton Hill Observatory in Edinburgh. Shortly after his appointment the observatory was placed under treasury control and a long period of under-funding began. Because of this, most of his notable work was undertaken elsewhere. He pioneered the technique of infra-red astronomy by studying the heat emitted by the moon.

In 1853, Smyth was responsible for installing the 'time ball' on top of the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill to give a time signal to the ships at Leith. By 1861, this visual signal was augmented by the One O'Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle and the two signals were electrically connected by a long cable.

Smyth realised that cities were not the ideal place for astronomical observations, and thus he founded the first high-altitude observatory on the site of what is now the Las Palmas Observatory in the Canary Islands (1856).

Smyth was obsessed by the pyramids of Egypt and the mystical pseudo-science of pyramidology. He is the only person to have resigned his fellowship of the Royal Society, after they refused to publish his papers on this subject.

In 1888 Smyth resigned as Astronomer Royal in protest at the chronic under-funding and age of the equipment at Calton Hill. This brought events to a head and the observatory was almost closed before pressure from the Earl of Crawford brought about the building of a new observatory on Blackford Hill (1896) and the Calton Hill Observatory was given to the City of Edinburgh.

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