Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 12 September 2013.

The collapsed Tay Bridge

This evening, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, will weigh into the debate about climate change and geoengineering in an address at the British Science Festival.

Finding such fixes, as well as more efficient forms of alternative energy, may well be problems focused on by the new challenge prize that Rees has helped set up. That he, as Astronomer Royal, will be judging what has been called a new ‘Longitude Prize’, seems appropriate, but the innovations under consideration may be a long way from his own field of astronomy and cosmology.

Today the post of Astronomer Royal is honorary. It means simply, as Alok Jha’s article on Rees’s speech suggests, that he is “one of Britain’s most senior scientists”. Like a Chief Scientific Advisor, or the head of a scientific society, the Astronomer Royal can be expected to give all sorts of opinions about science and science policy, straying at least occasionally, if they wish, well beyond their area of research.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Until the 1970s the post of Astronomer Royal was synonymous with director of the Greenwich Observatory (at GreenwichHerstmonceux and then Cambridge). Before the 19th century, the AR was also an active observer, in fact only one of two observers in the institution.

Nevertheless, Astronomers Royal were often called upon to make judgements and offer advice in areas that did not relate to making observations or managing an observatory. Because the Royal Observatory was funded by government, being under the administration of first the Board of Ordnance and then the Admiralty, there was potential for them to be asked to consider a whole range of technical and scientific issues.

For much of the AR’s history, the most obvious place in which this happened was the Board of Longitude. While many of the ideas under consideration were astronomical (involving knowledge of astronomical theory, mathematics, optics and instrumentation), others were based on geomagnetism or, of course, horology. Understanding clocks and timekeeping was essential to astronomy, but the specifics of horological theory and manufacture would have been beyond the AR’s experience.

ARs also advised on areas like cartography, instrument design and weights and measures, that involved techniques closely allied to astronomy. But they were also asked to consider a wide range of fields of interest to the Admiralty and other branches of government, simply because they ended up being their available scientific expert.

One of the ARs who most obviously became the government’s go-to scientific and technical guy was George Airy, who was in position from 1835 to 1881. Airy covered a great deal of ground, intellectually and practically. Unlike all his predecessors he was not much involved with daily observations and he had a significantly larger workforce at the Observatory, onto which observation, calculation and even management could be delegated.

Airy, for example, did a considerable amount of work on the effect of iron ships’ hulls on compass use and design. He also advised, like many other ARs, on education and he was involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. He was, perhaps most intriguingly, called in to advise the Great Western Railway on track gauges and the engineer Thomas Bouch about the pressures that might be exerted by wind on the planned rail bridge crossing the Forth.

That latter advice got him into trouble. It was first applied by Bouch to the Tay Bridge and, when that collapsed in 1879 [see image above], Airy was called in by the enquiry. He claimed that his advice had been specific to the circumstances of the Forth and the design for that bridge (which was now speedily discarded). The enquiry agreed, suggesting that Bouch had “must have misunderstood the nature of [Airy’s] report”.

Airy did know quite a lot about engineering. He was, apart from anything else, closely involved with the design of large instruments and their mounts at Greenwich. Times and the nature and range of expertise have changed considerably since the 19th century, however. Lord Rees is not an Astronomer Royal who can offer specific or technical engineering expertise, rather he is calling for research and funding. Whether or not you agree with his statements is a different matter.

9 thoughts on “Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

  1. A nice piece. I am glad that Sir Martin Rees will be involved with the new Longitude Prize. With his concise analytical mind I am sure that he will not allow it to drag on as long as the original prize. I agree that he does not have quite the range of skills as Airy, but then it was easier to be a polymath before the 20th and 21st Century :).

    I look forward to reading what Sir Martin has to say on climate change, especially with the current weather and the recent Solar activity. Astronomers have a long history of involvement with analysing the background to climate change.

    • It is certain that the rubric of the new prize (or prizes) will be *much* more carefully defined than the 1714 Act. The organisers (Nesta and the new Longitude Committee rather than Rees alone) will pick challenges that seem to have a good chance of being met, although they may find, like with longitude, that some of the problems faced take much longer than expected to be solved – or are as yet unknown. I don’t think we can blame the 18th-century longitude commissioners for the time it took to find workable solutions to their challenge, although we might question it as a reasonable one to be issued by Parliament.

      • It was a reasonable one to be issued by Parliament as it involved the National Security. I think the presentation of the prize was delayed, in part, through Maskelyne being fixated on his own solution.

      • “Maskelyne being fixated on his own solution” – this is not true, although this version of events has received wide coverage in Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

        In fact, as Astronomer Royal and a Commissioner of Longitude from 1765, Maskelyne worked to make both the lunar-distance method of finding longitude and the timekeeper method a practical possibility. He:

        – Included instructions for finding longitude by timekeeper in his Nautical Almanac
        – Published Harrison’s explanation of his watch was published and made sure that the watchmaker John Arnold received a copy in the hope that he would he develop a something more practical and affordable
        – Took the initiative to get the copy of Harrison’s watch (Larcum Kendall’s K1) and three Arnold timekeepers onto James Cook’s second voyage and, thereafter, that Board of Longitude-owned timekeepers went on such voyages
        – Trialled many timekeepers at the Royal Observatory, presenting his (often good and sometimes less good) results to the Board.

        For Maskelyne, who did not stand to make any money out of the lunar-distance method, the two methods were complementary, not rivals (astronomy is the only way to check that the timekeeper – if you are lucky enough to have one – is keeping good time over the course of your voyage).

      • I should add that I have just co-written a book on longitude and edited a set of essays on Maskelyne. Have a look through the posts on this blog and at the Board of Longitude Project ( for more information. Also check the Board of Longitude and various Maskelyne papers now digitised and available online at

      • It was not only in Sobel that I have come across what I accept to be a simplistic view, though it will have to wait for my next trip to the UK and the RAS Library to check on where else I had read this. After becoming Astronomer Royal he was though wearing three hats which could cause problems in a Mikado way. I hasten to add that I am not an ant-Maskelyne person and recognise that in many ways he was enlightened in many ways. You only have to look how he treated Caroline Herschel – not as a female but as an experienced astronomer.

        I have been reading your blogs since they started – maybe from a link from HASTRO-L – and enjoy them very much, though I sometimes become confused with the dates of original publication, as I did this time looking a few months late for a report on Ree’s speech 🙂

        I will look out for reviews on your book 🙂

      • The Sobel version echoes some of what is in Rupert Gould’s History of the Chronometer and Will Andrewes (ed) The Quest for Longitude, both of which in places take John and William Harrison’s distinctly paranoid version of events unquestioningly. Humphrey Quill’s biography of Harrison is a much more balanced account, as is Derek Howse’s biography of Maskelyne.

        Sorry for the confusion over post dates. I like to cross-post my Guardian and other stuff here as I often get a better conversation in the comments!

  2. From the flippant wilds of North America … this is all news to me. Geoengineering. The 1879 Tay Bridge disaster. Lords of Astronominies.

    From your link to the wikipedia article on the Tay Bridge disaster: “At 7:13 pm a train from the south slowed to pick up the baton from the signal cabin at the south end of the bridge, then headed out onto the bridge, picking up speed. The signalman turned away to log this and then tended the cabin fire but a friend present in the cabin watched the train: when it had got about 200 yards (183 m) from the cabin he saw sparks flying from the wheels on the east side, this continued for no more than three minutes, by then the train was in the high girders; then ‘there was a sudden bright flash of light, and in an instant there was total darkness, the tail lamps of the train, the sparks and the flash of light all … disappearing at the same instant.'” (this being maybe why people like to read history, and other stuff)

    That the 1890 replacement bridge is a hulking, muscle-eum of engineering hubristle, is a pansy-nothing compared to talk of saving a melting world by producing five Pinatubo-size volcanic eruptions a year. Holy fucking moley, Slide-Rule Batman.

    And the wikip account of the inquiry of “why the bridge fall down” is as fraught-fought with contentious points-of-view as most any forum-of-contention you could name today.

    All this time-space, reading-comment-writing travel taking place from the bikini wilds of Florida, as no one’s go-to guy just tries to keep the link-link going in his head. Thanks for helping. Good doctor.

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