May 10, 2016

“Fame, fortune, misery, disaster… The lives and times of the Royal Observatory’s nineteenth century Assistants and Computers” – History of Astronomy Group Meeting – 10 May 2016

Graham Dolan
Report by: Mike Dryland
Graham Dolan

Graham Dolan

The ROG was preparing for new galleries called ‘Observatory Lives’ focusing on two of the Astronomers Royal, Maskelyne and Airy, and their families who lived at the Observatory in Flamsteed House. By way of contrast, Graham Dolan spoke to us about some of the nineteenth century assistants at the Observatory, people who did the work for Pond and Airy and whose lives were no less interesting than their esteemed masters. Graham was formerly Senior Education Officer at the ROG and, since his retirement, has devoted a great deal of time to researching its history. Graham has generously shared his research on his excellent websites and

Graham has gathered links to pages covering the material of this talk here —

He began by giving an overview of the assistants’ grades and duties, and a summary of the people who had been employed by Pond, many of whom transferred to Airy’s leadership in 1835.

Airy had mixed views about these assistants. One stands out for the scandal surrounding has dismissal in 1845. William Richardson had been hired by Pond in 1822. He came from Pocklington in Yorkshire. At first Richardson’s professional career at the ROG seems to have been exemplary and he gained several awards, but in 1845 his private life intruded in a spectacular way – he was accused of incest with his daughter and was dismissed by Airy. Richardson returned to Yorkshire. There it may have ended except that a few months later the body of a small baby was unearthed in the garden of Richardson’s former Greenwich home. At an inquest in the Morden Arms he and his daughter were accused of murder and put on trial at the Old Bailey. They were acquitted for lack of evidence. Graham has traced Richardson’s return to Pocklington where he became a property owner of some significance – see Graham’s research here

Annie Maunder

Annie Maunder

Of the assistants hired by Airy, E Walter Maunder is probably the best known. Maunder was head of the solar department recording sunspot activity. From historical records he identified a lengthy period of very low solar activity from about 1645 to about 1715 when almost no sunspots were recorded. This period is known as the ‘Maunder Minimum’ and coincides with a time of very cold weather called the Little Ice age. Maunder also ran a series of experiments to test reports of the system of ‘canals’ observed on Mars. With the help of pupils from the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich, Maunder demonstrated that the human eye and brain were inclined to see patterns and lines where none existed in images close to the limit of observation. Maunder’s private life, too, wasn’t without some spice. His first wife, Edith, died in 1888 shortly after the birth of their sixth child. Maunder then formed a relationship with one of the ROG computers, Annie Russell, who was 17 years younger than he. They married in December 1895 which meant that Annie was forced to resign her post at the Observatory. Walter and Annie moved house from the east side of Greenwich Park (Ulundi Road, close to several other assistants), across to the west on the Lewisham side of Blackheath. One assumes their marriage didn’t meet with the full social approval of his colleagues. Walter and Annie both went on to develop high-profile careers in astronomy and they worked together to create the BAA. They both published popular astronomy books and Annie was made a Fellow of the RAS in 1916 after the bar on female Fellows was lifted.

We have come to expect meticulous and detailed research from Graham and this talk was no exception. He always delights with new revelations about the rich history of the Observatory and its people.

Many thanks to Graham for an excellent evening.

Pictures from the Evening (by Mike Dryland and Mike Meynell):

Posted under: Flamsteed, History of Astronomy, Meeting Report