Pigott, Edward

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(b. 1753; d. Bath, England, 1825), and PIGOTT, NATHANIEL (b. Whiton, Middelesex, England; d. 1804)


Although there is little personal data extant concerning the lives of the gentleman astronomers Nathaniel and Edward Pigott, their careers cast interesting light on the early development of stellar astronomy in Great Britain. Nathaniel Pigott was the son of Ralph Pigott and his wife Alathea, the daughter of William, eighth Viscount Fairfax of Gilling Castle; while in France he married, at an unknown date, Anna Mathurina de Beriol. Edward Pigott was their second son, the first to survive infancy.

Nathaniel Pigott was a surveyor and landed proprietor as well as an amateur astronomer. He spent much of his life on the Continent, settling for a while at Caen. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for 1767 contains an account of his observations there or the solar eclipse of 16 August 1765. He also recorded observations of the transit of Venus of 1769, made a series of meteorological and longitudinal measurements in the Low Countries (between 1770 and 1778), and observed the transit of Mercury of 1786 from Louvain. He was elected to the Royal Society on 16 June 1772; to the Brussels Academy in 1773; and became a corresponding member of the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1776.

In September 1771 the Pigott family left Caen to return to England. They lived at Frampton, Glamorganshire for ten years, then moved to Bootham, Yorkshire, where they improvised an astronomical observatory in the garden. Edward Pigott had already become actively engaged in astronomy—he assisted his father in the observation of 1769—and at Bootham he made his first discovery, that of a nebula in the constellation Coma Berenices. In 1783 he discovered a new comet, an accomplishment later mistakenly ascribed to his father, along with a number of others. (A possible source of this confusion lies in the fact that although Edward Pigott kept a diary—much of it in French—comprising his work from 1770 until 1782, he failed to put his name to it.)

In about 1783 Edward Pigott struck up a friendship with John Goodricke, who had himself the year before, when he was eighteen, discovered the periodic variability of Algol. Not to be outdone, Edward Pigott noted that the star η Aquilae is periodically variable: he made his discovery on 10 September 1784, apparently the same night upon which Goodricke discovered the variability of yet another star, β Lyrae. Within the week, Goodricke had also determined the variability of δ Cephei. The happy partnership ended prematurely in April 1786, when Goodricke died, at the age of twenty-one, probably from pneumonia that he contracted while making observations. Edward Pigott’s reaction to this loss must be left to conjecture, since his diary ceased before that time.

Having, in the latter part of 1786, accompanied his father to Louvain to observe the transit of Mercury, Edward Pigott may have extended his stay there. At any rate, he did not report any new variables until 1795, when, having returned to England and settled at Bath, he announced the variability of R Scuti and R Coronae Borealis. (These stars were later recognized as prototypes of certain classes of irregular variables; the cause of their variability is as yet uncertain.) He subsequently discovered another variable star in Scutum and two more comets, as well as determining the proper motions of several stars. Edward Pigott was a frequent contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; his works published therein include a number of important papers on the method of observing stars with a transit instrument.

Following the treaty of Amiens in 1802, Edward Pigott took the first opportunity to return to the Continent. When hostilities again broke out in 1803, he was arrested and detained at Fontainebleau. He wrote to William Herschel of his melancholy at “being separated from my journals, books and instruments”; after a time, however, doubtless through the good offices of his friends in the French scientific community, he was supplied with materials to continue his work. A treatise that he wrote while in detention was published by the Royal Society in 1803; Sir Joseph Banks, president of that body, exerted his influence on Edward Pigott’s behalf, and secured his release in 1806. In the meantime, Nathaniel Pigott had died while traveling abroad.

In 1807 Edward Pigott observed the great comet of that year; at this time he was at his home in Belvedere, Bath. The last record of him is a letter from John Herschel, dated from Slough, 8 May 1821. Herschel asked Edward Pigott if he and his father might propose him for membership in the recently formed London (later Royal) Astronomical Society; although Pigott could not have been unaware of the honor that such a proposal implied, and although he endorsed Herschel’s letter as an invetation, there is no indication that he replied to it. He was sixty-eight, and his interest in the subject may have faded—or perhaps he was disappointed that his life work had not received recognition from another quarter. At any rate, he was not elected, and nothing else is known of him until his death.


The following works by Pigott appeared in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “Account of a Nebula in Coma Berenices,” 71 (1781), 82; “On the Discovery of a Comet in 1783,” 74 (1784), 20; “Observations on the Comet in 1783,” ibid., 460; “Observations of a New Variable Star,” 75 (1785), 127; “On Those Stars Which the Astronomer of the Last Century Suspected to be Changeable,” 76 (1786), 189; “On the Transit of Mercury Over the Sun, Made at Louvain, in the Netherlands,” ibid., 389; “The Latitude and Longitude of York Determined From Astronomical Observations, With the Method of Determining the Longitudes of Places by Observation of the Moon’s Transit Over the Meridian,” ibid., 409; “An Account of Some Luminous Arches,” 80 (1790), 47; “Determination of the Longitudes and Latitudes of Some Remarkable Places Near the Severn,” ibid., 385; “On the Periodical Changes of Brightness of Two Fixed Stars,” 87 (1797), 133; “On the Changes in the Variable Star in Sobieski’s Shield, From Five Years Observations; With Conjectures Respecting Unenlightened Heavenly Bodies,” 95 (1805), 131; “Observations on the Eclipse of the Sun, Aug. 11, 1765, at Caen in Normandy,” 57 (1767), 402; “Observations on the Transit of Venus, Jan. 3, 1769, at Caen,” 60 (1770), 257; “Meteorological Observations at Caen for 1765-69,” 61 (1771), 274; “Astronomical Observations in the Austrian Netherlands,” 66 (1776), 182; “Discovery of Double Stars in 1779, at Frampton House in Glamorganshire,” 71 (1781), 84; “Astronomical Observations,” ibid., 347; “An Observation of the Meteor of August 18th, 1783, Made on Hewitt Common, Near York,” 74 (1784), 457; “Observations of the Transit of Mercury Over the Sun’s Disc, Made at Louvain, May 3, 1786,” 76 (1786), 384.

Zdenĕk Kopal