Smyth, Charles Piazzi

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


(b. Naples, Italy, 3 January 1819; d. Clova, near Ripon, Scotland, 21 February 1900)

astronomy, meteorology.

Smyth was named after Giuseppe Piazzi, astronomer-friend of Smyth’s father, William Henry Smyth (1788–1865), who was stationed in Italy with the Royal Navy when Smyth was born. In 1825 the Smyth family returned to England and settled at Bedford, where Smyth’s father established the Bedford observatory, the best-equipped private observatory in England.

Smyth was educated at the Bedford grammar school. From 1835 to 1845 he served as assistant to Maclear at the royal observatory. Cape of Good Hope. There Smyth observed and drew the great comets of 1836 and 1843. and participated in the verification and extension of Lacaille’s arc of meridian. In 1845 Smyth was appointed successor to Thomas Henderson as director of the Edinburgh observatory, a position that included the additional titles astronomer royal for Scotland and professor of practical astronomy in the University of Edinburgh. Although under his direction the Edinburgh observatory produced observations of the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars,smyth was primarily interested in more experimental and speculative matters.

In 1856 Smyth led an expedition to the Peak of Tenerife, primarily “to ascertain how much astronomical observation can be benefited, by eliminating the lower third or fourth part of the atmosphere” (C. P. Smyth, Report on the Teneriffe Astronomi cal Experiment[London, 1858]). Financial support for this experiment was given by the British Admiralty, and moral support by the entire British scientific community. In addition to telescopic observations of planets and stars, Smyth measured the radiant heat of the moon; observed the solar spectrum and noted which lines of absorption were of terrestrial origin: and made various other observations of the meteorology, geology, and botany of the island.

With his wife Smyth spent four months in 1865 in Egypt, where he measured the orientation, sizes, and angles of the various parts of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and correlated the results with astronomical phenomena. Smyth’s measurements earned him the Keith Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His speculations on the mysteries hidden within the pyramid sparked an acrimonious debate, which led to his resignation from the Royal Society of London.

Smyth also charted the spectra of the sun, aurora, zodiacal light, the atmosphere under different meteorological conditions, and—in the laboratory—of various luminous gases. In order to resolve difficult solar lines, he obtained Rutherfurd and then Rowland diffraction gratings; and, in search of clearer atmosphere than Edinburgh afforded, Smyth traveled to Palermo, Portugal, Madeira, and Winchester. For his spectroscopic studies Smyth won the Makdougall-Brisbane Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Like his father, Smyth was a member of numerous societies. Toward the end of his life he signed his name “C. Piazzi Smyth, F.R.S.E., F.R.A.S., F.R.S.S.A., Corresponding Member of the Academies of Science in Munich and Palermo; honorary member of the Royal Society of Modena, of the Institute of Engineers in Scotland, and of the Edinburgh Photographic Society; Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy in the University of Edinburgh, and Astronomer-Royal for Scotland: also Ex-Member of the Royal Society, London” (Astronomical Observations Made at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, 15 [1886]).


I. Original Works. Smyth’s works include Astronomical Observations Made at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh: vols. VI-X (1847–1852) contain observations made by T. Henderson, reduced and edited by C. P. Smyth; vols. XI-XV (1852–1880) contain observations made under Smyth’s directorship; Paris Universal Exposition of 1855... Description of New or lmproved Instruments for Navigation and Astronomy (Edinburgh, 1855): Teneriffe: An Astronomer’s Experiment; or Specialities of a Residence Above the Clouds ... Illustrated With Photo-Stereographs (London, 1858); Report on the Teneriffe Astronomical Experiment of 1856, Addressed to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (London, 1858), repr. from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; and Three Cities in Russia, 2 vols. (London, 1862).

See also Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid ... (London, 1864; 5th enl. ed., 1890); Life and Work at the Great Pyramid During the Months of January, February, March, and April, A.D. 1865; With a Discussion of the Facts Ascertained, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1867); On the Antiquity of Intellectual Man, From a Practical and Astronomical Point of View (Edinburgh, 1868): A Poor Man’s Photography at the Great Pyramid in ... 1865, Compared With That of the Ordnance Survey Establishment .... (London, 1870); On an Equal-Surface Projection for Maps of the World, and Its Application to Certain Anthropological Questions (Edinburgh, 1870); The Great Pyramid and the Royal Society (London) (London, 1874); Madeira Spectroscopic, Being a Revision of 21 Places in the Red Half of the Solar Visible Spectrum, With a Rutherfurd Diffraction Grating, at Madeira ... During the Summer of 1881 (Edinburgh, 1882); and Madeira Meteorologic (Edinburgh 1882). In addition to the above, the catalog of the British Museum Library lists several responses to Smyth’s ideas about the Great Pyramid. The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V , 735–737; VIII 976; XI 443–444; XVII 823; and Poggendorff, III, 1261–1262, list over 130 articles by Smyth.

II. Secondary Literature. On Smyth and his work, see the obituaries by Ralph Copeland, in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 61 (1901), 189–196; in Popular Astronomy, 8 (1900), 384–387 (also in Astronomische Nachrichten, 152 [1900], 189); and in Observatory, 23 (1900), 145–147. See also the article by Agnes Clerk, in Dictionary of National Biography, XXII, 1222–1223.

Deborah Jean Warner