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At Greenwich Observatory, 1866-1876


In this year the cube of the Transit Circle was pierced, to permit reciprocal observations of the Collimators without raising the instrument. This involved the construction of improved Collimators, which formed the subject of a special Address to the Members of the Board of Visitors on Ocst 1865. From the Report to the Visitors it appears that “On May 23rd 1865, a thunderstorm of great violence passed very close to the Observatory. After one flash of lightning, I was convinced that the principal building was struck. Several galvanometers in the Magnetic Basement were destroyed. Lately it has been remarked that one of the old chimneys of the principal building had been dislocated and slightly twisted, at a place where it was surrounded by an iron stay-band led from the Telegraph Pole which was planted upon the leads of the Octagon Room.” “On consideration of the serious interruptions to which we have several times been exposed from the destruction of our open-air Park-wires (through snow-storms and gales), I have made an arrangement for leading the whole of our wires in underground pipes as far as the Greenwich Railway Station.” “The Committee of the House of Commons, to whom the Greenwich and Woolwich Line of the South Eastern Railway was referred, finally assented to the adoption of a line which I indicated, passing between the buildings of the Hospital Schools and the public road to Woolwich.” “The Galvanic Chronometer attached to the S. E. Equatoreal often gave us a great deal of trouble. At last I determined, on the proposal of Mr Ellis, to attempt an extension of Mr R. L. Jones’s regulating principle. It is well known that Mr Jones has with great success introduced the system of applying galvanic currents originating in the vibrations of a normal pendulum, not to drive the wheelwork of other clocks, but to regulate to exact agreement the rates of their pendulums which were, independently, nearly in agreement; each clock being driven by weight-power as before. The same principle is now applied to the chronometer.... The construction is perfectly successful; the chronometer remains in coincidence with the Transit Clock through any length of time, with a small constant error as is required by mechanical theory.” “The printed volume of Observations for 1864 has two Appendixes; one containing the calculations of the value of the Moon’s Semi-diameter deduced from 295 Occultations observed at Cambridge and Greenwich from 1832 to 1860, and shewing that the Occultation Semi-diameter is less than the Telescopic Semi-diameter by 2”; the other containing the reduction of the Planetary Observations made at the Royal Observatory in the years 1831-1835; filling up the gap, between the Planetary Reductions 1750-1830 made several years ago under my superintendence, and the Reductions contained in the Greenwich Volumes 1836 to the present time: and conducted on the same general principles.” “Some trouble had been found in regulating the temperature of the Magnetic Basement, but it was anticipated that in future there would be no difficulty in keeping down the annual variation within about 5 deg. and the diurnal variation within 3 deg.. Longitudes in America were determined in this year by way of Valencia and Newfoundland: finished by Noth.”

Of private history: In April he made a short visit to Ventnor in the Isle of Wight. From June 15th to July 23rd he was on an expedition in Norway with his son Osmund and his nephew Gorell Barnes. There was probably a short stay at Playford in the winter.

In this and in the previous year (1865) the free-thinking investigations of Colenso, the Bishop of Natal, had attracted much notice, and had procured him the virulent hostility of a numerous section. His income was withheld from him, and in consequence a subscription fund was raised for his support by his admirers. Airy, who always took the liberal side in such questions, was a subscriber to the fund, and wrote the following letter to the Bishop:

1865, July 24.


With many thanks I have to acknowledge your kind recollection of me in sending as a presentation copy the work on Joshua, Judges, and especially on the divided authorship of Genesis; a work whose investigations, founded in great measure on severe and extensive verbal criticism, will apparently bear comparison with your Lordship’s most remarkable examination of Deuteronomy. I should however not do justice to my own appreciation if I did not remark that there are other points considered which have long been matters of interest to me.

On several matters, some of them important, my present conclusions do not absolutely agree with your Lordship’s. But I am not the less grateful for the amount of erudition and thought carefully directed to definite points, and above all for the noble example of unwearied research and freedom in stating its consequences, in reference to subjects which scarcely ever occupy the attention of the clergy in our country.

I am, My Lord,
Yours very faithfully,

The Lord Bishop of Natal.

Here also is a letter on the same subject, written to Professor Selwyn, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge:

1866, May 5.


The MS. concerning Colenso duly arrived.

I note your remarks on the merits of Colenso. I do not write to tell you that I differ from you, but to tell you why I differ.

I think that you do not make the proper distinction between a person who invents or introduces a tool, and the person who uses it.

The most resolute antigravitationist that ever lived might yet acknowledge his debt to Newton for the Method of Prime and Ultimate Ratios and the Principles of Fluxions by which Newton sought to establish gravitation.

So let it be with Colenso. He has given me a power of tracing out truth to a certain extent which I never could have obtained without him. And for this I am very grateful.

As to the further employment of this power, you know that he and I use it to totally different purposes. But not the less do I say that I owe to him a new intellectual power.

I quite agree with you, that the sudden disruption of the old traditional view seems to have unhinged his mind, and to have sent him too far on the other side. I would not give a pin for his judgment.

Nevertheless, I wish he would go over the three remaining books of the Tetrateuch.

I know something of Myers, but I should not have thought him likely to produce anything sound on such things as the Hebrew Scriptures. I never saw his “Thoughts.”

I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

Professor Selwyn.

The following letter has reference to Airy’s proposal to introduce certain Physico-Mathematical subjects into the Senate-House Examination for B.A. Honors at Cambridge. On various occasions he sharply criticized the Papers set for the Senate-House Examination and the Smith’s Prize Examination, and greatly lamented the growing importance of pure mathematics and the comparative exclusion of physical questions in those examinations. His proposal as finally submitted in the letter that follows was somewhat modified (as regards the mode of introducing the subjects) from his original draft, in deference to the opinions of Whewell, Adams, Routh, and other friends to whom he had submitted it. His proposal was favourably received by the Mathematical Board, and recommendations were made in the direction, though not to the extent, that he desired, and he subsequently submitted a Memorandum on those recommendations:

1866, May 11.


You will perceive, from perusal of the enclosed paper, that I have acted on the permission which you kindly gave me, to transmit to you my proposal for extension of the mathematical education of the University in the Physical direction.

It is an unavoidable consequence of the structure of the University that studies there will have a tendency to take an unpractical form depending much on the personal tastes of special examiners. I trust that, as a person whose long separation from the daily business of the University has enabled him to see in some measure the wants of the external scientific and practical world, I may be forgiven this attempt to bring to the notice of the University my ideas on the points towards which their attention might perhaps be advantageously turned.

I am, my dear Sir,
Very faithfully yours,

The Rev. Dr Cartmell,
Master of Christ’s College
and Vice-Chancellor.

1866, May 11.


About two years ago, by the kindness of the University, an opportunity was presented to me of orally stating what I conceived to be deficiencies in the educational course of the University as regards mathematical physics. Since that time, the consideration of those deficiencies, which had long been present to me, has urged itself on my attention with greater force: and finally I have entertained the idea that I might without impropriety communicate to you my opinion, in a less fugitive form than on the occasion to which I have alluded: with the request that, if you should deem such a course appropriate, you would bring it before the Board of Mathematical Studies, and perhaps ultimately make it known to the Resident Members of the Senate.

I will first give the list of subjects, which I should wish to see introduced, and to the prosecution of which the generally admirable course of the University is remarkably well adapted: and I will then, without entering into every detail, advert to the process by which I think it probable the introduction of these subjects could be effected.

In the following list, the first head is purely algebraical, and the second nearly so: but they are closely related to observational science, and to the physical subjects which follow. Some of the subjects which I exhibit on my list are partially, but in my opinion imperfectly, taught at present. I entirely omit from my list Physical Optics, Geometrical Astronomy, and Gravitational Astronomy of Points: because, to the extent to which Academical Education ought to go, I believe that there is no teaching on these sciences comparable to that in the University of Cambridge. (It is, of course, still possible that improvements may be made in the books commonly used.) It might, however, be a question, whether, as regards the time and manner of teaching them, some parts of these subjects might ultimately be associated with the other subjects included in my list.

I. List of subjects proposed for consideration.

(1) Partial Differential Equations to the second order, with their arbitrary functions: selected principally with reference to the physical subjects.

(2) The Theory of Probabilities as applied to the combination of Observations.

(3) Mechanics (including Hydraulic Powers) in the state which verges upon practical application, and especially including that part in which the abstract ideas of power and duty occur.

(4) Attractions. This subject is recognized in the existing course of the University: but, so far as I can infer from examination-papers, it appears to be very lightly passed over.

(5) The Figure of the Earth, and its consequences, Precession, &c. I believe that the proposal is sanctioned, of adopting some part of this theory in the ordinary course; but perhaps hardly so far as is desirable.

(6) The Tides.

(7) Waves of Water.

(8) Sound (beginning with Newton’s investigation); Echoes; Pipes and Vibrating Strings; Acoustics; the Mathematical part of Music.

(9) Magnetism, terrestrial and experimental, and their connection.

(I omit for the present Mineralogy and Mathematical Electricity.)

This list of subjects appears formidable: but they are in reality easy, and would be mastered in a short time by the higher Wranglers.

II. Mode of introducing these subjects into the University.

After much consideration, and after learning the opinions of several persons whose judgment claims my deepest respect, I propose the gradual introduction of these subjects into the Examination for Honors at admission to the B.A. Degree, as soon as the preparation of Books and the readiness of Examiners shall enable the University to take that step. I conceive that, by a judicious pruning of the somewhat luxuriant growth of Pure Algebra, Analytical Geometry, and Mere Problems, sufficient leisure may be gained for the studies of the undergraduates, and sufficient time for the questions of the examiners. I do not contemplate that the students could advance very far into the subjects; but I know the importance of beginning them; and, judging from the train of thoughts, of reading, and of conversation, among the Bachelors with whom I associated many years ago, I believe that there is quite a sufficient number who will be anxious to go deep into the subjects if they have once entered into them. If six Wranglers annually would take them up, my point would be gained. The part which these gentlemen might be expected, in a short time, to take in the government of the University, would enable them soon to act steadily upon the University course: the efficiency of the University instruction would be increased; and the external character of the University would be raised.

The real difficulties, and they are not light ones, would probably be found in providing Examiners and Books. At present, both are wanting within the University. Where there is a great and well-founded objection to intrusting examinations to persons foreign to the University, and where the books have to be created with labour and with absolute outlay of money (for their sale could never be remunerative), the progress must be slow. Still progress would be certain, if the authorities of the University should think the matter deserving of their hearty encouragement.

Requesting that you and the Members of the University will accept this proposal as an indication of my deep attachment to my University,

I am,
My dear Mr Vice-Chancellor,
Your very faithful servant,

The Rev. Dr Cartmell,
&c. &c.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge


“In this year it was arranged that my Treasury accounts were to be transferred to the Admiralty, making the simplification which I had so long desired. From the Report to the Visitors it appears that a relic of the Geodetic operations commenced in 1787 for connecting the Observatories of Greenwich and Paris, in the shape of an observing cabin on the roof of the Octagon Room, was shifted and supported in such a manner that the pressure on the flat roof was entirely avoided. With regard to the Transit Circle, the new Collimators with telescopes of seven inches aperture had been mounted. When the Transit Telescope directed vertically is interposed, the interruptions in the central cube impair the sharpness of definition, still leaving it abundantly good for general use. It had been regarded as probable that the astronomical flexure of the telescope, after cutting away small portions of the central cube, would be found sensibly changed: and this proved to be the case. The difference of flexures of the two ends has been altered more than a second of arc. Referring to a new Portable Altazimuth which had lately been tested, the Report states as follows: ’I may mention that a study of defects in the vertical circle of a small Altazimuth formerly used by me, and an inspection of the operations in the instrument-maker’s work-shop, have convinced me that the principal error to be feared in instruments of this class is ovality of the graduated limb; this cannot be eliminated by two microscopes, and such an instrument should never be fitted with two only. Our instrument has four.’ ’In Osler’s Anemometer, a surface of 2 square feet is now exposed to the wind instead of one foot as formerly; and the plate is supported by weak vertical springs instead of rods running on rollers. Its indications are much more delicate than formerly.’ ’The Meteors on Noth were well observed. Eight thousand and three hundred were registered. The variations of frequency at different times were very well noted. The points of divergence were carefully determined.’ Referring to the gradual improvement in the steadiness of chronometers from 1851 to 1866, it appears that from 1851 to 1854 the ‘trial number’ (which is a combination of changes of weekly rate representing the fault of the chronometer) varied from 34.8s to 52.5s, while from 1862 to 1866 it varied from 21.2s to 25.8s. The following statement will shew the usual steadiness of the Great Clock on the Westminster Palace: On 38 per cent. of days of observation, the clock’s error was below 1s. On 38 per cent, the error was between 1s and 2s. On 21 per cent. it was between 2s and 3s. On 2 per cent. between 3s and 4s. On 1 per cent. between 4s and 5s. The Report contains an account of the determination of the longitude of Cambridge U.S. by Dr B. A. Gould, by means of galvanic currents through the Atlantic Cable, in the spring of 1867: and advantage was taken of this opportunity for re-determining the longitude of Feagh Main near Valencia in Ireland. The longitude of Feagh Main, found by different methods is as follows: By chronometers in 1844, 41m 23.23s; by galvanic communication with Knight’s Town in 1862, 41m 23.37s; by galvanic communication with Foilhommerum in 1866, 41m 23.19s. The collected results for longitude of Cambridge U.S. from different sources are: By moon-culminators (Walker in 1851, and Newcomb in 1862-3), 4h 44m 28.42s and 4h 44m 29.56s respectively; by Eclipses (Walker in 1851), 4h 44m 29.64s; by occultations of Pleiades (Peirce 1838-1842, and 1856-1861), 4h 44m 29.91s and 4h 44m 30.90s respectively; by chronometers (W. C. Bond in 1851, and G. P. Bond in 1855), 4h 44m 30.66s and 4h 44m 31.89s respectively; by Atlantic Cable 1866, 4h 44m 30.99s. After noticing that many meteorological observatories had suddenly sprung up and had commenced printing their observations in detail, the Report continues thus: ’Whether the effect of this movement will be that millions of useless observations will be added to the millions that already exist, or whether something may be expected to result which will lead to a meteorological theory, I cannot hazard a conjecture. This only I believe, that it will be useless, at present, to attempt a process of mechanical theory; and that all that can be done must be, to connect phenomena by laws of induction. But the induction must be carried out by numerous and troublesome trials in different directions, the greater part of which would probably be failures.’ There was this year an annular eclipse; I made large preparations at the limits of the annularity; failed entirely from very bad weather.” In this year Airy contributed a Paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers ’On the use of the Suspension Bridge with stiffened roadway for Railway and other Bridges of Great Span,’ for which a Telford Medal was awarded to him by the Council of the Institution. And he communicated several Papers to the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society.

Of private history: There was the usual visit to Playford in January. In April there was a short run to Alnwick and the neighbourhood, in company with Mr and Mrs Routh. From June 27th to July 4th he was in Wales with his two eldest sons, visiting Uriconium, &c. on his return. From August 8th to Septh he spent a holiday in Scotland and the Lake District of Cumberland with his daughter Christabel, visiting the Langtons at Barrow House, near Keswick, and Isaac Fletcher at Tarn Bank.

In June of this year (1867) Airy was elected an Honorary Fellow of his old College of Trinity in company with Connop Thirlwall, the Bishop of St David’s. They were the first Honorary Fellows elected by the College. The announcement was made in a letter from the Master of Trinity (W.H. Thompson), and Airy’s reply was as follows:

1867, June 12th.


I am very much gratified by your kind note received this morning, conveying to me the notice that the Master and Sixteen Senior Fellows had elected me, under their new powers, as Honorary Fellow of the College.

It has always been my wish to maintain a friendly connection with my College, and I am delighted to receive this response from the College. The peculiar form in which the reference to the Statute enables them to put it renders it doubly pleasing.

As the Statute is new, I should be obliged by a copy of it. And, at any convenient time, I should be glad to know the name of the person with whom I am so honorably associated.

I am, My dear Master,
Very faithfully yours,

Consequent on Airy’s proposals in 1866 for the introduction of new physical subjects into the Senate-House Examination and his desire that the large number of questions set in Pure Mathematics, or as he termed it “Useless Algebra,” should be curtailed, there was a smart and interesting correspondence between him and Prof. Cayley, who was the great exponent and advocate of Pure Mathematics at Cambridge. Both of them were men of the highest mathematical powers, but diametrically opposed in their views of the use of Mathematics. Airy regarded mathematics as simply a useful machine for the solution of practical problems and arriving at practical results. He had a great respect for Pure Mathematics and all the processes of algebra, so far as they aided him to solve his problems and to arrive at useful results; but he had a positive aversion to mathematical investigations, however skilful and elaborate, for which no immediate practical value could be claimed. Cayley on the contrary regarded mathematics as a useful exercise for the mind, apart from any immediate practical object, and he considered that the general command of mathematics gained by handling abstruse mathematical investigations (though barren in themselves) would be valuable for whatever purpose mathematics might be required: he also thought it likely that his researches and advances in the field of Pure Mathematics might facilitate the solution of physical problems and tend to the progress of the practical sciences. Their different views on this subject will be seen from the letters that follow:

1867, No.


I think it best to put in writing the purport of what I have said, or have intended to say, in reference to the Mathematical Studies in the University.

First, I will remark on the study of Partial Differential Equations. I do not know that one branch of Pure Mathematics can be considered higher than another, except in the utility of the power which it gives. Measured thus, the Partial Differential Equations are very useful and therefore stand very high, as far as the Second Order. They apply, to that point, in the most important way, to the great problems of nature concerning time, and infinite division of matter, and space: and are worthy of the most careful study. Beyond that Order they apply to nothing. It was for the purpose of limiting the study to the Second Order, and at the same time working it carefully, philosophically, and practically, up to that point, that I drew up my little work.

On the general question of Mathematical Studies, I will first give my leading ideas on what I may call the moral part. I think that a heavy responsibility rests on the persons who influence most strongly the course of education in the University, to direct that course in the way in which it will be most useful to the students in the two ways, of disciplining their powers and habits, and of giving them scientific knowledge of the highest and most accurate order (applying to the phenomena of nature) such as will be useful to them through life. I do not think that the mere personal taste of a teacher is sufficient justification for a special course, unless it has been adopted under a consideration of that responsibility. Now I can say for myself that I have, for some years, inspected the examination papers, and have considered the bearing of the course which they imply upon the education of the student, and am firmly convinced that as regards men below the very few first say below the ten first there is a prodigious loss of time without any permanent good whatever. For the great majority of men, such subjects as abstract Analytical Geometry perish at once. With men like Adams and Stokes they remain, and are advantageous; but probably there is not a single man (beside them) of their respective years who remembers a bit, or who if he remembers them has the leisure and other opportunities of applying them.

I believe on the other hand that a careful selection of physical subjects would enable the University to communicate to its students a vast amount of information; of accurate kind and requiring the most logical treatment; but so bearing upon the natural phenomena which are constantly before us that it would be felt by every student to possess a real value, that (from that circumstance) it would dwell in his mind, and that it would enable him to correct a great amount of flimsy education in the country, and, so far, to raise the national character.

The consideration of the education of the reasoning habits suggests ideas far from favourable to the existing course. I am old enough to remember the time of mere geometrical processes, and I do not hesitate to say that for the cultivation of accurate mental discipline they were far superior to the operations in vogue at the present day. There is no subject in the world more favourable to logical habit than the Differential Calculus in all its branches if logically worked in its elements: and I think that its applications to various physical subjects, compelling from time to time an attention to the elementary grounds of the Calculus, would be far more advantageous to that logical habit than the simple applications to Pure Equations and Pure Algebraical Geometry now occupying so much attention.

I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

Professor Cayley.


I have been intending to answer your letter of the 8th November. So far as it is (if at all) personal to myself, I would remark that the statutory duty of the Sadlerian Professor is that he shall explain and teach the principles of Pure Mathematics and apply himself to the advancement of the Science.

As to Partial Differential Equations, they are “high” as being an inverse problem, and perhaps the most difficult inverse problem that has been dealt with. In regard to the limitation of them to the second order, whatever other reasons exist for it, there is also the reason that the theory to this order is as yet so incomplete that there is no inducement to go beyond it; there could hardly be a more valuable step than anything which would give a notion of the form of the general integral of a Partial Differential Equation of the second order.

I cannot but differ from you in toto as to the educational value of Analytical Geometry, or I would rather say of Modern Geometry generally. It appears to me that in the Physical Sciences depending on Partial Differential Equations, there is scarcely anything that a student can do for himself: he finds the integral of the ordinary equation for Sound if he wishes to go a step further and integrate the non-linear equation (dy/dx) squared(d squaredy/dt squared) = a squared(d squaredy/dx squared) he is simply unable to do so; and so in other cases there is nothing that he can add to what he finds in his books. Whereas Geometry (of course to an intelligent student) is a real inductive and deductive science of inexhaustible extent, in which he can experiment for himself the very tracing of a curve from its equation (and still more the consideration of the cases belonging to different values of the parameters) is the construction of a theory to bind together the facts and the selection of a curve or surface proper for the verification of any general theorem is the selection of an experiment in proof or disproof of a theory.

I do not quite understand your reference to Stokes and Adams, as types of the men who alone retain their abstract Analytical Geometry. If a man when he takes his degree drops mathematics, he drops geometry but if not I think for the above reasons that he is more likely to go on with it than with almost any other subject and any mathematical journal will shew that a very great amount of attention is in fact given to geometry. And the subject is in a very high degree a progressive one; quite as much as to Physics, one may apply to it the lines, Yet I doubt not thro’ the ages one increasing purpose runs, and the thoughts of men are widened with the progress of the suns.

I remain, dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,

6 Dec., 1867.

1867, December 9.


I have received with much pleasure your letter of December 6. In this University discussion, I have acted only in public, and have not made private communication to any person whatever till required to do so by private letter addressed to me. Your few words in Queens’ Hall seemed to expect a little reply.

Now as to the Modern Geometry. With your praises of this science as to the room for extension in induction and deduction, &c.; and with your facts as to the amount of space which it occupies in Mathematical Journals; I entirely agree. And if men, after leaving Cambridge, were designed to shut themselves up in a cavern, they could have nothing better for their subjective amusement. They might have other things as good; enormous complication and probably beautiful investigation might be found in varying the game of billiards with novel islands on a newly shaped billiard table. But the persons who devote themselves to these subjects do thereby separate themselves from the world. They make no step towards natural science or utilitarian science, the two subjects which the world specially desires. The world could go on as well without these separatists.

Now if these persons lived only for themselves, no other person would have any title to question or remark on their devotion to this barren subject. But a Cambridge Examiner is not in that position. The University is a national body, for education of young men: and the power of a Cambridge Examiner is omnipotent in directing the education of the young men; and his responsibility to the cause of education is very distinct and very strong. And the question for him to consider is in the sense in which mathematical education is desired by the best authorities in the nation, is the course taken by this national institution satisfactory to the nation?

I express my belief that it is not satisfactory. I believe that many of the best men of the nation consider that a great deal of time is lost on subjects which they esteem as puerile, and that much of that time might be employed on noble and useful science.

You may remember that the Commissions which have visited Cambridge originated in a Memorial addressed to the Government by men of respected scientific character: Sabine was one, and I may take him as the representative. He is a man of extensive knowledge of the application of mathematics as it has been employed for many years in the science of the world; but he has no profundity of science. He, as I believe, desired to find persons who could enter accurately into mathematical science, and naturally looked to the Great Mathematical University; but he must have been much disappointed. So much time is swallowed up by the forced study of the Pure Mathematics that it is not easy to find anybody who can really enter on these subjects in which men of science want assistance. And so Sabine thought that the Government ought to interfere, probably without any clear idea of what they could do.

I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

Professor Cayley.


I have to thank you for your last letter. I do not think everything should be subordinated to the educational element: my idea of a University is that of a place for the cultivation of all science. Therefore among other sciences Pure Mathematics; including whatever is interesting as part of this science. I am bound therefore to admit that your proposed extension of the problem of billiards, if it were found susceptible of interesting mathematical developments, would be a fit subject of study. But in this case I do not think the problem could fairly be objected to as puerile a more legitimate objection would I conceive be its extreme speciality. But this is not an objection that can be brought against Modern Geometry as a whole: in regard to any particular parts of it which may appear open to such an objection, the question is whether they are or are not, for their own sakes, or their bearing upon other parts of the science to which they belong, worthy of being entered upon and pursued.

But admitting (as I do not) that Pure Mathematics are only to be studied with a view to Natural and Physical Science, the question still arises how are they best to be studied in that view. I assume and admit that as to a large part of Modern Geometry and of the Theory of Numbers, there is no present probability that these will find any physical applications. But among the remaining parts of Pure Mathematics we have the theory of Elliptic Functions and of the Jacobian and Abelian Functions, and the theory of Differential Equations, including of course Partial Differential Equations. Now taking for instance the problem of three bodies unless this is to be gone on with by the mere improvement in detail of the present approximate methods it is at least conceivable that the future treatment of it will be in the direction of the problem of two fixed centres, by means of elliptic functions, &c.; and that the discovery will be made not by searching for it directly with the mathematical resources now at our command, but by “prospecting” for it in the field of these functions. Even improvements in the existing methods are more likely to arise from a study of differential equations in general than from a special one of the equations of the particular problem: the materials for such improvements which exist in the writings of Hamilton, Jacobi, Bertrand, and Bour, have certainly so arisen. And the like remarks would apply to the physical problems which depend on Partial Differential Equations.

I think that the course of mathematical study at the University is likely to be a better one if regulated with a view to the cultivation of Science, as if for its own sake, rather than directly upon considerations of what is educationally best (I mean that the best educational course will be so obtained), and that we have thus a justification for a thorough study of Pure Mathematics. In my own limited experience of examinations, the fault which I find with the men is a want of analytical power, and that whatever else may have been in defect Pure Mathematics has certainly not been in excess.

I remain, dear Sir,
Yours sincerely,

10th Dec., 1867.

1867, December 17.


Since receiving your letter of 9th I positively have not had time to express the single remark which I proposed to make on it.

You state your idea that the educational element ought not to be the predominating element in the University. “I do not think that every thing should be subordinated to the educational element.” I cannot conceal my surprise at this sentiment. Assuredly the founders of the Colleges intended them for education (so far as they apply to persons in statu pupillari), the statutes of the University and the Colleges are framed for education, and fathers send their sons to the University for education. If I had not had your words before me, I should have said that it is impossible to doubt this.

It is much to be desired that Professors and others who exercise no control by force should take every method, not only of promoting science in themselves, but also of placing the promoted science before students: and it is much to be desired that students who have passed the compulsory curriculum should be encouraged to proceed into the novelties which will be most agreeable to them. But this is a totally different thing from using the Compulsory Force of Examination to drive students in paths traced only by the taste of the examiner. For them, I conceive the obligation to the nation and the duty to follow the national sense on education (as far as it can be gathered from its best representatives) to be undoubted; and to be, in the intensity of the obligation and duty, most serious.

I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

Professor Cayley.


“In the South-East Dome, the alteration proposed last year for rendering the building fire-proof had been completely carried out. The middle room, which was to be appropriated to Chronometers, was being fitted up accordingly. From the Report it appears that ’our subterranean telegraph wires were all broken by one blow, from an accident in the Metropolitan Drainage Works on Groom’s Hill, but were speedily repaired.’ In my office as Chairman of successive Commissions on Standards, I had collected a number of Standards, some of great historical value (as Ramsden’s and Roy’s Standards of Length, Kater’s Scale-beam for weighing great weights, and others), &c. These have been transferred to the newly-created Standards Department of the Board of Trade.” In the Report is given a detailed account of the system of preserving and arranging the manuscripts and correspondence of the Observatory, which was always regarded by Airy as a matter of the first importance. From a careful discussion of the results of observation Mr Stone had concluded that the réfractions ought to be diminished. ’Relying on this, we have now computed our mean réfractions by diminishing those of Bessel’s Fundamenta in the proportion of 1 to 0.99797.’ The Magnetometer-Indications for the period 1858-1863 had been reduced and discussed, with remarkable results. It is inferred that magnetic disturbances, both solar and lunar, are produced mediately by the Earth, and that the Earth in periods of several years undergoes changes which fit it and unfit it for exercising a powerful mediate action. The Earth-current records had been reduced, and the magnetic effect which the currents would produce had been computed. The result was, that the agreement between the magnetic effects so computed and the magnetic disturbances really recorded by the magnetometers was such as to leave no doubt on the general validity of the explanation of the great storm-disturbances of the magnets as consequences of the galvanic currents through the earth. Referring to the difficulty experienced in making the meteorological observations practically available the Report states thus: ’The want of Meteorology, at the present time, is principally in suggestive theory.’ In this year Airy communicated to the Royal Astronomical Society a Paper ’On the Preparatory Arrangements for the Observation of the Transits of Venus 1874 and 1882’: this subject was now well in hand. The First Report of the Commissioners (of whom he was Chairman) appointed to enquire into the condition of the Exchequer Standards was printed: this business took up much time. He was in this year much engaged on the Coinage Commission.

Of private history: There was the usual winter visit to Playford, and a short visit to Cambridge in June. From about Aust to Seprd he was travelling in Switzerland with his youngest son and his two youngest daughters. In the course of this journey they visited Zermatt. There had been much rain, the rivers were greatly flooded, and much mischief was done to the roads. During the journey from Visp to Zermatt, near St Nicholas, in a steep part of the gorge, a large stone rolled from the cliffs and knocked their baggage horse over the lower precipice, a fall of several hundred feet. The packages were all burst, and many things were lost, but a good deal was recovered by men suspended by ropes.

In this year also Airy was busy with the subject of University Examination, which in previous years had occupied so much of his attention, as will be seen from the following letters:

1868, March 12.


I have had the pleasure of corresponding with you on matters of University Examination so frequently that I at once turn to you as the proper person to whom I may address any remarks on that important subject.

Circumstances have enabled me lately to obtain private information of a most accurate kind on the late Mathematical Tripos: and among other things, I have received a statement of every individual question answered or partly answered by five honour-men. I have collected the numbers of these in a small table which I enclose.

I am struck with the almost nugatory character of the five days’ honour examination as applied to Senior Optimes, and I do not doubt that it is totally nugatory as applied to Junior Optimes. It appears to me that, for all that depends on these days, the rank of the Optimes is mere matter of chance.

In the examinations of the Civil Service, the whole number of marks is published, and also the number of marks gained by each candidate. I have none of their papers at hand, but my impression is that the lowest candidates make about 1 in 3; and the fair candidates about 2 in 3, instead of 1 in 10 or 1 in 13 as our good Senior Optimes.

I am, my dear Master,
Very truly yours,

The Rev. Dr Cookson,
Master of St Peters College,
&c. &c.

The Table referred to in the above letter is as follows:

Number of Questions, and numbers of Answers to Questions as given by several Wranglers and Senior Optimes, in the Examination of Mathematical Tripos for Honours, 1868, January 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.

Number of Questions and Riders in the Printed Papers.

Questions. Riders. Aggregate.
In the 10 Papers of the 5 days 123 101 224


Questions. Riders. Aggregate.
By a Wrangler, between the
1st and 7th 69-1/2 25-1/2 95 1 in 2.
By a Wrangler, between the
12th and 22nd 48-1/2 12-1/2 61 1 in 3.
By a Wrangler, between the
22nd and 32nd 36 12-1/2 48-1/2 1 in 4.
By a Sen. Opt. between the
1st and 10th 17-1/2 5 22-1/2 1 in 9.
By a Sen. Opt. between the
10th and 20th 14-1/2 2 16-1/2 1 in 3.60


1868, March 12.

March 13th, 1868.


I am much obliged by your letter and enclosed paper.

Anything done in the last five days by a Junior Optime only shews (generally) that he has been employing some of his time mischievously, for he must have been working at subjects which he is quite unable to master or cramming them by heart on the chance of meeting with a stray question which he may answer.

The chief part of the Senior Optimes are in something of the same situation.

I think that the proposed addition of a day to the first part of the Examination, in which “easy questions in physical subjects” may be set, is, on this account, a great improvement.

Our new Scheme comes on for discussion on Friday next, March 20, at 2 p.m. in the Arts School. It is much opposed by private tutors, examiners and others, and may possibly be thrown out in the Senate this year, though I hope that with a little patience it may be carried, in an unmutilated form, eventually.

The enclosed Report on the Smith’s Prize Examination will be discussed at the same time.

I will consider what is best to be done on the subject to which your note refers, without delay. With many thanks,

I am,
Very faithfully yours,

The Astronomer Royal.

In this year certain Members of the Senate of the University of Cambridge petitioned Parliament against the abolition of religious declarations required of persons admitted to Fellowships or proceeding to the degree of M.A. The document was sent to Airy for his signature, and his reply was as follows:

1868, March 18.


Though I sympathize to a great extent with the prayer of the petition to Parliament which you sent to me yesterday, and assent to most of the reasons, I do not attach my signature to it, for the following considerations:

1. I understand, from the introductory clause, and from the unqualified character of the phrase “any such measures” in the second clause, that the petition objects to granting the M.A. degree without religious declaration. I do not see any adequate necessity for this objection, and I cannot join in it.

2. It appears to me that the Colleges were intended for two collateral objects: instruction by part of the Fellows, on a religious basis; and support of certain Fellows for scientific purposes, without the same ostentatious connection with religion. I like this spirit well, and should be glad to maintain it.

3. I therefore think (as I have publicly stated before) that the Master of the College ought to be in holy orders; and so ought those of the Fellows who may be expected to be usually resident and to take continuous part in the instruction. But there are many who, upon taking a fellowship, at once lay aside all thoughts of this: and I think that such persons ought not to be trammelled with declarations.

4. My modification of existing regulations, if it once got into shape, would I dare say be but a small fraction of that proposed by the “measures in contemplation.” Still I do not like to join in unqualified resistance to interference in the affairs of the Established Colleges, with that generality of opposition to interference which the petition seems to intimate.

I agree with articles 3, 4, and 5; and I am pleased with the graceful allusion in article 4 to the assistance which has been rendered by the Colleges, and by none perhaps so honourably as Trinity, to the parishes connected with it. And I could much wish that the spirit of 3 and 5 could be carried out, with some concession to my ideas in my paragraph 3, above.

I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,

Rev. Dr Lightfoot.


From the Report to the Board of Visitors it appears that application had been made for an extension of the grounds of the Observatory to a distance of 100 feet south of the Magnetic Ground, and that a Warrant for the annexation of this space was signed on 1868, De. The new Depot for the Printed Productions of the Observatory had been transferred to its position in the new ground, and the foundations for the Great Shed were completed. “The courses of our wires for the registration of spontaneous terrestrial galvanic currents have been entirely changed. The lines to Croydon and Deptford are abandoned; and for these are substituted, a line from Angerstein Wharf to Lady Well Station, and a line from North Kent Junction to Morden College Tunnel. At each of these points the communication with Earth is made by a copper plate 2 feet square. The straight line connecting the extreme points of the first station intersects that connecting the two points of the second station, nearly at right angles, and at little distance from the Observatory. The question of dependence of the measurable amount of sidereal aberration upon the thickness of glass or other transparent material in the telescope (a question which involves, theoretically, one of the most delicate points in the Undulatory Theory of Light) has lately been agitated on the Continent with much earnestness. I have calculated the curvatures of the lenses of crown and flint glass (the flint being exterior) for correcting spherical and chromatic aberration in a telescope whose tube is filled with water, and have instructed Mr Simms to proceed with the preparation of an instrument carrying such a telescope. I have not finally decided whether to rely on Zenith-distances of gamma Draconis or on right-ascensions of Polaris. In any form the experiment will probably be troublesome. The transit of Mercury on 1868, Noth, was observed by six observers. The atmospheric conditions were favourable; and the singular appearances usually presented in a planetary transit were well seen. Mr Stone has attached to the South-East Equatoreal a thermo-multiplier, with the view of examining whether heat radiating from the principal stars can be made sensible in our instruments. The results hitherto obtained are encouraging, but they shew clearly that it is vain to attempt this enquiry except in the most superb weather; and there has not been a night deserving that epithet for some months past. The preparations for observing the Transits of Venus were now begun in earnest. I had come to the conclusion, that after every reliance was placed on foreign and colonial observatories, it would be necessary for the British Government to undertake the equipment of five or six temporary stations. On Feth I sent a pamphlet on the subject to Mr Childers (First Lord of Admiralty), and in April I wrote to the Secretary, asking authority for the purchase of instruments. On June 22nd authority is given to me for the instruments: the Treasury assent to L10,500. On August 9th I had purchased 3 equatoreals. I have given a short course of Lectures in the University of Cambridge on the subject of Magnetism, with the view of introducing that important physical science into the studies of the University. The want of books available to Students, and the novelty of the subject, made the preparation more laborious than the duration of the lectures would seem to imply.” In this year there was much work on the Standards Commission, chiefly regarding the suggested abolition of Troy Weight, and several Papers on the subject were prepared by Airy. He also wrote a long and careful description of the Great Equatoreal at Greenwich.

Of private history: There was the usual visit to Playford in the winter. Mrs Airy was now becoming feebler, and did not now leave Greenwich: since April of this year her letters were written in pencil, and with difficulty, but she still made great efforts to keep up the accustomed correspondence. In April Airy went to Cambridge to deliver his lectures on magnetism to the undergraduates: the following passage occurs in one of his letters at this time: “I have a mighty attendance (there were 147 names on my board yesterday), and, though the room is large with plenty of benches, I have been obliged to bring in some chairs. The men are exceedingly attentive, and when I look up I am quite struck to see the number of faces staring into mine. I go at 12, and find men at the room copying from my big papers: I lecture from 1 to 2, and stop till after 3, and through the last hour some men are talking to me and others are copying from the papers; and I usually leave some men still at work. The men applaud and shew their respect very gracefully. There are present some two or three persons who attended my former lectures, and they say that I lecture exactly as I did formerly. One of my attendants is a man that they say cannot, from years and infirmity and habit, be induced to go anywhere else: Dr Archdall, the Master of Emmanuel. I find that some of my old lecturing habits come again on me. I drink a great deal of cold water, and am very glad to go to bed early.” From June 10th-30th he was travelling in Scotland, and staying at Barrow House near Keswick (the residence of Mr Langton), with his son Hubert. Subsequently, from Auth to 31st, he was again in the Lake District, with his daughter Christabel, and was joined there by his son Hubert on the 24th. The first part of the time was spent at Tarn Bank, near Carlisle, the residence of Mr Isaac Fletcher, M.P. From thence he made several expeditions, especially to Barrow in Furness and Seascale, where he witnessed with great interest the Bessemer process of making steel. From Barrow House he made continual excursions among the Cumberland mountains, which he knew so well.


“In this year Mr Stone, the First Assistant, was appointed to the Cape of Good Hope Observatory, and resigned his post of First Assistant. Mr Christie was appointed in his place. From the Report to the Visitors it appears that ’A few months since we were annoyed by a failure in the illumination of the field of view of the Transit Circle. The reflector was cleaned, but in vain; at last it was discovered that one of the lenses (the convex lens) of the combination which forms the object-glass of a Reversed Telescope in the interior of the Transit-axis, and through which all illuminating light must pass, had become so corroded as to be almost opaque.’ The South-East Equatoreal has been partly occupied with the thermo-multiplier employed by Mr Stone for the measure of heat radiating from the principal stars. Mr Stone’s results for the radiation from Arcturus and alpha Lyrae appear to be incontrovertible, and to give bases for distinct numerical estimation of the radiant heat of these stars. In my last Report I alluded to a proposed systematic reduction of the meteorological observations during the whole time of their efficient self-registration. Having received from the Admiralty the funds necessary for immediate operations, I have commenced with the photographic registers of the thermometers, dry-bulb and wet-bulb, from 1848 to 1868. Our chronometer-room contains at present 219 chronometers, including 37 chronometers which have been placed here by chronometer-makers as competing for the honorary reputation and the pecuniary advantages to be derived from success in the half-year’s trial to which they are subjected. I take this opportunity of stating that I have uniformly advocated the policy of offering good prices for the chronometers of great excellence, and that I have given much attention to the decision on their merits; and I am convinced that this system has greatly contributed to the remarkably steady improvement in the performance of chronometers. In the trial which terminated in August 1869, the best chronometers (taking as usual the average of the first six) were superior in merit to those of any preceding year. With the funds placed at my disposal for the Transit of Venus 1874 I purchased three 6-inch equatoreals, and have ordered two: I have also ordered altazimuths (with accurate vertical circles only), and clocks sufficient, as I expect, to equip five stations. For methods of observation, I rely generally on the simple eye-observation, possibly relieved of some of its uncertainty by the use of my colour-correcting eyepiece. But active discussion has taken place on the feasibility of using photographic and spectroscopic methods; and it will not be easy for some time to announce that the plan of observations is settled. There can be no doubt, I imagine, that the first and necessary duty of the Royal Observatory is to maintain its place well as an Observing Establishment; and that this must be secured, at whatever sacrifice, if necessary, of other pursuits. Still the question has not unfrequently presented itself to me, whether the duties to which I allude have not, by force of circumstances, become too exclusive; and whether the cause of Science might not gain if, as in the Imperial Observatory of Paris for instance, the higher branches of mathematical physics should not take their place by the side of Observatory routine. I have often felt the desire practically to refresh my acquaintance with what were once favourite subjects: Lunar Theory and Physical Optics. But I do not at present clearly see how I can enter upon them with that degree of freedom of thought which is necessary for success in abstruse investigations.”

Of private history: There was a longer visit than usual to Playford, lasting till Jath. In April he made a short excursion (of less than a week) with his son Hubert to Monmouth, &c. From June 14th to July 2nd he was staying at Barrow House, near Keswick, with his son Hubert: during this time he was much troubled with a painful skin-irritation of his leg and back, which lasted in some degree for a long time afterwards. From Septh to Octh he made an excursion with his daughter Christabel to Scarborough, Whitby, &c., and again spent a few days at Barrow House.


“In April 1870 the Assistants had applied for an increase of salary, a request which I had urged strongly upon the Admiralty. On Ja of this year the Admiralty answered that, on account of Mr Childers’s illness, the consideration must be deferred to next year! The Assistants wrote bitterly to me: and with my sanction they wrote to the First Lord. On Jast I requested an interview with Mr Baxter (secretary of the Admiralty), and saw him on Ferd, when I obtained his consent to an addition of L530. There was still a difficulty with the Treasury, but on June 27th the liberal scale was allowed. Experiments made by Mr Stone shew clearly that a local elevation, like that of the Royal Observatory on the hill of Greenwich Park, has no tendency to diminish the effect of railway tremors. The correction for level error in the Transit Circle having become inconveniently large, a sheet of very thin paper, 1/270 inch in thickness, was placed under the eastern Y, which was raised from its bed for the purpose. The mean annual value of the level-error appears to be now sensibly zero. As the siege and war operations in Paris seriously interfered with the observations of small planets made at the Paris Observatory, observations of them were continued at Greenwich throughout each entire lunation during the investment of the city. The new Water-Telescope has been got into working order, and performs most satisfactorily. Observations of gamma Draconis have been made with it, when the star passed between 20h and 17h, with some observations for adjustment at a still more advanced time. As the astronomical latitude of the place of observation is not known, the bearing of these observations on the question of aberration cannot be certainly pronounced until the autumn observations shall have been made; but supposing the geodetic latitude to be accordant with the astronomical latitude, the result for aberration appears to be sensibly the same as with ordinary telescopes. Several years since, I prepared a barometer, by which the barometric fluctuations were enlarged, for the information of the public; its indications are exhibited on the wall, near to the entrance gate of the Observatory. A card is now also exhibited, in a glass case near the public barometer, giving the highest and lowest readings of the thermometer in the preceding twenty-four hours. Those who have given attention to the history of Terrestrial Magnetism are aware that Halley’s Magnetic Chart is very frequently cited; but I could not learn that any person, at least in modern times, had seen it. At last I discovered a copy in the library of the British Museum, and have been allowed to take copies by photolithography. These are appended to the Magnetical and Meteorological Volume for 1869. The trials and certificates of hand-telescopes for the use of the Royal Navy have lately been so frequent that they almost become a regular part of the work of the Observatory. I may state here that by availing myself of a theory of eyepieces which I published long since in the Cambridge Transactions, I have been able to effect a considerable improvement in the telescopes furnished to the Admiralty. The occurrence of the Total Eclipse of the Sun in December last has brought much labour upon the Observatory. As regards the assistants and computers, the actual observation on a complicated plan with the Great Equatoreal (a plan for which few equatoreals are sufficiently steady, but which when properly carried out gives a most complete solution of the geometrical problem) has required, in observation and in computation, a large expenditure of time. My preparations for the Transit of Venus have respect only to eye-observation of contact of limbs. With all the liabilities and defects to which it is subject, this method possesses the inestimable advantage of placing no reliance on instrumental scales. I hope that the error of observation may not exceed four seconds of time, corresponding to about 0.13” of arc. I shall be very glad to see, in a detailed form, a plan for making the proper measures by heliometric or photographic apparatus; and should take great interest in combining these with the eye-observations, if my selected stations can be made available. But my present impression is one of doubt on the certainty of equality of parts in the scale employed. An error depending on this cause could not be diminished by any repetition of observations.” After referring to the desirability of vigorously prosecuting the Meteorological Reductions (already begun) and of discussing the Magnetic Observations, the Report concludes thus: “There is another consideration which very often presents itself to my mind; the waste of labour in the repetition of observations at different observatories..... I think that this consideration ought not to be put out of sight in planning the courses of different Observatories.” In this year De Launay’s Lunar Theory was published. This valuable work was of great service to Airy in the preparation of the Numerical Lunar Theory, which he subsequently undertook. In the latter part of this year Airy was elected President of the Royal Society, and held the office during 1872 and 1873. At this time he was much pressed with work, and could ill afford to take up additional duties, as the following quotation from a letter to one of his friends shews: “The election to the Presidency of R.S. is flattering, and has brought to me the friendly remembrances of many persons; but in its material and laborious connections, I could well have dispensed with it, and should have done so but for the respectful way in which it was pressed on me.”

Of private history: There was the usual winter visit to Playford. In April he made a short trip to Cornwall with his daughter Annot. In June he was appointed a Companion of the Bath, and was presented at Court on his appointment. Mrs Airy was staying with her daughter, Mrs Routh, at Hunstanton, during June, her state of health being somewhat improved. From August 1st to 28th he was chiefly in Cumberland, at Barrow House, and at Grange, Borrowdale, where his son Osmund was staying for a holiday.


“From the Report to the Board of Visitors it appears that ’The Normal Siderial Clock for giving sidereal time by galvanic communication to the Astronomical Observatory was established in the Magnetic Basement in 1871, June; that locality being adapted for it on account of the uniformity of temperature, the daily changed of temperature rarely exceeding 1 deg. Fahrenheit. Its escapement is one which I suggested many years ago in the Cambridge Transactions; a detached escapement, very closely analogous to the ordinary chronometer escapement, the pendulum receiving an impulse only at alternate vibrations.... The steadiness of rate is very far superior to any that we have previously attained.’ The aspect of railway enterprise is at present favourable to the Park and to the Observatory. The South-Eastern Railway Company has made an arrangement with the Metropolitan Board of Works for shifting the course of the great Southern Outfall Sewer. This enables the Company to trace a new line for the railway, passing on the north side of London Street, at such a distance from the Observatory as to remove all cause of alarm. I understand that the Bill, which was unopposed, has passed the Committee of the House of Commons. I trust that the contest, which has lasted thirty-seven years, is now terminated. The observations of 7 Draconis with the Water-Telescope, made in the autumn of 1871, and the spring of 1872, are reduced, the latter only in their first steps.... Using the values of the level scales as determined by Mr Simms (which I have no reason to believe to be inaccurate) the spring and autumn observations of 1871 absolutely negative the idea of any effect being produced on the constant of aberration by the amount of refracting medium traversed by the light. The great Aurora of 1872 Fe was well observed. On this occasion the term Borealis would have been a misnomer, for the phenomenon began in the South and was most conspicuous in the South. Three times in the evening it exhibited that umbrella-like appearance which has been called (perhaps inaccurately) a corona. I have very carefully compared its momentary phenomena with the corresponding movements of the magnetometers. In some of the most critical times, the comparison fails on account of the violent movements and consequent faint traces of the magnetometers. I have not been able to connect the phases of aurora and those of magnetic disturbance very distinctly. The Report contains a detailed account of the heavy preparations for the observation of the Transit of Venus 1874, including the portable buildings for the instruments, the instruments themselves (being a transit-instrument, an altazimuth, and an equatoreal, for each station), and first class and second-class clocks, all sufficient for the equipment of 5 stations, and continues thus: I was made aware of the assent of the Government to the wish of the Board of Visitors, as expressed at their last meeting, that provision should be made for the application of photography to the observation of the Transit of Venus. It is unnecessary for me to remark that our hope of success is founded entirely on our confidence in Mr De La Rue. Under his direction, Mr Dallmeyer has advanced far in the preparation of five photoheliographs.... The subject is recognized by many astronomers as not wholly free from difficulties, but it is generally believed that these difficulties may be overcome, and Mr De La Rue is giving careful attention to the most important of them. I take this opportunity of reporting to the Board that the Observatory was honoured by a visit of His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil, who minutely examined every part.” After referring to various subjects which in his opinion might be usefully pursued systematically at the Observatory, the Report proceeds thus: “’The character of the Observatory would be somewhat changed by this innovation, but not, as I imagine, in a direction to which any objection can be made. It would become, pro tanto, a physical observatory; and possibly in time its operations might be extended still further in a physical direction.’ The consideration of possible changes in the future of the Observatory leads me to the recollection of actual changes in the past. In my Annual Reports to the Visitors I have endeavoured to chronicle these; but still there will be many circumstances which at present are known only to myself, but which ought not to be beyond the reach of history. I have therefore lately employed some time in drawing up a series of skeleton annals of the Observatory (which unavoidably partakes in some measure of the form of biography), and have carried it through the critical period, 1836-1851. If I should command sufficient leisure to bring it down to 1861, I think that I might then very well stop.” (The skeleton annals here referred to are undoubtedly the manuscript notes which form the basis of the present biography. Ed.) “On Ferd in this year I first (privately) formed the notion of preparing a numerical Lunar Theory by substituting Delaunay’s numbers in the proper Equations and seeing what would come of it.”

Of private history: There was the usual visit to Playford in this year later than usual from Feth to Math. The letters written during this visit are, as usual, full of freshness and delight at finding himself in his favourite country village. On June 5th he went to Barrow House, near Keswick, to be present at the marriage of his second son Hubert to Miss S. C. Langton, daughter of Z. Langton Esq., of Barrow House. After the wedding he made a trip through the Trossachs district of Scotland with his daughter Annot, and returned to Greenwich on June 17th.

On the 26th June 1872 Airy was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath: he was knighted by the Queen at Osborne on the 30th of July. In the course of his official career he had three times been offered Knighthood, and had each time declined it: but it seemed now as if his scruples on the subject were removed, and it is probable that he felt gratified by the public recognition of his services. Of course the occasion produced many letters of congratulation from his friends: to one of these he replied as follows: “The real charm of these public compliments seems to be, that they excite the sympathies and elicit the kind expressions of private friends or of official superiors as well as subordinates. In every way I have derived pleasure from these.” From the Assistants of the Royal Observatory he received a hearty letter of congratulation containing the following paragraph. “Our position has naturally given us peculiar opportunities for perceiving the high and broad purposes which have characterized your many and great undertakings, and of witnessing the untiring zeal and self-denial with which they have been pursued.”

On the 18th of March 1872 Airy was nominated a Foreign Associate of the Institut de France, to fill the place vacant by the death of Sir John Herschel. The following letter of acknowledgment shews how much he was gratified by this high scientific honour:

1872, March 23.

A Messieurs
et J.B. DUMAS,
Secrétaires perpetuels de l’Academie
des Sciences, Institut de France.


I am honoured with your letter of March 18, communicating to me my nomination by the Academy of Sciences to the place rendered vacant in the class of Foreign Associates of the Academy by the decease of Sir John Herschel, and enclosing Copy of the Decree of the President of the French Republic approving the Election.

It is almost unnecessary for me to attempt to express to you the pride and gratification with which I receive this announcement. By universal consent, the title of Associe Etranger de l’Academie des Sciences is recognised as the highest distinction to which any man of science can aspire; and I can scarcely imagine that, unless by the flattering interpretation of my friends in the Academy, I am entitled to bear it. But in any case, I am delighted to feel that the bands of friendship are drawn closer between myself and the distinguished body whom, partly by personal intercourse, partly by correspondence, and in every instance by reputation, I have known so long.

I beg that you will convey to the Academy my long-felt esteem for that body in its scientific capacity, and my deep recognition of its friendship to me and of the honor which it has conferred on me in the late election.

I have the honor to be
Your very faithful servant,

On the 20th November 1872 Airy was nominated a Grand Cross in the Imperial Order of the Rose of Brazil: the insignia of the Order were accompanied by an autograph letter from the Emperor of Brazil, of which the following is a transcript.


Vous étés un des doyens de la science, et President de l’illustré Societe, qui a eu la bienveillance d’inscrire mon nom parmi ceux de ses associes. La manière, dont vous m’avez fait les honneurs de vôtre Observatoire m’a impose aussi l’agreable devoir d’indiquer vôtre nom a l’empereur de Brésil pour un témoignage de haute estime, dont je suis fort heureux de vous faire part personellement, en vous envoyant les decorations que vous garderez, an moins, comme un souvenir de ma visite a Greenwich.

J’espere que vous m’informerez, quand il vous sera aise, des travaux de vôtre observatoire, et surtout de ce que l’on aura fait pour l’observation du passage de Venus et la determination exacte de la passage.

J’ai recu deja les Proceedings de la Royal Society lesquels m’interessent vivement.

Je voudrais vous écrire dans vôtre langue, maïs, comme je n’en pas l’habitude, j’ai craigne de ne pas vous exprimer tout-a-fait les sentiments de

Vôtre affectionne,

22 Octobre, 1872.

Airy’s reply was as follows:

1872, November 26.


I am honoured with your Imperial Majesty’s autograph letter of October 22 informing me that, on considering the attention which the Royal Society of London had been able to offer to your Majesty, as well as the explanation of the various parts of the establishment of this Observatory which I had the honor and the high gratification to communicate, You had been pleased to place my name in the Imperial Order of the Rose, and to present to me the Decorations of Grand Cross of that Order.

With pride I receive this proof of Your Majesty’s recollection of your visit to the scientific institutions of Great Britain.

The Diploma of the appointment to the Order of the Rose, under the Imperial Sign Manual, together with the Decorations of the Order, have been transmitted to me by his Excellency Don Pereira de Andrada, Your Majesty’s Representative at the British Court.

Your Majesty has been pleased to advert to the approaching Transit of Venus, on the preparations for which you found me engaged. It is unfortunate that the Transit of 1874 will not be visible at Rio de Janeiro. For that of 1882, Rio will be a favourable position, and we reckon on the observations to be made there. Your Majesty may be assured that I shall loyally bear in mind your desire to be informed of any remarkable enterprise of this Observatory, or of any principal step in the preparations for the Transit of Venus and of its results.

I have the honor to be
Your Imperial Majesty’s very faithful servant,

To His Majesty
The Emperor of Brazil.

Airy’s old friend, Adam Sedgwick, was now very aged and infirm, but his spirit was still vigorous, and he was warm-hearted as ever. The following letter from him (probably the last of their long correspondence) was written in this year, and appears characteristic:

May 10, 1872.


I have received your card of invitation for the 1st of June, and with great joy should I count upon that day if I thought that I should be able to accept your invitation: but alas I have no hope of the kind, for that humiliating malady which now has fastened upon me for a full year and a half has not let go its hold, nor is it likely to do so. A man who is journeying in the 88th year of his pilgrimage is not likely to throw off such a chronic malady. Indeed were I well enough to come I am deaf as a post and half blind, and if I were with you I should only be able to play dummy. Several years have passed away since I was last at your Visitation and I had great joy in seeing Mrs Airy and some lady friends at the Observatory, but I could not then attend the dinner. At that Meeting were many faces that I knew, but strangely altered by the rude handling of old Time, and there were many new faces which I had never seen before at a Royal Society Meeting; but worse than all, all the old faces were away. In vain I looked round for Wollaston, Davy, Davies Gilbert, Barrow, Troughton, &c. &c.; and the merry companion Admiral Smyth was also away, so that my last visit had its sorrowful side. But why should I bother you with these old man’s mopings.

I send an old man’s blessing and an old man’s love to all the members of your family; especially to Mrs Airy, the oldest and dearest of my lady friends.

I remain, my dear Airy,
Your true-hearted old friend,

P.S. Shall I ever again gaze with wonder and delight from the great window of your Observatory.

The body of the above letter is in the handwriting of an amanuensis, but the signature and Postscript are in Sedgwick’s handwriting. (Ed.)


“Chronographic registration having been established at the Paris Observatory, Mr Hilgard, principal officer of the American Coast Survey, has made use of it for determining the longitude of Harvard from Greenwich, through Paris, Brest, and St Pierre. For this purpose Mr Hilgard’s Transit Instrument was planted in the Magnetic Court. I understand that the result does not sensibly differ from that obtained by Mr Gould, through Valentia and Newfoundland. It was known to the scientific world that several of the original thermometers, constructed by Mr Sheepshanks (in the course of his preparation of the National Standard of Length) by independent calibration of the bores, and independent determination of the freezing and boiling points on arbitrary graduations, were still preserved at the Royal Observatory. It was lately stated to me by M. Tresca, the principal officer of the International Metrical Commission, that, in the late unhappy war in Paris, the French original thermometers were destroyed; and M. Tresca requested that, if possible, some of the original thermometers made by Mr Sheepshanks might be appropriated to the use of the International Commission. I have therefore transferred to M. Tresca the three thermometers A.6, , , with the documentary information relating to them, which was found in Mr Sheepshanks’s papers; retaining six thermometers of the same class in the Royal Observatory. The Sidereal Standard Clock continues to give great satisfaction. I am considering (with the aid of Mr Buckney, of the firm of E. Dent and Co.) an arrangement for barometric correction, founded on the principle of action on the pendulum by means of a magnet which can be raised or lowered by the agency of a large barometer. The Altazimuth has received some important alterations. An examination of the results of observations had made me dissatisfied with the bearings of the horizontal pivots in their Y’s. Mr Simms, at my request, changed the bearings in Y’s for bearing in segments of circles, a construction which has worked admirably well in the pivots of the Transit Circle.” (And in various other respects the instrument appears to have received a thorough overhauling. Ed.) “With the consent of the Royal Society and of the Kew Committee, the Kew Heliograph has been planted in the new dome looking over the South Ground. It is not yet finally adjusted. Some magnetic observations in the Britannia and Conway tubular bridges were made last autumn. For this purpose I detached an Assistant (Mr Carpenter), who was aided by Capt. Tupman, R.M.A.; in other respects the enterprise was private and at private expense. The rates of the first six chronometers (in the annual trials) are published, in a form which appears most likely to lead to examination of the causes that influence their merits or demerits. This report is extensively distributed to British and Foreign horologists and instrument-makers. All these artists appear to entertain the conviction that the careful comparisons made at this Observatory, and the orderly form of their publication, have contributed powerfully to the improvement of chronometers. Very lately, application has been made to me, through the Board of Trade, for plans and other information regarding time-signal-balls, to assist in guiding the authorities of the German Empire in the establishment of time signals at various ports of that State. In other foreign countries the system is extending, and is referred to Greenwich as its origin. The arrangements and preparations for the observation of the Transit of Venus occupied much attention. With regard to the photoheliographs it is proposed to make trial of a plan proposed by M. Janssen, for numerous photographs of Venus when very near to the Sun’s limb. On Apth the engaging of photographic teachers was sanctioned. Observers were selected and engaged. A working model of the Transit was prepared, and the use of De La Rue’s Scale was practised. There was some hostile criticism of the stations selected for the observation of the Transit, which necessitated a formal reply. Reference is made to the increase of facilities for making magnetical and meteorological observations. The inevitable result of it is, that observations are produced in numbers so great that complete reduction becomes almost impossible. The labour of reduction is very great, and it is concluded that, of the enormous number of meteorological observations now made at numerous observatories, very few can ever possess the smallest utility. Referring to my Numerical Lunar Theory: on June 30th, 1873, a theory was formed, nearly but not perfectly complete. Numerical development of powers of a/r and r/a. Factors of corrections to Delaunay first attempted, but entirely in numerical form.” In March of this year Airy was consulted by Mr W.H. Barlow, C.E., and Mr Thomas Bouch (the Engineer of the Tay Bridge, which was blown down in 1879, and of a proposed scheme for a Forth Bridge in 1873) on the subject of the wind pressure, &c., that should be allowed for in the construction of the bridge. Airy’s report on this question is dated 1873, Apth: it was subsequently much referred to at the Official Enquiry into the causes of the failure of the Tay Bridge. At the end of this year Airy resigned the Presidency of the Royal Society. In his Address to the Society on Dest he stated his reasons in full, as follows: “the severity of official duties, which seem to increase, while vigour to discharge them does not increase; and the distance of my residence.... Another cause is a difficulty of hearing, which unfits me for effective action as Chairman of Council.”

Of private history: There was the usual visit to Playford in January: also a short visit in May: and a third visit at Christmas. There was a short run in June, of about a week, to Coniston, with one of his daughters. And there was a trip to Weymouth, &c., for about 10 days, with one of his daughters, in the beginning of August On his return from the last-mentioned trip, Airy found a letter from the Secretary of the Swedish Legation, enclosing the Warrant under the Royal Sign Manual of His Majesty (Oscar), the King of Sweden and Norway, by which he was nominated as a First Class Commander of the Order of the North Star, and accompanying the Decorations of that Order.


“In this year Mr Glaisher resigned his appointment: I placed his Department (Magnetical and Meteorological) under Mr Ellis. A balance of peculiar construction has been made by Mr Oertling, from my instructions, and fixed near the public barometer at the Entrance Gate. This instrument enables the public to test any ordinary pound weight, shewing on a scale the number of grains by which it is too heavy or too light. Fresh counterpoises have been attached to the Great Equatoreal to balance the additional weight of the new Spectroscope, which was finally received from Mr Browning’s hands on May 2nd of the present year. The Spectroscope is specifically adapted to sweeping round the Sun’s limb, with a view to mapping out the prominences, and is also available for work on Stars and Nebulae, the dispersive power being very readily varied. An induction-coil, capable of giving a six-inch spark, has been made for this instrument by Mr Browning. Some new classes of reductions of the meteorological observations from 1848 to 1868 have been undertaken and completed in the past year. The general state of this work is as follows: The diurnal changes of the dry-bulb thermometer, as depending on the month, on the temperature waves, on the barometric waves, on the overcast and cloudless states of the sky, and on the direction of the wind, have been computed and examined for the whole period; and the exhibition of the results is ready for press. The similar reductions for the wet-bulb thermometer are rapidly approaching completion. Regarding the preparations for the Transit of Venus Expeditions. Originally five stations were selected and fully equipped with equatoreals, transits, altazimuths, photoheliographs, and clocks; but I have since thought it desirable to supplement these by two branch stations in the Sandwich Islands and one in Kerguelen’s Island; and the additional instruments thus required have been borrowed from various sources, so that there is now an abundant supply of instrumental means.... There will thus be available for observation of the Transit of Venus 23 telescopes, nine of which will be provided with double-image-micrometers; and five photoheliographs; and for determination of local time, and latitude and longitude, there will be nine transits and six altazimuths.... All the observers have undergone a course of training in photography; first, under a professional photographer, Mr Reynolds, and subsequently under Capt. Abney, R.E., whose new dry-plate process is to be adopted at all the British Stations.... A Janssen slide, capable of taking 50 photographs of Venus and the neighbouring part of the Sun’s limb at intervals of one second, has been made by Mr Dallmeyer for each of the five photoheliographs.” Attached to the Report to the Visitors is a copy of the Instructions to Observers engaged in the Transit of Venus Expeditions, prepared with great care and in remarkable detail. “In the past spring I published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society a statement of the fundamental points in a new treatment of the Lunar Theory, by which, availing myself of all that has been done in the best algebraical investigations of that theory, I trust to be able by numerical operations only to give greater accuracy to final results. Considerable progress has been made in the extensive numerical developments, the work being done, at my private expense, entirely by a junior computer; and I hope, at any rate, to put it in such a state that there will be no liability to its entire loss. When this was reported to the Board of Visitors, it was resolved on the motion of Prof. Stokes, that this work, as a public expense, ought to be borne by the Government; and this was forwarded to the Admiralty. On June 24th I wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty, asking for L100 for the present year, which after the usual enquiries and explanations was sanctioned on Auth.”

Of private history: There were short visits to Playford in January, June, and October, but only for a few days in each case. In March there was a run of two or three days to Newnham (on the Severn) to see the Bore on the Severn, and to Malvern. In July he went to Newcastle to observe with Mr Newall’s great telescope, but the weather was unfavourable: he then went on to Barrow House near Keswick, and spent a few days there, with excursions among the mountains. On Auth he went with his daughter Christabel to the Isle of Arran, and then by Glasgow to the Trosachs, where he made several excursions to verify the localities mentioned in the “Lady of the Lake.” While in Scotland he heard of the death of his brother, the Rev. William Airy, and travelled to Keysoe in Bedfordshire to attend the funeral; and returned to Greenwich on Auth.


“In October of this year I wrote to the Admiralty that I had grounds for asking for an increase of my salary: because the pension which had been settled on my wife, and which I had practically recognized as part of my salary, had been terminated by her death; so that my salary now stood lower by L200 than that of the Director of Studies of the Royal Naval College. The Admiralty reply favourably, and on Noth the Treasury raise my salary to L1,200. For the service of the Clock Movement of the Great Equatoreal, a water-cistern has been established in the highest part of the Ball-Turret, the necessity for which arose from the following circumstance: The Water Clock was supplied by a small pipe, about 80 feet in length, connected with the 3-inch Observatory main (which passes through the Park), at a distance of about 250 feet from any other branch pipe. In spite of this distance I have seen that, on stopping the water-tap in the Battery-Basement under the North-East Turret, the pressure in the gauge of the Water Clock has been instantly increased by more than 40 lbs. per square inch. The consequent derangement of the Water Clock in its now incessant daily use became intolerable. Since the independent supply was provided, its performance has been most satisfactory. With the Spectroscope the solar prominences have been mapped on 28 days only; but the weather of the past winter was exceptionally unfavourable for this class of observation. After mapping the prominences, as seen on the C line, the other lines, especially F and b, have been regularly examined, whenever practicable. Great care has been taken in determining the position, angle, and heights of the prominences in all cases. The spectrum of Coggia’s Comet was examined at every available opportunity last July, and compared directly with that of carbon dioxide, the bands of the two spectra being sensibly coincident. Fifty-four measures of the displacement of lines in the spectra of 10 stars, as compared with the corresponding lines in the spectra of terrestrial elements (chiefly hydrogen), have been made, but some of these appear to be affected by a constant error depending on faulty adjustment of the Spectroscope. Photographs of the Sun have been taken with the Kew Photoheliograph on 186 days; and of these 377 have been selected for preservation. The Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and several stars (including the Pleiades and some double stars) have been photographed with the Great Equatoreal, with fairly satisfactory results, though further practice is required in this class of work. I would mention a supplemental mechanism which I have myself introduced into some chronometers. I have long remarked that, in ordinary good chronometers, the freedom from irregularities depending on mechanical causes is most remarkable; but that, after all the efforts of the most judicious makers, there is in nearly every case a perceptible defect of thermal compensation. There is great difficulty in correcting the residual fault, not only because an inconceivably small movement of the weights on the balance-curve is required, but also because it endangers the equilibrium of the balance. The mechanism adopted to remedy the defect is described in a Paper in the Horological Journal of July 1875 by Mr W. Ellis, and has received the approval of some able chronometer-makers. With respect to the Transit of Venus Expeditions: The parties from Egypt and Rodriguez are returned. I am in continual expectation of the arrival of the other parties. I believe the eye-observations and the ordinary photographs to be quite successful; I doubt the advantage of the Janssen; one of the double-image-micrometers seems to have failed; and the Zenith-telescope gives some trouble. At three stations at Rodriguez, and three at Kerguelen, the observations appear to have been most successful. At the Sandwich Islands, two of the stations appear to have been perfectly successful (except that I fear that the Janssen has failed), and a rich series of lunar observations for longitude is obtained. At New Zealand, I grieve to say, the observations were totally lost, entirely in consequence of bad weather. There has been little annoyance from the dreaded ‘black drop.’ Greater inconvenience and doubt have been caused by the unexpected luminous ring round Venus. With regard to the progress of my proposed New Lunar Theory: Three computers are now steadily employed on the work. It will be remembered that the detail and mass of this work are purely numerical; every numerical coefficient being accompanied with a symbolical correction whose value will sometimes depend on the time, but in every case is ultimately to be obtained in a numerical form. Of these coefficients, extracted (for convenience) from Delaunay’s results, there are 100 for parallax, 182 for longitude, 142 for latitude; the arguments being preserved in the usual form.” After reviewing the changes that had taken place at the Observatory during the past forty years, the Report to the Board of Visitors concludes thus: “I much desire to see the system of time-signals extended, by clocks or daily signals, to various parts of our great cities and our dockyards, and above all by hourly signals on the Start Point, which I believe would be the greatest of all benefits to nautical chronometry. Should any extension of our scientific work ever be contemplated, I would remark that the Observatory is not the place for new physical investigations. It is well adapted for following out any which, originating with private investigators, have been reduced to laws susceptible of verification by daily observation. The National Observatory will, I trust, always remain on the site where it was first planted, and which early acquired the name of ‘Flamsteed Hill.’ There are some inconveniences in the position, arising principally from the limited extent of the hill, but they are, in my opinion, very far overbalanced by its advantages.” In a letter on the subject of the Smith’s Prizes Examination at Cambridge, which was always a matter of the greatest interest to him, Airy renewed his objections to the preponderance in the Papers of a class of Pure Mathematics, which he considered was never likely under any circumstances to give the slightest assistance to Physics. And, as before, these remarks called forth a rejoinder from Prof. Cayley, who was responsible for many of the questions of the class referred to. In this year Airy completed his “Notes on the Earlier Hebrew Scriptures,” which were shortly afterwards published as a book by Messrs Longmans, Green, & Co. In his letter to the publishers introducing the subject, he says, “For many years past I have at times put together a few sentences explanatory as I conceive of the geographical and historical circumstances connected with the principal events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. The view which I take is free, but I trust not irreverent. They terminate with a brief review of Colenso’s great work. The collection now amounts to a small book.” From the references already given in previous years to his Papers and correspondence on the geography of Exodus, his correspondence with Colenso, &c. &c., it will be seen that he took a great interest in the early history of the Israelites. On August 10th, 1875, Airy celebrated the Bicentenary of the Royal Observatory by a dinner in the Octagon Room, which was attended by the Presidents of the Royal Society and the R. Astr. Society, and by a large number of Scientific gentlemen interested in Astronomy. In February he was revising his Treatise on “Probabilities.”

Of private history: up to Jath Airy was at Playford as usual. For about a week in April he was in the Isle of Man with his daughter Christabel. In June there was a short trip to Salisbury, Blandford, and Wimborne. On August 12th he started with his daughter Annot for a holiday in Cumberland, but on the next day he was recalled by a telegram with the intelligence that a change for the worse had come over his wife’s health. Lady Airy died on August 13th, 1875. For the last five years of her life she had been very helpless from the effects of a paralytic stroke a very sad ending to a bright and happy life and had been continually nursed throughout this time by her two unmarried daughters with the greatest self-denial and devotion. Her husband had been unremitting in his care and attention. Nothing was wanting that the most thoughtful kindness could supply. And in all his trips and excursions his constant and kind letters shewed how anxious he was that she should participate in all his interests and amusements. From the nature of the case it could hardly be said that her death was unexpected, and he received the shock with the manly steadiness which belonged to him. Lady Airy was buried in Playford churchyard. From Sepnd to Oc he made a short expedition to Wales (Capel Curig, &c.). On Deth he attended the Commemoration at Trinity College, Cambridge. On Dend he went as usual to Playford.

In this year Airy received the high honour of the Freedom of the City of London, in the following communication:

STONE, Mayor. A Common Council holden in the Chamber of the Guildhall of the City of London, on Thursday the 29th day of April 1875.

Resolved Unanimously

That the Freedom of this City in a Gold Box of the value of One hundred guineas be presented to Sir George Biddell Airy, K.C.B., D.C.L., LL.D. &c., Astronomer Royal, as a recognition of his indefatigable labours in Astronomy, and of his eminent services in the advancement of practical science, whereby he has so materially benefited the cause of Commerce and Civilization.


This Resolution was forwarded with a letter from Benjamin Scott, the Chamberlain. Airy’s reply was as follows:

1875, May 1.


I have the honour to acknowledge your letter of April 30, accompanied with Copy of the Resolution of the Common Council of the City of London passed at their Meeting of April 29, under signature of the Town Clerk, That the Freedom of the City of London in a valuable Box be presented to me, in recognition of works stated in the Resolution. And I am requested by you to inform you whether it is my intention to accept the compliment proposed by the Corporation.

In reply, I beg you to convey to the Right Honorable the Lord Mayor and the Corporation that I accept with the greatest pride and pleasure the honour which they propose to offer to me. The Freedom of our Great City, conferred by the spontaneous act of its Municipal Governors, is in my estimation the highest honour which it is possible to receive; and its presentation at this time is peculiarly grateful to me.

I have the honour to be,
Your very obedient servant,

Benjamin Scott, Esq.,
&c. &c. &c.
Chamberlain of the Corporation of the
City of London.

As it was technically necessary that a Freeman of the City of London should belong to one or other of the City Companies, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers through their clerk (with very great appropriateness) enquired whether it would be agreeable that that Company should have the privilege of conferring their Honorary Freedom on him, and added: “In soliciting your acquiescence to the proposal I am directed to call attention to the fact that this Guild is permitted to claim all manufacturers of Mathematical and Astronomical Instruments within the City of London, which is now pleaded as an apology for the wish that one so distinguished as yourself in the use of such Instruments should be enrolled as a Member of this Craft.” In his reply, accepting the Freedom of the Company, Airy wrote thus: “I shall much value the association with a body whose ostensible title bears so close a relation to the official engagements which have long occupied me. I have had extensive experience both in arranging and in using optical and mathematical instruments, and feel that my own pursuits are closely connected with the original employments of the Company.” The Freedom of the Company was duly presented, and the occasion was celebrated by a banquet at the Albion Tavern on Tuesday, July 6th.

The Freedom of the City of London was conferred at a Court of Common Council held at the Guildhall on Thursday the 4th of November. In presenting the gold box containing the Freedom, the Chamberlain, in an eloquent speech, first referred to the fact that this was the first occasion on which the Freedom had been conferred on a person whose name was associated with the sciences other than those of war and statecraft. He then referred to the solid character of his work, in that, while others had turned their attention to the more attractive fields of exploration, the discovery of new worlds or of novel celestial phenomena, he had incessantly devoted himself to the less interesting, less obtrusive, but more valuable walks of practical astronomy. And he instanced as the special grounds of the honour conferred, the compilation of nautical tables of extraordinary accuracy, the improvement of chronometers, the correction of the compasses of iron ships, the restoration of the standards of length and weight, and the Transit of Venus Expeditions. In his reply Airy stated that he regarded the honour just conferred upon him as the greatest and proudest ever received by him. He referred to the fact that the same honour had been previously conferred on the valued friend of his youth, Thomas Clarkson, and said that the circumstance of his succeeding such a man was to himself a great honour and pleasure. He alluded to his having received a small exhibition from one of the London Companies, when he was a poor undergraduate at Cambridge, and acknowledged the great assistance that it had been to him. With regard to his occupation, he said that he had followed it in a great measure because of its practical use, and thought it fortunate that from the first he was connected with an institution in which utility was combined with science. The occasion of this presentation was celebrated by a Banquet at the Mansion House on Saturday July 3rd, 1875, to Sir George Airy (Astronomer Royal) and the Representatives of Learned Societies.

There is no doubt that Airy was extremely gratified by the honour that he had received. It was to him the crowning honour of his life, and coming last of all it threw all his other honours into the shade. To his independent and liberal spirit there was something peculiarly touching in the unsolicited approbation and act of so powerful and disinterested a body as the Corporation of the City of London.