Smyth, Charles Piazzi (DNB01)
SMYTH, CHARLES PIAZZI (1819–1900), astronomer, second son of Admiral William Henry Smyth [q. v.], was born at Naples on 3 Jan. 1819, and named after the Sicilian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi. He was educated at the Bedford grammar school, and in 1835 entered the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, as assistant. There he observed the great comets of 1836 (Halley's) and 1843, and co-operated with Sir Thomas Maclear [q. v.] in the extension of Lacaille's arc. In 1845 he succeeded Thomas Henderson [q. v.] as astronomer-royal for Scotland, but found, to his acute disappointment, the observatory in a state of dilapidation, and the English home office deaf to petitions for its renovation. He, however, completed the reduction of Henderson's meridian observations, and continued the determination of star-places, publishing the results in the ‘Edinburgh Astronomical Observations’ (vols. xi. to xv.) In 1852 he organised time-signalling by the dropping of a ball on the Calton Hill, improved to a time-gun in 1861. He went to Sweden for the total solar eclipse of 28 July 1851, but saw little except mist from his post on the island of Bue (Memoirs Roy. Astr. Society, xxi. 25). A sum of 500l. having been placed at his disposal by the admiralty for the purpose of experimenting upon telescopic vision on the peak of Teneriffe, he repaired thither in May 1856 in the yacht Titania, lent him by Robert Stephenson [q. v.] Returning in October he published a popular account of the trip, entitled ‘Teneriffe, an Astronomical Experiment’ (London, 1858), and embodied the scientific results in a paper for the Royal Society, of which he was elected fellow on 11 June 1857 (Phil. Trans. cxlviii. 465), and in a report to the lords commissioners of the admiralty. They were also fully described in the ‘Edinburgh Astronomical Observations’ (vol. xii.)
In 1859 he visited the Russian observatories, and gave his impressions of them in ‘Three Cities in Russia’ (2 vols. London, 1862). Having published, late in 1864, ‘Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid’ (5th edit. 1890), he hurried to Egypt and devoted the winter to measuring and surveying the edifice. His interpretation of its design, divinely revealed to its constructor, Melchisedec, preluded, he supposed, the commencement of the millennium in 1882; and he detected, among other mysteries conveyed by its proportions, a cryptographic solution of the problem of squaring the circle. A paper on the subject sent by him to the Royal Society having been denied a reading, he resigned his fellowship on 7 Feb. 1874, and gave his reasons to the public in a tract on ‘The Great Pyramid and the Royal Society’ (London, 1874).
Notwithstanding these deviations into ‘paradox of a very high order’ (in De Morgan's phrase), Smyth did admirable work in spectroscopy. He effectively promoted the study of telluric absorption (Monthly Notices, xxxix. 38), and brought the ‘rain-band’ into use for weather prediction (Nature, xii. 231, xiv. 9; Journal Scottish Meteor. Society, v. 84). A map of the solar spectrum constructed by him at Lisbon in 1877-8 (Edin. Phil. Trans. xxix. 285) received the Makdougall-Brisbane prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and he revised the work with a Rutherfurd grating at Madeira in 1880, and at Winchester in 1884 (ib. vol. xxxii.) His adoption of ‘end-on’ vacuum-tubes for the investigation of gaseous spectra (ib. xxx. 93, xxxii. pt. iii.; Trans. Scottish Soc. of Arts, x. 226) was an improvement of great consequence. He detected, in conjunction with Professor Alexander Herschel, the harmonic character of the carbonic-oxide spectrum, and picked out six of the significant triplets in the spectrum of oxygen. The ‘citron-ray’ of the aurora was repeatedly measured by him in 1871–2 (Comptes Rendus, lxxiv. 597), and he observed the spectrum of the zodiacal light at Palermo in April 1872 (Monthly Notices, xxxii. 277). From the indications of thermometers buried on the Calton Hill (1837–1870) he inferred the subjection of the earth's temperature to a cycle identical with that of sunspots (Proc. Roy. Society, xviii. 311). A digest by him of meteorological data collected at fifty-five stations in Scotland appeared in vol. xiii. of the ‘Edinburgh Astronomical Observations’ (1871).
Smyth obtained in 1870 funds for a new equatorial, but the promised allowances for the cost of its working were not forthcoming. A committee appointed by the home secretary (the Right Hon. Richard Assheton Cross, now Viscount Cross) in 1876 to inquire into the affairs of the observatory recommended ameliorations never carried into effect; and at last, in 1888, Smyth resigned in disgust the post he had held for forty-three years, and withdrew to Clova, near Ripon in Yorkshire. There he executed a large solar spectrographic chart, with a Rowland grating, and studied cloud-forms by photography. He died on 21 Feb. 1900, and was buried in Sharow churchyard, Ripon. On 24 Dec. 1855 he married Jessie Duncan (d. 24 March 1896). She was the constant companion of his travels. They had no children. He bequeathed his residuary estate to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for defraying the expenses of printing his spectroscopic manuscripts, and of sending out occasional expeditions for spectroscopic research at high mountain stations. His membership of the Royal Astronomical Society dated from 1846. He was an honorary LL.D. of the university of Edinburgh, and a corresponding member of the academies of Munich and Palermo.
Besides the works already mentioned, he wrote: 1. ‘Life and Work at the Great Pyramid,’ 8 vols. London, 1867. 2. ‘On the Antiquity of Man,’ Edinburgh, 1868 (awarded the Keith prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh). 3. ‘Madeira Spectroscopic,’ Edinburgh, 1882. One hundred entries under his name occur in the Royal Society's ‘Catalogue of Scientific Papers.’
[Times, 24 Feb. 1900; Observatory, xxiii. 145,184; Notice by Dr. Copeland in Astronomische Nachrichten, No. 3636, and Popular Astronomy, 1900, p. 384; Nature, 14 June 1900; A. S. Herschel on Smyth's Work in Spectroscopy; Men of the Time, 14th edit.; André et Rayet's l'Astronomie Pratique, ii. 12.]