Uncle of Baden-Powell
Charles Piazzi Smyth
Admiral Smyth (B-P’s maternal
grandfather) and his wife, Annarella, named one of their sons Piazzi in honor of the Italian
Astronomer Giovanni Piazzi (1746-1826). Charles Piazzi Smyth was to become Astronomer Royal of Scotland.
For an in-depth review of his career and contributions, see the
Report of the Council of the
Royal Astronomical Society
following his death in 1900.
From the 11th Edition of Encyclopaedia
SMYTH, CHARLES PIAZZI (1819-1900),
British astronomer, was born at Naples on the 3rd of January 1819.
He was called Piazzi after his godfather, the Italian astronomer of
that name, whose acquaintance his father, Admiral Smyth, had made at
Palermo when on the Mediterranean station. His father subsequently
settled at Bedford and equipped there an observatory, at which
Piazzi Smyth received his first lessons in astronomy. At the age of
sixteen he went out as assistant to Sir Thomas Maclear at the Cape
of Good Hope, where he observed Halley’s comet and the great comet
of 1843, and took an active part in the verification and extension
of La Caille’s arc of the meridian. In 1845 he was appointed
astronomer royal for Scotland and professor of astronomy in the
university of Edinburgh. Here he completed the reduction, and
continued the series, of the observations made by his predecessor,
Thomas Henderson (see Edinburgh Observations, vols. xi.-xv.).
In 1856 he made experimental observations on the Peak of Teneriffe
with a view to testing the astronomical advantages of a mountain
station. The Admiralty made him a grant of £500 for the purpose, and
a yacht—the "Titania"—of 140 tons and a fine 74 in.
equatorial telescope were placed at his disposal by friends. The
upshot of the expedition was to verify Newton’s surmise, that a
"most serene and quiet air . . . may perhaps be found on the tops of
the highest mountains above the grosser clouds." The scientific
results were detailed in a Report addressed to the lords
commissioners of the admiralty, 1858, in a communication to the
Royal Society (Phil. Trails. cxlviii. 465) and in the Edinburgh Observations, vol. xii. A popular account of the
voyage is contained in Teneriffe, An Astronomer’s Experiment,
1858. In 1871-1872 Piazzi Smyth investigated the spectra of the
aurora, and zodiacal light. He recommended the use of the "rainband"
for weather prediction (Jour. Scottish Meteor. Society, v. S4),
and discovered, in conjunction with Professor A. S. Herschel, the
harmonic relation between the rays emitted by carbon monoxide. In
1877-1878 be constructed at Lisbon a map of the solarspectrum (Edin.
Phil. Trails. xxix. 285), for which he received the Macdougall-Brisbane
prize in 1880. Further spectroscopic researches were carried out by
him at Madeira in 1880 (Madeira Spectroscopic, 1882), and at
Winchester in 1884 (Edin. Phil. Trans. vol. xxxii. pt. ii.).
He published besides Three Cities in Russia (1862), Our
Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864), Life and Work at the
Great Pyramid (1867), and a volume On the Antiquity of
Intellectual Man (1868). In 1888 he resigned his official
position and retired to the neighbourhood of Ripon, where he died on
the 21st of February 1900.
From the 11th
Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910-1911
||In February, 1901, the Royal
Astronomical Society published an in depth
biographical sketch and memorial of the life of Charles Piazzi Smyth
as part of the Report of the Council of the Eighty-First General
Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society.
1865 Charles Piazzi Smyth traveled to Egypt to produce accurate
measurements of the Great Pyramid.
The photographs he took inside the Great Pyramid are amongst the
earliest known. The Plates reproduced here are from an original 1877
copy of Smyth’s Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid.
Small Coincidences. Sir
Flinders Petrie is known as a pioneer in the field of archaeology and
Egyptology. In his autobiography, Seventy Years in Archaeology,
he wrote of an interesting connection between the Petrie, Smyth and Baden-Powell
families and of the influence of Piazzi Smyth’s work on his career.
The website of
St. John’s Church, Sharow provides a photo and the story of the
unusual tombstone marking the last resting place of Charles Piazzi Smyth
and his wife Jessica "Jessie" Piazzi Smyth. It also presents a
photo of the Piazzi Smyth home, "Clova" at Ripon as well as some
interesting details of Piazzi Smyth’s life.
The Bedford School attended by Charles
Piazzi Smyth and his two brothers, Warington Wilkerson Smyth and Henry
Augustus Smyth, now hosts the
Observatory named in commemoration of one of its most famous alumni.
The Bedford Astronomical Society also recalls the honor received by both
Piazzi Smyth and his father, the pioneering astronomer, Admiral William
Henry Smyth as they both had lunar features named for them providing the
school and these historical astronomers with a "Lunar
The Smithsonian Institutions exhibit on
"Voyages of the Mind" featured Piazzi Smyth’s early work on improved
results from higher altitude observatories reported in
The Teneriffe Astronomical
Experiment of 1856 in the Smithsonian Library Collection.
A short biography of "the brilliant but
Piazzi Smyth is
found in the website of The
Astronomical Society of Edinburgh and the City Observatory Edinburgh.
||While in Cape Town,
Charles Piazzi Smyth established a reputation for astronomical drawing
and an early use of the medium of photography. In 1846, the
Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society reported on his early
||Some background on
Charles Piazzi Smyth’s early days is found in a review of Brian Warner,
Charles Piazzi Smyth, astronomer-artist:
his Cape years 1835-1845
from an article from the Canberra Astronomical Society’s journal, "The
The firing of a gun at one o’clock every day
started as a means of giving the sailing ships in Leith Harbour an
accurate time check to assist them their navigation.
||For background and biography of
Admiral Smyth’s friend and Piazzi Smyth’s godfather, see the article in
Giuseppe Piazzi. Piazzi was a monk, a mathematician and an astronomer.
He is credited with the discovery of Ceres, the largest asteroid in the
asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Baden-Powell Family History.
A series of links starting
the research of Robin Baden Clay, a grandson of Baden-Powell. These
focused on the genealogy of the Powell family. The author is extremely
grateful to Mr. Clay for sharing the results of his labors with the
Scouting community. Links are provided to pages for three of B-P’s
brothers: Baden, Warington and Sir George Baden-Powell, to members of
his extended family, and to the
genealogy of the Smyth and Warington families.
Your feedback, comments and suggestions are appreciated.
Please write to: Lewis P. Orans
Copyright © Lewis
P. Orans, 2009
Last Modified: 1:05AM on September 13, 2009