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Papers of George Biddell Airy : Astronomer Royal's Journal, 1836 January to 1847 December

Airy, George Biddell, 1801-1892

Papers of George Biddell Airy

<p style='text-align: justify;'>The Astronomer Royal’s Journals are testaments to George Airy’s meticulous record keeping habits. The entries unravel the daily challenges that Airy faced in managing the operations of the Observatory: broken instruments (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(57);return false;'>p. 23r</a>), negotiating salaries of assistants (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(153);return false;'>p. 71r</a>), examining the results of observations (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(99);return false;'>p. 44r</a>), and liaising with astronomers (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(254);return false;'>p. 120v</a>), instrument makers (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(103);return false;'>p. 46r</a>) and members of the Government (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(137);return false;'>p. 63r</a>). The journals also reflect the regular paperwork involved in running the Observatory. Airy prepared forms for the Observatory staff (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(123);return false;'>p. 56r</a>) and reviewed the final calculations before publishing them (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(110);return false;'>p. 49v</a>). He is most often found writing introductions and appendices to the Greenwich Observations (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(138);return false;'>p. 63v</a>), working on scientific papers (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(37);return false;'>p. 13r</a>), or responding to letters (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(36);return false;'>p. 12v</a>). Such entries provide unprecedented insights into the daily management of a national observatory during the nineteenth-century, and into the responsibilities of an astronomical officer of the British Government.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The duties of an Astronomer Royal went beyond tasks related to astronomy. The British Government frequently requested Airy’s advice in matters related to science and technology. As this journal demonstrates, between 1836 and 1847 he participated in the reconstruction of the standard weights and measures (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(63);return false;'>p. 26r</a>), in the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(252);return false;'>p. 119Av</a>), the Royal Commission on Railway Gauges (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(214);return false;'>p. 101v</a>), the North American Boundary Commission (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(155);return false;'>p. 72r</a>), and the Commission on the State of Tidal Harbours (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>p. 197r</a>).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Finally, the journal offers a window into the life of the highest ranking British astronomer of the period. Besides daily tasks, the journals record events from his personal life, such as illnesses (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(181);return false;'>p. 85r</a>), births of his children (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(139);return false;'>p. 64r</a>), deaths of family members (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(85);return false;'>p. 37r</a>), weddings (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(227);return false;'>p. 108r</a>), and visits from colleagues and friends. These entries demonstrate that Airy’s health and personal life were inseparable from running the Observatory according to his own vision. Such personal reflections are often overlooked in the current scholarship on Airy, which has contributed to his image as an unimaginative dictatorial director obsessed with order. Therefore, these journals provide essential starting points for scholars examining how Airy’s personal life and close friends influenced his actions.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Daniel Belteki<br /> University of Kent</p>

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