Great Astronomers HTML version

In our sketch of the life of Flamsteed, we have referred to the circumstances under which
the famous Observatory that crowns Greenwich Hill was founded. We have also had
occasion to mention that among the illustrious successors of Flamsteed both Halley and
Bradley are to be included. But a remarkable development of Greenwich Observatory
from the modest establishment of early days took place under the direction of the
distinguished astronomer whose name is at the head of this chapter. By his labours this
temple of science was organised to such a degree of perfection that it has served in many
respects as a model for other astronomical establishments in various parts of the world.
An excellent account of Airy's career has been given by Professor H. H. Turner, in the
obituary notice published by the Royal Astronomical Society. To this I am indebted for
many of the particulars here to be set down concerning the life of the illustrious
Astronomer Royal.
The family from which Airy took his origin came from Kentmere, in Westmoreland. His
father, William Airy, belonged to a Lincolnshire branch of the same stock. His mother's
maiden name was Ann Biddell, and her family resided at Playford, near Ipswich. William
Airy held some small government post which necessitated an occasional change of
residence to different parts of the country, and thus it was that his son, George Biddell,
came to be born at Alnwick, on 27th July, 1801. The boy's education, so far as his school
life was concerned was partly conducted at Hereford and partly at Colchester. He does
not, however, seem to have derived much benefit from the hours which he passed in the
schoolroom. But it was delightful to him to spend his holidays on the farm at Playford,
where his uncle, Arthur Biddell, showed him much kindness. The scenes of his early
youth remained dear to Airy throughout his life, and in subsequent years he himself
owned a house at Playford, to which it was his special delight to resort for relaxation
during the course of his arduous career. In spite of the defects of his school training he
seems to have manifested such remarkable abilities that his uncle decided to enter him in
Cambridge University. He accordingly joined Trinity College as a sizar in 1819, and after
a brilliant career in mathematical and physical science he graduated as Senior Wrangler
in 1823. It may be noted as an exceptional circumstance that, notwithstanding the
demands on his time in studying for his tripos, he was able, after his second term of
residence, to support himself entirely by taking private pupils. In the year after he had
taken his degree he was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College.
Having thus gained an independent position, Airy immediately entered upon that career
of scientific work which he prosecuted without intermission almost to the very close of
his life. One of his most interesting researches in these early days is on the subject of
Astigmatism, which defect he had discovered in his own eyes. His investigations led him
to suggest a means of correcting this defect by using a pair of spectacles with lenses so
shaped as to counteract the derangement which the astigmatic eye impressed upon the
rays of light. His researches on this subject were of a very complete character, and the
principles he laid down are to the present day practically employed by oculists in the
treatment of this malformation.