Skip to main content

A British national observatory: the building of the New Physical Observatory at Greenwich, 1889–1898


Over its long history, the buildings of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich were enlarged and altered many times, reflecting changing needs and expectations of astronomers and funders, but also the constraints of a limited site and small budgets. The most significant expansion took place in the late nineteenth century, overseen by the eighth Astronomer Royal, William Christie, a programme that is put in the context of changing attitudes toward scientific funding, Christie's ambitious plans for the work and staffing of the Observatory and his desire to develop a national institution that could stand with more recently founded European and American rivals. Examination of the archives reveals the range of strategies Christie was required to use to acquire consent and financial backing from the Admiralty, as well as his opportunistic approach. While hindsight might lead to criticism of his decisions, Christie eventually succeeded in completing a large building – the New Physical Observatory – that, in its decoration, celebrated Greenwich's past while, in its name, style, structure and contents, it was intended to signal the institution's modernization and future promise.

Hide All

1 See the Royal Observatory Greenwich section of the Royal Museums Greenwich website:

2 Wilson, Margaret, Ninth Astronomer Royal: The Life of Frank Watson Dyson, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1951, p. 57.

3 See Howse, Derek, ‘The buildings and instruments’, in Forbes, Eric, Meadows, A.J. and Howse, Derek, Greenwich Observatory: The Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Herstmonceux 1675–1975, 3 vols., London: Taylor and Francis, 1975, vol. 3, pp. 1415; and Littlewood, Kevin and Butler, Beverley, Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London and New Brunswick: The Athlone Press, 1998, p. 177. The ‘ugliest of modern buildings’ and ‘the style of a Lyons Corner House’ are other descriptions from the 1950s, quoted at pp. 177 and 145.

4 ‘Royal Observatory, Greenwich’, The Times, 5 June 1899, p. 4, col. C.

5 Maunder, E. Walter, The Royal Observatory Greenwich: A Glance at Its History and Work, London: Religious Tract Society, 1900, p. 275.

6 A.J. Meadows, ‘Recent history (1836–1975)’, in Forbes, Meadows and Howse, op. cit. (3), vol. 2, pp. 12–14, 12.

7 Smith, Robert W., ‘A national observatory transformed: Greenwich in the nineteenth century’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1991) 22, pp. 520, 5.

8 H.H. Turner, chief assistant at Greenwich from 1884 to 1893, saw two ‘reconstructions’ at Greenwich, one, under Airy, that reorganized its ‘routine work’ and one, under Christie, that ‘has equipped it for playing its part in “modern astronomy”’. This responded to ‘a revolution in almost all departments of Astronomy, theoretical and practical’, beginning in 1875, the year that saw the application of the gelatin dry-plate processes to astrophotography, but which existing observatories only really responded to in the 1880s. Turner, H.H., Modern Astronomy: Being Some Account of the Revolution of the Last Quarter of a Century, London: Constable & Co 1909, pp. 12, 3, 11.

9 See Howse, op. cit. (3), quotation from Christopher Wren to Bishop Fell at p. 4.

10 Donnelly, Marian Card, A Short History of Observatories, Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1973, p. 1, sees observatory architecture as essentially dependent on telescope design: ‘a kind of mechanical equipment had been invented which required some building, or portion of a building, specifically designed for its use’. While the architecture of laboratories, universities and museums has been considered in the history of science, that of observatories has been subject to less analysis than it deserves. An important recent dissertation, Alistair Marcus Kwan, ‘Architecture of astronomical observation: from Sternwarte Kassel (ca. 1560) to the Radcliffe Observatory (1772)’, PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2010, in part rectifies this by combining history of astronomy and architectural history to develop important insights into observatory buildings and – crucially – the relationship between design and use of buildings and the use of instruments. However, his analysis of Greenwich does not take sufficient note of the chronological development of the site and, of course, the radical developments of nineteenth-century astronomy are outside the scope of the study. On other fields see Galison, Peter and Thompson, Emily (eds.), The Architecture of Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999; Forgan, Sophie, ‘The architecture of display: museums, universities and objects in nineteenth-century Britain’, History of Science (1994) 32, pp. 139162; and James, Frank A.J.L. (ed.), The Development of the Laboratory: Essays on the Place of Experiment in Industrial Civilization, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989. The last of these includes Mari E.W. Williams, ‘Astronomical observatories as practical space: the case of Pulkowa’, pp. 118–136.

11 George Airy considered this the chief disadvantage of the site in 1875, when he commented on ‘the limited extent of the hill’. However, he felt that this inconvenience was ‘far overbalanced by its advantages’, Report of the Astronomer Royal, London: Royal Observatory Greenwich, 1875, p. 26. All of the Astronomer Royal's Annual Reports will hereafter be cited as Report with the author (Airy or Christie) and year.

12 Newcomb, Simon, ‘Astronomical observatories’, North American Review (1881) 133, pp. 196204, 197.

13 On one side was the Thompson twenty-six-inch photographic refractor (1896), guided by the 12¾-inch refractor by Merz (Great Equatorial, 1859), and the Thompson nine-inch photoheliograph (presented 1891); on the other side was the Thompson thirty-inch photographic reflector (1896) with spectroscope. The refractor and reflector were moved to Herstmonceux in 1956–1957, where they can still be seen at the Observatory Science Centre.

14 On the relationship between amateur and professional astronomy, and the place of non-positional astronomy, see Chapman, Allan, The Victorian Amateur Astronomer: Independent Astronomical Research in Britain 1820–1920, Chichester: Wiley, 1998; and Lankford, John, ‘Amateurs and astrophysics: a neglected aspect in the development of a scientific speciality’, Social Studies of Science (1981) 11, pp. 275303. On the developments in observatories, including national observatories, in the nineteenth century see Dick, Steven J., ‘Pulkovo Observatory and the national observatory movement’, in Lieske, J.H. and Abalakin, V.K. (eds.), Inertial Coordinate System on the Sky, Proceedings of IAU Symposium 141, Dordrecht: International Astronomical Union, 1989, pp. 2938; Aubin, David, Bigg, Charlotte and Sibum, H. Otto (eds.), The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

15 Airy, Report (1870), p. 24.

16 Airy, Report (1875), p. 25. Other additional work noted by Airy included meteorology (of which he was dismissive, saying it ‘hardly deserves the name of a science. It is, however, in great popular request’), ‘cosmical physics’, including his own observations of the motions of pendulums down mines, preparations for eclipse and transit of Venus expeditions, work relating to national standards, and assistance in training officers in surveying work. On Airy's view of the ROG's role see Chapman, Allan, ‘Science and the public good: George Biddell Airy (1801–92) and the concept of a scientific civil servant’, in Rupke, N.A. (ed.), Science, Politics and the Public Good, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1988, pp. 3662.

17 Airy, Report (1872), p. 23.

18 Airy, Report (1872), p. 23.

19 Airy, Report (1872), pp. 23–24.

20 See Anderson, Katherine, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 142145.

21 On Lockyer see Meadows, A.J., Science and Controversy: A Biography of Sir Norman Lockyer, London: Macmillan, 1972 (on the debates over a new physical observatory see pp. 75–111); Becker, Barbara J., Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 136145; and Macleod, Roy, ‘The support of Victorian science: the Endowment of Research movement in Great Britain, 1868–1900’, Minerva (1971) 9, pp. 197230. Airy's testimony before the Devonshire Commission was of a piece with his statements to the Observatory's Board of Visitors.

22 Quoted in Becker, op. cit. (21), p. 137.

23 Airy, Report (1875), p. 26.

24 Airy, Report (1872), p. 23.

25 Airy, Letter to the Editor, The Observatory (1881) 4, pp. 87–89, 88. Another of those who objected strongly to Lockyer and Strange's proposals was Richard A. Proctor, who, much like Airy, believed that government should fund ‘scientific researches tending to advance the material interests of the nation’, but that regular funding of speculative research ‘might excite hostility to science and to scientific men which would most seriously injure the prospects of science in this country’. Proctor, R.A., ‘Money for science’, in Proctor, Science Byways: A Series of Familiar Dissertations on Life in Other Worlds …, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1875, pp. 401422, 403, 409.

26 Airy to G.G. Stokes, 7 January 1875, quoted in Meadows, op. cit. (6), p. 121. The ‘enormous’ expenses referred to were in relation to the 1874 transit of Venus expeditions, discussed in Ratcliffe, Jessica, The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008, pp. 5788.

27 MacLeod, R.M., ‘Science and the treasury, 1870–85’, in Turner, G. L'E. (ed.), The Patronage of Science in the Nineteenth Century, Leyden: Noordhoff, 1976, pp. 115172, especially Table 1, p. 122. On government and science in the nineteenth century see the other essays in this collection; Alter, Peter, The Reluctant Patron: Science and the State in Britain 1850–1920 (tr. Angela Davies), Oxford, Hamburg and New York: Berg, 1987; Ratcliffe, op. cit. (26).

28 Airy, Report (1880), p. 21.

29 Airy, Report (1881), p. 21.

30 Airy to T. Ribbon, 14 December 1875, quoted in Meadows, op. cit. (6), p. 124.

31 Airy, Report (1881), p. 22. On time balls see Homes, Caitlin, ‘The Astronomer Royal, the Hydrographer and the time ball: collaborations in time signalling 1850–1910’, BJHS (2009) 42, pp. 381406.

32 Airy, Report (1880), p. 21.

33 Christie, Report (1882), p. 17.

34 Minutes of the Board of Visitors, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives, Cambridge University Library, RGO 55/1 (hereafter RGO).

35 Airy's repeated statements about the ROG's role, and his opposition to equatorial instruments and other diversions from this role, suggest that members of the Board of Visitors were requesting change. Airy himself became a Visitor, 1884–1891, and it is interesting to speculate on his attitude to the changes implemented under Christie. The minutes are frustratingly uninformative about discussion and disagreement among the Board's members. RGO 55/1.

36 However, it is not clear that this appointment was the result of a change of policy. Two other individuals were reputedly approached before Christie regarding the post of Astronomer Royal, John Couch Adams and J.W.L. Glaisher, both of whom were primarily thought of as mathematical astronomers, as Airy had been on his appointment.

37 The archives include a list of resolutions made by the Board of Visitors relating to these points, which illustrates forcefully their belief that, first, expansion of the ROG was inevitable and, second, the Admiralty should be prepared to pay for it: ‘Copies of Resolutions passed since 1886 by the Board of Visitors relating to the increase in the duties performed at the Royal Observatory and to the difficulties experienced in consequence of the scattered character of the Observatory Buildings’ (1886–1892), RGO 55/7.

38 The Carte du ciel was a photographic stellar mapping project, initiated in the 1880s in Paris, involving twenty observatories around the word. As a photographic project it expanded the work of the ROG, and it was of astronomical rather than navigational significance, although it continued the focus on accurate mapping of the skies. See Lamy, Jérôme (ed.), La carte du ciel: Histoire et actualité d'un projet scientifique international, Les Ulis: EDP Sciences, 2008. Christie felt that it was ‘fitting’ for ‘Greenwich, as the National Observatory, to take its share in the scheme’: Report (1887), p. 21, and (1888), p. 20.

39 Christie, Report (1888), p. 20.

40 On the relationship between the new kinds of astronomy and public interest see Charlotte Bigg, ‘Staging the heavens: astrophysics and popular astronomy in the late nineteenth century’, in Aubin, Bigg and Sibum, op. cit. (14), pp. 305–324.

41 Dick, Steven J., Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830–2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; Wright, Helen, James Lick's Monument: The Saga of Captain Richard Floyd and the Building of the Lick Observatory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987; Aubin, Bigg and Sibum, op. cit. (14), pp. 2–4; Simon Werrett, ‘The astronomical capital of the world: Pulkovo Observatory in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I’, in Aubin, Bigg and Sibum, op. cit. (14), pp. 33–57; and Chapman, op. cit. (14).

42 Chapman, Allan, ‘Private research and public duty: G.B. Airy and the discovery of Neptune’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1988) 19, pp. 121139.

43 Winterhalter, Albert G., The International Astrographic Congress and a Visit to Certain European Observatories and Other Institutions, Report to the Superintendent, Appendix 1 to Washington Observations for 1885, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889, pp. 143163, 163.

44 Airy, Report (1873), p. 23. On the changing approach to positional astronomy, and the consequent increase in systemization and paperwork, see Schaffer, Simon, ‘Astronomers mark time: discipline and the personal equation’, Science in Context (1988) 2, pp. 115145; and Ashworth, William J., ‘The calculating eye: Baily, Herschel, Babbage and the business of astronomy’, BJHS (1994) 27, pp. 409441.

45 Airy, Report (1878), p. 21.

46 Quoted in ‘Here longitude starts’, New York Times, 21 Jun 1896, p. 6, available at the New York Times online archive,, accessed 23 April 2012.

47 Christie, Report (1887), p. 35.

48 See Chapman, Allan, ‘Airy's Greenwich staff’, Antiquarian Astronomer (2012) 6, pp. 417, 5–6.

49 See the ‘Papers on computers’ orders’ among Christie's papers in the Observatory's archives, RGO 7/136, which contain certifications of the competence of several computers to carry out observations with particular instruments.

50 Naval Estimates, at House of Commons Parliamentary Papers,, accessed 28 May 2013.

51 Christie, Report (1909), p. 30. There was also a brief experiment of employing women at the Observatory c.1891–1895. Christie, concerned about the quality of candidates and attempting to persuade the Admiralty to agree to the expansion of the permanent workforce, found the hiring of women as supernumerary computers was a useful stopgap. They could be paid at a low rate despite having excellent qualifications, for a handful of women with ambitions in the world of astronomy took up the opportunity. Like Christie's other computers, these women were trained to make observations. See Brück, Mary T., ‘Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder: torch bearing women astronomers’, Irish Astronomical Journal (1994) 21, pp. 280291. It is not clear why this experiment was discontinued. Perhaps no more women put themselves forward, or perhaps Christie felt that his staffing reforms meant that he now had enough competent male computers and observers.

52 Wilson, op. cit. (2), p. 54.

53 On Christie's sense of the ROG's relationship with the public and approval of his staff's involvement in scientific societies see Burnett, John, ‘Airy, Christie, and 1881’, Journal of the British Astronomical Association (1981) 92, pp. 1112.

54 ‘Here longitude starts’, op. cit. (46).

55 ‘Here longitude starts’, op. cit. (46), my emphasis.

56 Airy, Report (1878), pp. 20–21.

57 Airy, Report (1880), p. 4.

58 Christie, Report (1882), p. 3.

59 Christie, Report (1883), p. 3.

60 Copy of Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Visitors, 2 June 1883, RGO 55/1/5.

61 Christie, Report (1888), p. 3. By 1889 the purpose of the eighteen-foot dome had changed to housing the new thirteen-inch astrographic refractor for the Carte du ciel.

62 Christie, Report (1889), pp. 4–5. The term ‘museum’ was used in the sense of a store or repository, and although the instruments’ historic interest was mentioned, there was no attempt to capture the Observatory's history in this way. The oldest instruments belonging to the Observatory, those of Halley, Bradley and others, remained displayed on the walls of the Transit Circle Room. Though the museum was eventually fitted with glass cases, these seem to have been for the convenience of making an inventory rather than display.

63 Copy of letter from Christie to Secretary of the Admiralty, 8 August 1889, RGO 7/50.

64 The Chief Assistant's Journal records that Christie left for Russia on Saturday 10 August 1889, to attend the celebration of the Pulkowa Jubilee on 19 August, returning 7 September, RGO 7/29. See Dick, op. cit. (14), for Pulkovo's ‘legendary’ and influential role and developing interest in astrophysical research, quotation at p. 33. See also Werrett, op. cit. (41); and Williams, op. cit. (10).

65 Christie to Crisp, 29 April 1890, RGO 7/50.

66 Christie and Crisp met on 27 May 1890, and Christie noted, ‘I explained to him modification I proposed in his plan to make entrance porches at the angles virtually equivalent to the plan with Octagonal centre which I proposed before’. Annotation to copy of letter from Christie to Crisp, 23 May 1890, RGO 7/50.

67 Crisp to Christie, 2 June 1890, RGO 7/50.

68 Christie, Report (1890), p. 3.

69 Christie to Wharton, 8 June 1890, RGO 7/50.

70 Christie to Crisp, 8 July 1890, RGO 7/50.

71 Crisp to Christie, 17 September 1890, RGO 7/50.

72 Christie to Major H. Pilkington, Director of Works, 18[?] September 1890, RGO 7/50.

73 Crisp to Christie, 22 July 1890, RGO 7/50.

74 Christie to Pilkington, 27 November 1890, RGO 7/50.

75 Christie to Pilkington, 8 December 1890, RGO 7/50.

76 Evan Macgregor, Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, to Christie, 23 January 1891, RGO 7/50.

77 Christie to Pilkington, 7 November 1891, RGO 7/50.

78 Christie, Report (1891), pp. 21, 4.

79 Pilkington to Christie, 9 November 1891, RGO 7/50.

80 Thompson’s three telescopic gifts, of which this was the first, were likened to the private patronage that was having such a marked effect on observatories and telescope-building in the US. He was clearly enthusiastic about having an impact on the kind of astronomy being done in a government-funded institution, for he made it a condition of the later gift that the telescope be used for photographic purposes and, apparently, ‘feeling that the astronomy of the future is to be photographic’, he was of the opinion ‘that England should be well equipped in this arm’. Report in The Telegraph, 3 March 1894, quoted in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1894) 6, p. 133.

81 Christie to Secretary of the Admiralty, 19 November 1891, RGO 7/50. This photographic laboratory was urgently required despite the provision of sinks and a darkroom in 1888 at the north end of the site.

82 Christie to Secretary of the Admiralty, 19 November 1891, RGO 7/50.

83 Macgregor to Christie, 6 January 1892, RGO 7/50.

84 Christie to Secretary of the Admiralty, 12 January 1893, RGO 7/50.

85 Christie to Secretary of the Admiralty, 12 January 1893, RGO 7/50.

86 Christie to Pilkington, 16 November [189]4, RGO 7/50.

87 Macgregor to Christie, 8 December 1894, RGO 7/50.

88 Christie to Macgregor, 18 December [189]4, RGO 7/50.

89 ‘Here longitude starts’, op. cit. (46). The decoration was devised by Doulton & Co. and the bust was by J. Raymond Smith, based on an ivory medallion of Flamsteed by David Le Marchand (National Maritime Museum: ZBA0692).

90 Christie, Report (1906), p. 3. This led to the building of a store, completed in 1908, at a lower level to the south-west of the New Physical Observatory. Today this building has been handed over to the Royal Parks and is used as a toilet block.

91 An architectural description can be found at Listed Buildings Online, Heritage Gateway,, accessed 23 April 2012.

92 Crisp to Christie, 22 July 1890, RGO 7/50.

93 Donnelly, op. cit. (10), passim.

94 Christie to Pilkington, 21 December 1893, RGO 7/50.

95 See Brück, Hermann A., The Story of Astronomy in Edinburgh, from Its Beginning to 1975, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 1983, p. 57; Williams, op. cit. (10), p. 127. There are precedents for the inclusion of the names or portraits of deceased astronomers in observatory decoration, for example at Tycho Brahe's observatory at Uraniborg: Christianson, John Robert, On Tycho's Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570–1601, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 270.

96 Christie to Pilkington, 30 November 1892, RGO 7/50.

97 Scheme of names for tablets on proposed Physical Observatory, RGO 7/50. The full list of names and institutions ultimately included is Jeremiah Horrox, Christopher Wren, John Flamsteed, Abraham Sharp, George Graham, Edmond Halley, John Bird, John Dollond, James Bradley, Royal Society, John Harrison, John Arnold, Nathaniel Bliss, Thomas Earnshaw, William Herschel, Nevil Maskelyne, Victoria Reg. Imp., Jesse Ramsden, Edward Troughton, John Pond, William Simms, Francis Baily, George Airy, the Royal Astronomical Society, Richard Sheepshanks, John Couch Adams, Isaac Newton. Three names suggested, but not used, were John Herschel, Jeremiah Sisson and Thomas Jones.

98 H.P. Hollis, Obituary of Sir Christie, W.H.M, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (February 1923), pp. 233241, 237.

99 Maunder, op. cit. (5), refers to it in 1900 simply as the New Building and the New Observatory, highlighting it as a place of computation rather than observation or research.

The research and writing of this paper were undertaken while I was a curator at the National Maritime Museum, and I would like to thank the museum and my former colleagues for their assistance in the research and permission for use of images. I would also like to thank the editor and anonymous referees for their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, which has been much improved as a result.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 4
Total number of PDF views: 42 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 239 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th July 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.