Airy’s Transit Circle

March 1, 2004

On March 1 we were treated to a fascinating tour de force , including many personal reminiscences, by Gilbert Satterthwaite who spoke with passion about the seventh Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy (1801-1892) and the Airy Transit Circle.  Gilbert was the Greenwich Astronomer who made the last official observations with the instrument 50 years ago in March 1954.

In 1954 an official ‘last light’ ceremony had been planned for the Observatory Chief Assistant to take the final observations, but poor weather intervened. Gilbert had made the last set of observations the day before and was left with the distinction.  History had repeated itself.  In 1851 when the Transit Circle was first commissioned, George Airy had planned to take the first observations on January 1.  Then too, the Greenwich weather took a hand and the instrument had to wait until January 4 before seeing was satisfactory.

The Airy Transit Circle is one of the most important and influential astronomical instruments ever made.  It was in almost continuous use for 104 years -- Gilbert estimates that no less than 3 million star positions were logged!  It was the key instrument for positional astronomy in 1884 when the international conference in Washington DC decided to place the world’s Prime Meridian at Greenwich.  Since then the prime meridian has been marked by the eye-piece of the Transit Circle.

Gilbert may also have acquired the distinction of having addressed our last (ever?) meeting to be held in the South Building’s Discovery Room.  With the start of preparations for major renovation and construction on the ROG site our Flamsteed Society meetings will now move to the NMM’s Lecture Theatre.

For more information about George Biddell Airy and the Transit Circle, look at the ROG website:

ROG on Airy’s Transit Circle

and BBC History