Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

Home Events

Airy's Lectures In Ipswich

The association between the 7th Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy (1810-92), and Ipswich and the surrounding area is well known. But what of Airy's appreciation of this corner of Suffolk? That he was much a part of the area is self-evident from his purchase of a cottage at Playford where, in his early years, his frequent visits to his uncle, Arthur Biddell, at Hall Farm had exposed him to the likes of slave trade abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, engineer William Cubitt and founder of Ransomes of Ipswich, Robert Ransome. Their influence and encouragement spurred Airy on to Trinity College Cambridge, where his mathematical genius was soon recognised, and eventually on to Greenwich via Cambridge Observatory.

Shortly after appointment as Astronomer Royal in 1835, Airy commenced, in his own methodical way, a revamp of the Greenwich Observatory routines and procedures and the removal of under-performing staff, all of which had undermined the efficient running of the establishment whilst in the care of his predecessor, John Pond. Although he had initially reported that he was satisfied with the observational equipment at Greewich, by 1843 it became apparent that positional observation of the Moon on the meridian was falling far short of what was needed to produce accurate tables of the lunar orbit. He therefore proposed a new instrument that would allow positional measurements to be taken off the meridian and which would lead to a doubling of the rate of production of useable data. His innovative design called for a transit instrument mounted on an absolutely rigid mechanism that would allow its use off the meridian and enable readings to be taken on a greater number of occasions during each lunation. His knowledge of the heavy engineering skills of the craftsmen of Ransomes & May of Ipswich led him to commission the firm to build the new instrument to his own design. Charles May assisted Airy in design and the heavy components of the telescope were cast at Ransomes' Orwell Works. Messrs Troughton & Sims undertook the manufacture of the optics and graduated scales. The transit telescope was supported on a cast spoked wheel inside two massive cast iron side plates and sat upon a mount with the azimuth scale at the base. The instrument was supported on the top bearing by an innovative framework that Airy had designed in triangles for maximum rigidity using minimal thickness cast iron struts (minimising obstruction to the telescope) and the whole instrument was contained inside a drum dome mounted on a tower in similar style to the arrangements at Orwell Park, whereby the central pillar is entirely detached from the outer building. The instrument, which became known as Airy's Altazimuth Instrument, was very successful and was used at Greenwich from 1847 to 1910. It is now in store in the collection of the Science Museum, London.

In the same year that Airy's Altazimuth Instrument saw first light, the new Ipswich Museum1 opened its doors in what we now know as Museum Street. Its remit was to educate the working classes in natural history and it was at first financed by voluntary local donations until financial failure in 1853 and subsequent rescue by the Ipswich Corporation. The museum had as its first patron no less than HRH Prince Albert, who had inspected the facilities when the Museum hosted a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1851 (a year of national pride, insofar as the Great Exhibition was that year trumpeting Britain's industrial and scientific dominance). The Museum's second President from 1850 to 1861 was the Revd John Stevens Henslow, who had been a mentor of Charles Darwin at Cambridge.

The BAAS meeting, however, was by no means the first brush of the Museum with the great and good of Victorian science! In 1848, following a request by the patrons of the Museum, Airy offered to deliver a series of popular lectures on astronomy over the course of five evenings with the option of a sixth if he overran. However, the Museum building was deemed unsuitable to hold the numbers of craftsmen, engineers and mechanics expected to attend, so the nearby Temperance Hall was instead chosen as venue. Airy's lectures did overrun into a sixth evening, and were held between Monday 13 and Saturday 18 March 1848. The stated maximum capacity of the Temperance Hall was 500 persons, but Airy recalled in his autobiography that there around 700 people present each evening. Bear in mind that people of Airy's standing were Victorian "superstars" and events such as his popular lectures would have been the must-have tickets of the time!

In the introduction to his first lecture, Airy betrayed some of the differences between modern attitudes and those of the Victorian era, when he stated: The Lectures will be of what I may call a mathematical kind. But in speaking of this, I beg that the ladies present will not be startled. I do not mean to use algebra or any other science, such as must be commonly of an unintelligible character to a mixed meeting. He'd never get away with that in our more enlightened times!

Airy went on to explain his connections with Ipswich and his reasons for giving the lectures:

I have been personally long connected, not with the town of Ipswich precisely, but with the neighbourhood. I remember, with gratitude, that the first time I was shown an astronomical object of any great interest, it was exhibited to me by the founder of the mechanical and manufacturing Institution which has now risen to such great importance in the Town of Ipswich. [A clear reference to Messrs Ransome & May.] It was by the elder Mr Ransome that I was first shown the planet Saturn, with a telescope manufactured by his own hands. And I may add, that the first Nautical Almanac I possessed was received as a present from a gentleman then residing in Ipswich, who has now risen to great eminence in the Metropolis as an engineer. [William Cubitt] From these and other circumstances, I was desirous when the opportunity should occur, of offering to the members of the Museum, or any other similar body in the town of Ipswich, a course of Lectures on Astronomy.

Referring to his desire for the lectures to be available to the mechanics and artisans of Ipswich he said:

The alliance between astronomers and mechanics is much closer than it may seem to be at the first view of the matter. Astronomers have to rely very closely upon mechanics for every part of the apparatus connected with their operations. Possibly mechanics have derived something from their connection with astronomers: but at all events, I am certain the debt is on the other side; I may adduce as a practical instance, that the last instrument erected at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and to which I attach great importance [the aforementioned Airy Altazimuth Instrument], was constructed by the mechanics of Ipswich whilst I am at the present time in negotiation with one of the mechanical establishments of the town for another instrument of considerable importance in astronomical observations. [A clear reference to Airy's design for a substantial new transit telescope, eventually brought into use in 1851 through a further engineering partnership between Ransomes and Troughton & Simms.2]

The lectures began at 8.00pm. The final lecture on Saturday evening - according to the Ipswich Journal - finished around 11.00pm. As may be deduced from the table of subject matter below, in the vogue of the day they were of a mathematical nature, but Airy arranged for diagrams and demonstrations using working models to assist the audiences in comprehending them. The following extract of Airy's words in a letter sent from his Playford cottage to his wife Richarda back at Greenwich on the day after the first lecture (Tuesday 14 March) gives a flavour of the occasion:

At the proper time I went to the hall: found a chairman installed (Mr Weston): was presented to him, and by him presented to the audience: made my bow and commenced. The room was quite full: I have rarely seen such a sea of faces; about 700 I believe. Everything went off extremely well, except that the rollers of the moving piece of sky would squeak: but people did not mind it; and when first a star passed the meridian, then Jupiter, then some stars, and then Saturn, he was much applauded. Before beginning I gave notice that I should wait to answer questions; and as soon as the lecture was finished the Chairman repeated this and begged people to ask. So several people did ask very pertinent questions (from the benches) shewing that they had attended well. Others came up and asked questions.





Monday 13 March
Thomas Burch Western Esq.
Evidence for the apparent rotation of the heavens round the Earth. Refraction. Descriptions of some instruments proper for astronomical observations.
Tuesday 14 March
Thomas Burch Western Esq.
Investigation of the form and dimensions of the Earth. Proofs that the Earth really revolves. Apparent motion of the Sun among the stars or real motion of the Earth round the Sun. Permanency of an axis of rotation.
Wednesday 15 March
William Rodwell Esq.
Apparent motion of the planets. Greek theory of planetary motions. Epicycles, deferents etc. Copernican theory. Kepler's elliptic theory. Theory of central forces. Laws of motion. Composition and resolution of forces. Motion of a planet in its orbit deduced from these laws. Measure of distance by parallax.
Thursday 16 March
William Long Esq. of Hurts Hall, Saxmundham
General notions of parallax. Method of finding the Moon's parallax and distance. Methods of finding the Sun's parallax by transits of Venus across the Sun's disc. Causes of failure of other methods.
Friday 17 March
Rev Edwin Sidney AM
Precession of the equinoxes. Lunar nutation. Aberration of light. Measure of the distances of stars.
Saturday 18 March
Rev John Fenwick
Velocity of light deduced by Rømer from observations of the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites. Proper motion of stars. Motion of Solar System in space. Theory of gravitation. Methods of computing attraction. Perturbations of the Moon. Mutual perturbations of the planets. Long inequality of Jupiter and Saturn. Calculation of figure of the Earth from pendulum experiments. Experiments on the density of the Earth. Schallien experiment. Cavendish experiment. Weight of the Earth. Weight and density of the Sun. Weight of some planets and of the Moon. Conclusion.

Airy's Lectures On Astronomy, March 1848, Temperance Hall, Ipswich.

Over the course of the week, Airy's words were recorded in shorthand and the transcript was printed in book form under the title Lectures on Astronomy by the Astronomer Royal. Although the size of the print run is not clear, four editions had been printed before 1865 by Messrs S H Cowell of Butter Market, Ipswich, published by Simpkin and Marshal of London. By 1866, a revised pocket-sized version of the book entitled Popular Astronomy3 was published by Macmillan and edited, with Airy's permission, by a Mr Stirling. A further revision appeared in the 7th edition by a Mr H H Turner in the year before Airy's death (1891). In all some 14 print runs were produced, although there is some confusion as to which were new editions and which were merely re-prints4. I have still to uncover where any royalties may have gone, but suspect they went to the Museum as Airy also agreed to sit for a portrait by T H Maguire in 1852; the portrait was one of a series of famous scientists of the day commissioned by the Museum to raise much-needed funds and now in the possession of Suffolk Records Office.

In the following years, Airy continued to rely upon the skills of the manufacturing industry of Ipswich. He designed a new Transit Circle which entered service in 1851 and a heavy mounting for the Great Equatorial Telescope which was installed by 1859. He entrusted to Ransomes manufacture of the heavy engineering components for both instruments.

Airy_altaz.gif Fig. 1. Airy's Altazimuth Instrument as depicted in Edwin Dunkin's The Midnight Sky5.

Airy_transit.jpg Fig. 2. Making an observation with the Airy Transit Circle6 as depicted in the Illustrated London News 11 December 1880.

Temperance_Hall.gif Fig. 3. The former Ipswich Temperance Hall in Crown Street7. (By kind permission of Mr David Kindred.)


I am grateful to the following for help in preparing this article: Dr Allan Chapman, Gilbert Satterthwaite, Garry Coleman, David Kindred, Bill Barton and members of the Ipswich Society.


  1. Lectures on Astronomy by the Astronomer Royal, Simpkin & Marshall, 1865.
  2. Popular Astronomy, Macmillan, 1895.
  3. Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy, compiled by Wilfrid Airy and published by Cambridge University Press, 1896.
  4. Greenwich Observatory, Volume 3, The Buildings and Instruments, Derek Howse, 1975.
  5. The Ipswich Journal March 1848 - various reports.
  6. The Suffolk Chronicle March 1848 - various reports.



Ipswich Museum was founded in 1846 and opened in 1847 in Museum Street, Ipswich (then newly laid-out), with the specific remit to educate the working classes in natural history. From 1847 to 1853 it was run by a committee on behalf of subscribers but, after failing financially, it was adopted by the Ipswich Corporation in 1853 under the provisions of the beetle tax. The Museum moved to its present location in High Street in the 1870s.


The instrument was used to define the zero meridian of the world.


There is a copy of Popular Astronomy available for consultation (but not for loan) in the OASI library.


The naming of editions and reprints of Popular Astronomy was confused in the nineteenth century, but this is the best information to hand:

The 1880-87 reprints of the sixth edition have sometimes been described as the tenth, eleventh and twelfth editions, but this is probably due to overzealous booksellers, as the Turner revision is described on the title verso as the seventh edition, and lists the earlier ones as reprints. So if we accept the normal definition of an edition, there were seven; but in terms of printings, there were at least fourteen.


Dunkin provides a somewhat exaggerated view: that there were never more than two persons in the dome at one time and there certainly was not the working space that the image shows!


This is the second instrument that Airy alluded to in the introduction to his first Ipswich Lecture.


This is the only known image of the former Ipswich Temperance Hall in Crown Street, at the junction with High Street. It was taken in March 1963, just a few weeks before the building was demolished to make way for modern office buildings. The Hall was built to remedy a growing problem of late-night drunkenness and disorder around the town centre. Towards the end of the 19th century, it was sold to George Abbott Ltd and became known as the Crown Iron Works. The company produced a range of domestic cooking stoves at its foundry there well into the 1950s: the original facade of the Temperance Hall can be seen behind the rather gaudy front extension erected by Abbotts.

Ken Goward, FRAS