Charles Piazzi Smyth, was born in Naples Italy in January 1819. He was the son of a Royal Navy Admiral, William Henry Smyth, something of an eccentric and a keen amateur astronomer.
After an illustrious career in the Royal Navy ,William was paid off in 1824. He came to live in The Crescent, Bedford where he built a well equipped private observatory and sent the young Charles to be educated at the Grammar School. In 1839 William left the town to head the project to build new Docks in Cardiff and did not return. His observatory was sold off. He finally retired to Stone in Buckinghamshire where he died in 1885
At the age of 16, son Charles went out to South Africa to work with MacLear whom he had known in Bedford and became closely involved in the observation and tracking of Halley’s Comet in 1835 and the Great Comet in 1843. Smyth’s calculations regarding the precise scale and angles of the various levels of the Great Pyramid at Giza are still referred to and used as a formula by mathematicians undertaking similar work today
In 1846 he returned to the United Kingdom to become Astronomer Royal For Scotland where he enhanced his professional reputation and was also responsible for the placing of the time ball on the top of Nelson’s Monument at the Calton Hill Observatory in Edinburgh together with the firing of the one 0’clock gun every day at the Castle, both in order to assist seafarers in Leith Docks and the Firth of Forth to synchronize their chronometers. Smyth also pioneered the use of stereoscopic pictures in books to illustrate his findings.
The weather conditions in Edinburgh were however so poor as to cause Smyth to have to undertake much of his work in the Canary Islands where visibility was much better.
The Royal Observatory in Edinburgh also appears to have been constantly underfunded and after a series of protracted disputes Charles Smyth resigned in 1888, citing the lack of funding as his reason and he retired to Ripon where he died in February 1900.
Text kindly submitted by Trevor Stewart