Correspondence of Professor Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-498
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      circa 21 letters Access to records in a fragile condition may be restricted.
  • Location
      Dc.2.58; Dc.3.99/6, ff.1-28; Gen 748*; Gen. 1732 Smyth

Scope and Content

The collection of correspondence includes: letters to D. R. Hay, 1849-1860; letters to J. Lee, 1849-1853; letter to John Hartnup about earth temperatures, 1869; and, letters to the Secretary of the Senatus, Edinburgh University, 1870, 1871

Administrative / Biographical History

The astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth was born in Naples on 3 January 1819. He was educated in Bedford and in 1835 became an Assistant at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. There he observed Halley's Comet in 1836 and co-operated with Sir Thomas Maclear (1794-1879) in the re-measurement and extension of Lacaille's arc. Smyth was Astronomer-Royal for Scotland between 1845 and 1888. In 1852 he organised time-signalling by the dropping of a ball on the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, improved in 1861 to a time-gun fired from Edinburgh Castle. It involved a signal being sent along a 4,000-foot steel cable - laid by sailors from Leith in just two days - to the gun at Edinburgh Castle. (Today, simultaneous with the firing of the gun, a signal ball still drops from the mast atop the Nelson Monument). In 1851, Smyth was in Sweden to witness a total eclipse of the sun, and 1856 he was on Tenerife experimenting with a telescope. In 1857 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. A visit to Russia - visiting observatories - followed in 1859, and in the 1860s he visited Egypt and surveyed the Pyramids. Other activities included: work in spectroscopy; the study of telluric absorption; the construction of a map of the solar spectrum; work with Professor Alexander Herschel on the harmonic character of the carbonic-oxide spectrum; the measuring of the 'citron-ray' of the aurora; gathering meteorological data; the construction of a large solar chart; and, the study of cloud forms using photography. Charles Piazzi Smyth died on 21 February 1900.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letter to Hartnup, purchased November 1974, Accession no. E74.35.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney. (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol.22. Supplement. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show other references to Smyth related material (check the Indexes for more details): letters to Sir C. Lyell, 1858-1859, at Gen. 108 onwards; letter to P. G. Tait, 1883, at Gen. 2169/174; and, letter to Smyth from Sir G. B. Airy, Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 1849, at Gen. 1730-1732. In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes several locations of Smyth related material.