Today we launch the first of a series of 26 mini blog posts featuring items from the Whipple Library’s special collections which will be published weekly through the spring and summer and into the early autumn 2016. The series will showcase some of the variety and breadth of our collections by selecting notable authors, topics and associations in a roll call of examples spanning the alphabet. Members of the Library staff team have selected from a range of favourite, representative and more unusual items to write about and will be sharing their thoughts each week via the Whipple Library Books Blog. Follow our progress over at or via Twitter (@hpslib) by searching for the hashtag #whippleAZ.

A is for…Airy and Astronomical Observations

As Plumian Professor of Astronomy and director of the Cambridge Observatory, George Biddell Airy set the example for recording observations and reducing them for publication with his Astronomical Observations made at the Observatory of Cambridge, also known as the Cambridge Observations. Airy’s system became the standard for Cambridge and later for Greenwich when he became Astronomer Royal, and influenced the practice of other observatories in Britain and abroad.

1-Cambridge Observations

The Whipple’s collection of 20 volumes, published between 1829 and 1864, not only documents the beginnings of Airy’s project and its continuation under his successor James Challis, but also indicates the circulation of these publications. 17 of the Whipple’s volumes are addressed to Captain W.H. Smyth, naval officer, surveyor and well regarded amateur astronomer who built and equipped an observatory at Bedford. The volumes are variously addressed to him as from the University of Cambridge, from the Syndicate of the Cambridge Observatory, or even directly from the author (6 from Airy). William Henry Smyth was in fact a friend of Airy’s and was mentioned in his autobiography.

The other 3 volumes in the collection, dated between 1846 and 1864, were presented by the Syndicate to Smyth’s son, Professor C.P. Smyth. In 1846 Charles Piazzi Smyth became Astronomer Royal for Scotland where he set to work reducing the observations of his predecessor Thomas Henderson for publication of the Edinburgh Astronomical Observations, a series that followed in the footsteps of Airy’s model.

6-From the Syndicate to C.P. (vol.20)Volume20


Clare Matthews, Library Assistant