Royal Greenwich Observatory

The ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ Project has received many collections for digitisation since it began. One such collection is the sound archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), currently housed within the Cambridge University Archives. This collection has a vast range of interviews and recordings that give an insight into the work of RGO, its employees, and its history. In it you will find interviews with some famous names in astronomy, including Sir Richard Woolley and Sir Bernard Lovell who both served the position of Astronomer Royal. In addition to well-known names, the collection has interviews with a wide range of staff of the Observatory and from it we can get a first-hand glimpse into the history and changes that RGO went through over the years.

The Royal Observatory itself was originally founded in 1675 by King Charles II on Greenwich Hill, London. John Flamsteed (the first King’s Astronomical Observer, later to be known as Astronomer Royal) started construction of the site the next year. The original aim of the Observatory was to reduce the number of shipwrecks, as boats were able to find their latitude coordinates but not longitude. The Observatory did this initially by producing star maps, before solving the problem by ensuring that all ships kept clocks on board set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), allowing ships to calculate their location themselves. When docked nearby, boats would use the RGO clock on Greenwich Hill to put their own clocks right in order to ensure accuracy.

The collection holds many accounts of work done at RGO and its various departments, from people who worked in the workshops, to members of the Time Department as well as the more commonly known areas of astronomical research. This brief clip from the collection gives a good explanation of why RGO began and why it was so vital.

A great interview in the collection is with Cynthia Joy Penny. Miss Penny worked for the Observatory from the Second World War to 1976 when she took early retirement having reached the position of senior scientist. She started in the RGO reserve station in Edinburgh, where readings were taken in case there should be a problem at the main station in London. In 1946 she moved to the station in Abinger, Surrey, before finally moving to the Greenwich site. Throughout her career she saw many changes in leadership and location and has some interesting tales to tell about her time at the Observatory. In one clip Miss Penny explains the method of the Greenwich Time Ball, a public time signal developed in 1833. The Time Ball was created to act as a visible signal to ships docked nearby that the time is exactly 13:00. The ball rises a mast on Flamsteed House in Greenwich Park just before 13:00, and then drops at the precise moment of 13:00. The Greenwich Time Ball still functions today and can be seen by visitors. Miss Penny also recalls a day when the ball malfunctioned, and how the staff had to leap into action.

Although called the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the main site did not always remain in Greenwich. In the 1920s, train lines were electrified which caused havoc with RGO magnetic work, so the Magnetic and Meteorological Departments were moved to the site at Abinger. Then, when the threat of war hung over Britain, most of the remaining departments were also moved from London to Abinger. Greenwich was kept as a reserve station, but as Dr Alan Hunter explains in the following clip, when bombing started, it was realised that Greenwich was too risky a place, and so Edinburgh became the reserve station.

After the war, the whole Observatory was then moved to Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex, as observing conditions at Greenwich were no longer good enough due to smog and light pollution.

The smog was not helped by a policy which had been introduced to encourage factories to put out as much dirt as possible into the atmosphere to obscure London from the air during the war, as Dr Alan Hunter explained. Humphrey Smith, former head of the Time-Department, worked for the Observatory since the war, in post through the moves to Abinger and Herstmonceux. There are interviews with Humphrey Smith that go into brilliant detail about his work and the changes in the Observatory over time, including construction of the new site at Herstmonceux.

The Observatory was funded by the Admiralty from 1818 until 1965 when it was taken over by the Science Research Council. There are several interviews in the collection with staff who worked at the Observatory at that time and there were differing opinions on this development. Humphrey Smith and Miss Penny discusses the changes once the SRC became involved, including the loss of the title of Astronomer Royal. A petition was sent to the Queen and a meeting was held with Margaret Thatcher in opposition of the development as they felt it would lead to a downgrading of the importance of the Observatory. In 1972, the title became honorary only and the day-to-day running of the Observatory fell to a new role that was created of Observatory Director. One main project for the director was setting up the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, a new site on the island of La Palma, Spain built to house the Isaac Newton Telescope which had previously been situated at the Herstmonceux site.

The audio collection has many recordings in relation to the establishment of the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory which make for very interesting listening.

The collection has a whole range of clips about different events and projects carried out by the RGO. Whilst not everyone may have heard of the RGO, we have all felt its influence, whether by hearing the six short tones of the Greenwich Time Signal broadcast on BBC radio (pips), or by using GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). It is amusing to note some things never change – as the future of changing the clocks forward and back seems up in the air at present, there is an interesting discussion about the origin of the clock change in 1916 to save electricity.

Although the RGO officially shut down in 1998, the legacy is still here and this collection helps to bring that alive. Anyone interested in astronomy or the history of science in the UK would find this series of recordings fascinating, especially as they capture the thoughts and memories of experts in the field at the time.




Written and researched by Alexandra Minns, an Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project volunteer at Norfolk Record Office.


Clips discussed in blog post:

RGO-86-4-13: Dr. Alan Hunter Interview on Astronomy, Part 1

RGO/86/4/14: Interview with Miss Cynthia Penny

RGO/86/4/18/1-5: Interview with H. M. Smith


Other sources:

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2 Responses to Royal Greenwich Observatory

  1. su denne says:

    stumbled across this site, amazing, hearing my Grandfather’s voice (Humphrey smith) bought a few tears.


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