Airy | Sir | George Biddell | 1801-1892 | astronomer royal

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

George Biddell Airy (1801-1892), an astronomer royal, was influenced in childhood by his educated uncle Arthur Biddell, whose library probably introduced Airy to the sciences. With support from his uncle - and his own hard work (he was a sizar - a student who works as a servant in order to qualify for reduced fees), he was able to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with the top first class degree.

Airy had a long-running feud with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) during his career, over a chair which Airy won at Babbage's expense. Their bickering led to a number of controversies - not always linked to science, in which the two opposed each other. While Airy usually won these disputes, it is far from clear that he was usually right.

Airy was an authoritarian astronomer royal, and though he was clearly talented, some have suggested his principal gift was making others work - "Airy was not a great scientist, but he made great science possible." During his tenure, no young astronomers were trained at the observatory, because he could not tolerate opinions diverging from his own. His personal contributions to the science were relatively minor - mostly accurate data and corrections of the work of previous scientists - most famously Jean-Baptiste Delambre's (1749-1822) work on the relative motion of Venus and the Earth.

As astronomer royal, he built the Airy Transit Circle, which defines the exact position of the Greenwich meridian.


Airy had a long-running feud with Charles Babbage (1791-1871) .

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Mathematical Tracts on Physical Astronomy, the Figure of the Earth, Precession and Nutation (1826)

Gravitation: an Elementary Explanation of the Principal Perturburances in the Solar System (1834)

Six Lectures on Astronomy (1849)

A Treatise on Trigonometry (1855)

On the Algebraical and Numerical Theory of Errors of Observation and the Combination of Observations (1861)

An Elementary Treatise on Partial Differential Equations (1866)

On Sound and Atmospheric Vibrations, With the Mathematical Elements of Music (1868)

A Treatise on Magnetism (1870)

Undulatory Theory of Optics (1877)

Numerical Lunar Theory (1886)

Autobiography of Sir George Airy (1896)

Interests and activities:

Airy suffered from astigmatism. He invented the cylindrical lens to correct this eye defect.

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1823: Awarded Smith Prize

1824: Elected Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge

1826: Appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, University of Cambridge

1826: Appointed to the Board of Longitude

1828: Appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

1828: Appointed Director of the Cambridge Observatory

1831: Awarded Copley Medal of the Royal Society

1835: Appointed Astronomer Royal

1835: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1836: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1844: Awarded Doctor of Laws (DCL) Degree, University of Oxford

1845: Awarded Royal Medal of the Royal Society

1845: Elected President, Royal Astronomical Society

1851: Elected President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

1862: Awarded Doctor of Laws (LLD) Degree, University of Cambridge

1871: Elected President, Royal Society

1872: Awarded Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB)


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of scientific biography, vol I, (New York , Scribner's, 1970)

University of St Andrews, George Biddell Airy, ( of St Andrews, May 2001)