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William Henry Smyth

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Admiral William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) was an English sailor, hydrographer, astronomer and numismatist.

1788 January 21st. He was born at 42 Great Peter Street, Westminster, London, the only son of Joseph Brewer Palmer Smyth and Georgina Caroline Pitt Pilkington, granddaughter of the Irish writer Laetitia Pilkington who was a protégée of Jonathan Swift. His father was a colonial American who lived in East Jersey. He was an English loyalist, however, and after the American Revolution emigrated to England where his son was born shortly before Joseph died. His half brother was the famous painter and traveller Augustus Earle. Early in his navel career, Smyth sought and was given permission by Lord Exmouth to allow his half brother Augustus passage through the Mediterranean aboard the RN naval gunship that he commanded & which was part of Admiral Exmouth Royal Navy fleet.

In 1802, at the age of 14, young William Henry ran away to sea from life in a succession of London boarding houses, joining a merchant vessel which later was taken over by the Royal Navy.

During the Napoleonic wars he served in the Mediterranean, earning the nickname "Mediterranean Smyth" for his survey work - his charts of the Mediterranean were still in use in 1961.

During a hydrographic survey in 1817 he met the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in Palermo, Sicily, and visited his observatory; this sparked his interest in astronomy.

1815 October 7th. He married Eliza Anne "Annarella" Warington in Messina

Smyth and Annarella had eleven children between 1816 and 1835. Their three sons were Charles Piazzi Smyth, Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth and General Sir Henry Augustus Smyth. Of their eight daughters, two died young, a third "married and died" aged 20, another also died at 20, unmarried, and another unmarried at 25, of diphtheria. Their other three daughters were Henrietta Grace, who married Rev. Professor Baden Powell and was mother of nine, including Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell (often referred to as "B-P"); while Georgiana Rosetta married Sir William Henry Flower and had seven children; and Ellen Philedelphia, who married Capt. Henry Toynbee and sailed out to Australia as a young bride in 1855. She died childless in 1881 aged 52 after a long illness.

In 1825, having achieved the rank of Admiral, Smyth effectively retired from the Navy (Admirals never retired in those days, remaining on the Active List until death) and established a private observatory in Bedford, England, equipped with a 5.9-inch refractor telescope. He used this instrument to observe a variety of deep sky objects over the course of the 1830s, including double stars, star clusters and nebulae.

He published his observations in 1844 in the Cycle of Celestial Objects, which earned him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1845 and also the presidency of the society. The first volume of this work was on general astronomy, but the second volume became known as the Bedford Catalogue [2] and contained Smyth's observations of 1,604 double stars and nebulae. It served as a standard reference work for many years afterward; no astronomer had previously made as extensive a catalogue of dim objects such as this.

1839 Having completed his observations, Smyth moved to Cardiff to supervise the construction of the Bute Dock which he had designed. His observatory was dismantled and the telescope was sold to Dr John Lee and re-erected in a new observatory of Smyth's own design at Hartwell House nearby.

1842 Smyth moved to Stone near Aylesbury, and still had the opportunity to use the telescope since his residence at St. John's Lodge was not far from its new location, and he performed a large number of additional astronomical observations from 1839 to 1859.

Smyth was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1826. A lunar mare was named Mare Smythii in his honour.

1865 September 8th. Died. Smyth suffered a heart attack at his home near Aylesbury in early September, 1865, and at first seemed to recover. On 8 September he showed the planet Jupiter to his young grandson, Arthur Smyth Flower, through a telescope. A few hours later in the early morning of 9 September, at age 78, he died. He was buried in the churchyard at Stone near Aylesbury.


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