John Who? The sixth Astronomer Royal

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Because of the recent anniversary, the last few posts have focused on Nevil Maskelyne, 5th Astronomer Royal and a key player in the Board of Longitude. However, 2011 also inevitably marks 200 years since the appointment of Maskelyne's successor.


This was John Pond (bap. 1767- d. 1836). He is not, it has to be said, one of the better-known tenants of Flamsteed House, being generally considered as the filling between the tenures of Maskelyne and George Airy. (For some reason, the reputations of the Astronomers Royal have this alternating tendency, often reflecting the length of their service: something that William Christie found rather convenient when putting the names of his predecessors in the decoration of his new Physical Observatory. He could keep a chronological order and still have the most worthy - Flamsteed, Bradley, Maskleyne, Airy - on the end walls of the four wings.)


Pond feels the more obscure because we don't know what he looks like: the image that has traditionally been called his turns out to be another John Pond, the livery-stable keeper of Newmarket and compiler of the Racing Calendar. Our Pond was also the first Astronomer Royal to retire before his death, not merely for reasons of ill health (Bradley and Bliss both managed to retain their positions through periods of prolonged absence and/or illness) but as a result of criticisms from the scientific community regarding the disordered running of the Observatory and for inaccuracies in the Royal Observatory's published observations.B0669.JPG


No, not that John Pond (NMM ref: ZBA0663)


Given these criticisms, it's ironic that Pond came to prominence because he had demonstrated the existence of inaccuracies in Greenwich Observations. His analysis, read at the Royal Society in 1806, showed that the mural quadrant at Greenwich had become deformed. It impressed enough to earn him an invitation to advise the Observatory's Board of Visitors. The next year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and from 1808 he was a regular lecturer at the Royal Institution, having become friends with Humphry Davy. Maskelyne himself was impressed by Pond's skills as a practical astronomer, and it appears that he was soon lined up as a successor. Pond was offered the job, apparently without competition, and was installed at Greenwich by 13 April 1811. In office, his careful observations and technical innovations gave a new level of accuracy to the work done at Greenwich. Pond's magnum opus was an admired catalogue of 1113 stars, published in 1833. He was also in office when the Observatory's work expanded so much that the staff increased from one to six. What went wrong?


The chief answer would appear to be his bad health, which had interrupted, or ended, his Cambridge studies, and caused recurring problems throughout the rest of his life. (A nice comment from his friend, the instrument-maker Edward Troughton was that "a new instrument was at all times a better cordial for the astronomer-royal than any which the doctor could supply".) However, according to the obituary written for the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Pond was "subject to very painful and harassing complaints", which probably referred both to illness and the disputes and criticisms that dogged him.


One of these was a protracted quarrel with John Brinkely, professor of astronomy in Dublin, over the measurement of stellar parallaxes. While Brinkely was the superior mathematician, Pond's better observing meant that he was able to cast doubt on Brinkely's claims to have measured parallax. However, real criticism of Pond arose as a result of his management of the Observatory and the Greenwich Observations, the accuracy of which had implications for the Nautical Almanac. In particular, Stephen Lee, assistant secretary to the Royal Society, pointed out inconsistencies and charged Pond with incompetence. A committee was set up to investigate - it exonerated Pond, but he had admitted his "little want of vigilance as an editor", and mud has a habit of sticking.


There is also the sense that history took place around Pond, for he was caught in the middle of the significant battles taking place at this time between old elites and new. At stake was influence with government and a role in dispensing patronage for science. Key battlegrounds were the Royal Society, the Board of Longitude and production of the Nautical Almanac. The old guard has been identified as a coterie, largely formed around the dominant figure of Joseph Banks, and dominant within the Royal Society's Council and the Admiralty. Many of the self-identified reformers were associated with the Astronomical Society, founded in 1820.


Banks was furious when Pond joined the Astronomicals and ordered him to resign. Pond refused, but he was in a strange position. He was an employee of the Admiralty, and answerable to the Board of Visitors, which was essentially a Royal Society committee and thus very much under the influence of the Royal Society-Admiralty coterie. Yet they were out of sympathy with Pond, for his links with the reformers and, as his obituarist suggested, a lack of understanding of the work performed by a practical astronomer like Pond. It is interesting that he had to insist that the new assistants that the Admiralty provided were not over-qualified for the routine work they would undertake at Greenwich.


There's much work to be done to understand how this battle played out within the Board of Longitude and the Royal Observatory. The scientific empire of the Admiralty expanded significantly after 1818 - not only with new assistants at Greenwich but also with an expanded remit and budget for the Board of Longitude and, linked to both, a new Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. It is not yet clear exactly whose vision this expansion was, and to what extent someone like Pond was, or could be, influential.


The old guard, responsible for this growth, had lost the battle by the 1830s, by which time fellows of the Astronomical Society were gaining influence in the Royal Society and the Board of Visitors, redefining production of the Nautical Almanac along the way. That they did not also gain control of the Board of Longitude was only due to the fact that it had already been abolished. Allegedly for financial reasons, it is perhaps more likely that this was the old guard's last laugh: the one thing that they managed to pull out from under the feet of the Astronomicals.


Pond was not able to play a role these changes. His last years were marred by much ill-health and prolonged absence from Greenwich, and the Observatory was left in control of his first assistant, Thomas Taylor, whose alcoholism did little to secure the good management of the Observatory. Pond resigned on 30 September 1835 and died a year later. However, let the last word go to his obituarist, probably his successor Airy, and on the subject of Pond's greatest talent: "It is not too much to say, that meridian sideral observation ... owes more to him that to all his countrymen put together, since the time of Bradley." Sources