English astronomer. He installed a transit telescope at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, and accurately measured Greenwich Mean Time by the stars as they crossed the meridian. Knighted in 1872.
Airy became the seventh Astronomer Royal in 1835. He began the distribution of Greenwich time signals by telegraph, and Greenwich Mean Time as measured by Airy's telescope was adopted as legal time in Britain in 1880.
Airy was born in Alnwick, Northumberland, and studied mathematics at Cambridge, where he became professor of mathematics 1826 and of astronomy 1828.
As director of the Cambridge Observatory, he introduced a much improved system of meridian observations and set the example of reducing them in scale before publishing them. As Astronomer Royal, in 1847 he had erected the alt-azimuth (an instrument he devised to calculate altitude and azimuth) for observing the Moon in every part of the sky. Other innovations included photographic registration (1848), transits timed by electricity (1854), spectroscopic observations (from 1868), and a daily round of sunspots using the Kew heliograph (1873).
Airy's mathematical skills were used in establishing the border between Canada and the USA and the boundaries of the states of Oregon and Maine. His scientific expertise was also called on during the launch of the steamship Great Eastern, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable, and the construction of the chimes of the clock in the tower of the Houses of Parliament (‘Big Ben’).
His Mathematical Tracts on Physical Astronomy 1826 became a standard work.
Airy, George Biddell
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