Smyth, William Henry 1788 - 1865

English; British

(1788-1865), Admiral, scientist and antiquary

Admiral William Henry Smyth (1788-1865) was born in London on 21st January 1788. 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 and 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. 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 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.

In 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. Moving to Stone near Aylesbury in 1842, he still had the opportunity to use the telescope since his residence 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. He died on 8th September 1865.