William Henry Smyth

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William Henry Smyth (21 January 1788 – 8 September 1865) was an English sailor and astronomer.


Private Life

He was born in Westminster, London. He was the only son of Joseph Smyth and Georgina Caroline Pitt Pilkington, granddaughter of the Irish writer Laetitia Pilkington who was a protégéé 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.

He 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.

He had married Eliza Anne "Annarella" Warington in 1815. He was the father of Charles Piazzi Smyth, Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth and General Sir Henry Augustus Smyth. Of his daughters, Henrietta Grace Smyth married Professor Baden Powell and was mother of Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, while Georgiana Rosetta Smyth married Sir William Henry Flower.


Smyth joined the Royal Navy and during the Napoleonic wars he served in the Mediterranean, eventually achieving the rank of Admiral. 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 and in 1825 he retired from the Navy to establish 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.

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