A PERSONAL HISTORY OF
THE ROYAL GREENWICH OBSERVATORY
AT HERSTMONCEUX CASTLE, 1948-1990

By George A. Wilkins

Photo of George A. Wilkins

George Wilkins 1991 May 28

© GAW

The author of this account of the activities of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex was a member of the staff of the Observatory from October 1951 until his retirement in July 1989. Throughout that time he was on the staff of H M Nautical Almanac Office (NAO) and he became its Superintendent in 1970. He became Head of the Almanacs and Time Division in 1974 and so became responsible for the oversight of the work of the Time Department and later of the Libraries and Archives. He participated in many international activities and served, for example, as President of the Commission of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) on Ephemerides and as Chairman of the IAU Working Group Numerical Data. He became Chairman of the IAU Working Group on the Determination of the Rotation of the Earth that led to the establishment of the International Earth Rotation Service in 1988. He also served as President of the IAU Commission on Documentation and Astronomical Data.

The account covers the period from the transfer of the Royal Observatory from Greenwich to Herstmonceux until the transfer to Cambridge in 1990. It gives a general account of the changes in the character of the work of the Observatory from long-term astronomical programmes to research projects that often used telescopes in South Africa and the USA, and then to the provision and support of observing facilities for university use on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. No attempt is made to describe in detail or to evaluate the research and technical developments outside the fields of interest of the author. It does, however, discuss the work of the NAO in the 1950s and then the introduction and subsequent development of the use of electronic computers. The introduction in the 1980s of satellite laser ranging to supersede the traditional activities of the Time Department is also described.

This is a 'personal' account in two senses. Firstly, it describes the formal and informal conditions of service of the staff, including the off-duty social and sporting activities. It gives information about the changes in duties and promotions of many individuals as the work of the Observatory changed. Secondly, it has an autobiographical thread as it mentions the principal activities of the author and of the many organisations in which he was involved throughout his career. It also includes some of his personal views on some of the decisions that transformed the character and work of the Observatory.

A copy of this history is on deposit in the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives located with the Scientific Manuscripts Collections of the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives of Cambridge University Library. The copyright conditions are stated on page 2 of the Preliminaries i.e. on the reverse title page.

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