When Life Interrupts Science: Precarity, Pranks, and Discipline at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

The following is a piece I wrote last month to accompany my latest article in the British Journal of the History of Science about astronomy at Greenwich Observatory in the 19th century. Read on to learn more:

Astronomy at the Royal Observatory was a complicated endeavour in the nineteenth century, and not just because of the complex science that it entailed. Observatory staff had to navigate social and political problems alongside scientific ones: like the challenges of environmental degradation, clandestine servant romances, bomb threats, and mischievous pranks pulled by boy computers.

The observatory’s physical and social structures were designed to mitigate these challenges. The observatory walls, for example, were built to keep out the public. They could not, however, keep out air pollution which clouded the telescopes’ view of the stars, nor the unbearable smell of sheep grazing nearby, as Astronomer Royal George Airy complained in 1878. Children climbed over the walls to raid apples from the gardens. Maids’ romantic interests snuck in to visit their sweethearts.

On top of this, the observatory staff, the largest portion of whom were adolescent boys hired to do computational work, had to be managed too. Airy worked hard to deskill their positions, turning the observatory into a sort of factory, with careful supervision and rote formulas to reduce human error. Discipline ensured that Greenwich’s scientific output could be trusted – a vitally important thing for the institution which supplied the British public and Navy with its timekeeping. Through its time service, Greenwich was an enabler of empire.

But the boy computers were not automatons. They had their own agency, and lived complex lives while working at Greenwich. They navigated the precarity and low pay of their position. Some were let go for falling ill, while others were injured in workplace incidents, like when a chronometer testing oven exploded in 1901. They wrote to the newspapers to advocate for better working conditions. But they also found opportunities for play – they joined hockey clubs, and played pranks on each other and on senior staff. Their scientific work mingled with their social and domestic lives.

The story of life at Greenwich reminds us that the sciences are not separate from social life, even in austere institutions like the Royal Observatory. Discipline and order (designed to instil trust in the institution), were met with personal agency and disorder, as life, love, and the pursuit of worker dignity shaped the actions of the observatory’s young employees and neighbours.

I think their story is an important one. You can read more about it in my new article “Managing the observatory: discipline, order and disorder at Greenwich, 1835–1933,” British Journal for the History of Science.

Image Credit: The Royal Observatory, Greenwich by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1824 (Wikimedia Commons).

*A version of this blog post was first published on Cambridge Core.

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