The Nautical Almanac & Its Superintendents

1892: A. M. W. Downing, Superintendent 1892-1910

Arthur Matthew Weld Downing
Arthur Matthew Weld Downing

© British Astronomical Association

Arthur Matthew Weld Downing (1850-1917), born in County Carlow, and educated at Trinity College Dublin, specialising in mathematics. In 1872 he successfully won an open competition held under the Civil Service Commission for the post as an assistant at the Royal Observatory. He first made himself known after he wrote a short note entitled "A Determination of the Semi-diameter of Venus at the mean distance of the Sun from the Earth" that was published (1877) in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). He was editor of the Observatory from 1885 to 1887 [6], and Secretary of the RAS from 1889 to 1892. His resignation as Secretary being due to his appointment as Superintendent on January 1st, 1891, and his thorough knowledge of fundamental astronomy clearly fitted him for his position. His obituary states:

Here began his real life-work [when appointed Superintendent], for which his natural bent, his education at Dublin, and his experience at Greenwich had admirably fitted him. The quiet, withdrawn, old-world corner of Gray's Inn, the responsible routine of the computations for the "Seaman's Bible", varying so little from one year to another, were exactly fitted to his temperament. Of undoubted ability, shrewd, determined, and far seeing, and possessed of a great amount of energy, the Nautical Almanac was in safe keeping in his hands, and during the years he held the post his mental alertness suggested a number of alterations and improvements which he carried out most successfully. In particular he greatly increased the number of "Nautical Almanac Stars", earning thereby the gratitude alike of astronomers, seamen, and surveyors. Under his hand also additions were made to the section of planetary satellites, and physical ephemerides of planets were introduced. On the other hand, he witnessed the demise of "Lunar Distances", that hoary method that had well served its day and generation.

Methodical himself in all his work, punctilious and careful, cautious and straightforward in all official matters, he set the highest value on the work of his staff, and as a trained practical observer knew how to insist on the need for extreme accuracy throughout the various calculations. His extensive command of dates and figures did not, however, always save him from an occasional blunder, and it was a joke against him that on one occasion he dated a cheque two years ahead ... [3].

Total Solar Eclipse 1896 August 9
Total Solar Eclipse


Downing played an important role in the founding of the British Astronomical Association, being its second President. He was Secretary and organiser of its first eclipse expedition to Vadsö (Norway) to observe the total eclipse of the Sun on 9th August 1896. It was cloudy! His interest in eclipses started the production of circulars giving local circumstances and other helpful data for observers.

His obituary also records that in addition to his "strictly official work" he also dealt with queries relating to chronology, calendar, eclipses, astronomical constants and kindred matters. An example given in his obituary:

... the exact time of some full Moon of a quarter of a century ago [a few days ago I was asked for the date of full Moon in June 1749]; its age on the night of the Gunpowder Plot. ... Every inquiry of a sensible character received prompt attention, and even faddists and cranks were kindly dealt with when their peculiarities were confined within certain prescribed limits. [3]

Altogether, including the three years he was Secretary, he served on the RAS Council for nineteen years, and was Vice-President for two years. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1896.

Downing introduced many improvements into the Almanac, such as those suggested by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1891, as the opportunities arose. In the 1896 edition of the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris, the first edition of the Almanac for which he was responsible, he completely reorganized the content into two parts. Part I, contained the data that were needed by navigators at sea for the determination of their position, which would be published separately so that seamen would not need to pay for, or carry Part II. While, Part II contained the high-precision data for the use of astronomers.

In his obituary a member of his staff said: "he was at all times fair, courteous and considerate; he always consulted the interests of his staff and was in every worthy movement a sympathetic helper". [3]


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