Arthur Matthew Weld Downing

Quick Info

13 April 1850
Carlow, Ireland
8 December 1917
London, England

Arthur Downing was trained as a mathematician at Trinity College, Dublin before spending half his career at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and half as Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac.


Arthur Downing was the son of Arthur Matthew Downing (1810-1894) and Mary Weld (1817-1894). Matthew Downing, described as "of independent means", had married Mary Weld on 31 July 1839 at Rathfarnham Church, near Dublin, Ireland. Matthew and Mary Downing had five children: Samuel Forbes Downing (1844-1891), Christina Sophia Downing (1849-1932) Arthur Matthew Weld Downing (1850-1917), the subject of this biography, Mabel H Downing (1853-), and Bella Downing.

Downing was educated at Nutgrove School which had been established in 1802 but closed down in 1876 when the premises became a private residence. The principal of Nutgrove School at this time was Philip Jones. He graduated in 1866 and, in November of that year, he began studying at Trinity College, Dublin. His uncle, Samuel Downing (1811-1882), was Professor of Engineering at Trinity College, Dublin at this time. Samuel Downing had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a B.A. in 1834, then going to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he had studied natural philosophy. Appointed as an assistant to the Professor of Engineering at Trinity College, Dublin in 1847, he succeeded to the chair five years later. Arthur Downing specialised in mathematics, was awarded a science scholarship for session 1870-71, and graduated with a B.A. towards the end of 1871. In his final year he was awarded the Gold Medal in mathematics.

James Carpenter (1840-1899) was an assistant to George Airy at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and in 1871 co-authored the book The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite with the engineer James Nasmyth (1808-1890). Carpenter resigned his position at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, shortly after publishing this book and Downing was one of those who applied to fill the vacant post. Downing was offered the position of Second Class Assistant and took up his duties at Greenwich on 17 January 1873. We note that the grade of Second Class Assistant had been created in 1871 and, from 1872, it was filled by competitive examinations organised by the Civil Service [5]:-
The character of the position which he thus won was entirely congenial to him, his somewhat reserved nature and methodical habits finding satisfaction in the retired life and orderly routine of the Observatory. His mathematical tastes led him to find pleasure in computations, and during the greater part of his nineteen years at Greenwich the reductions of the Circle observations, and, later, those of the Altazimuth and Equatorial observations, were carried out by him or under his superintendence. For over ten years the care of the library and manuscripts was also in his hands, and for nearly the whole of his time at the Observatory he was one of the four regular observers with the Transit-Circle and Altazimuth.
Two years after he took up this position, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 12 March 1875.

On 13 September 1877, Downing married Ellen Jane Miller at Clooney Church, Londonderry, Ireland. Ellen Jane (1844-1931) had been born on 1 November 1844 in Cookstown, Tyrone, Ireland, the daughter of the solicitor Robert Miller (1806-1865) and Marion Phillips (1805-1862). Arthur and Ellen Jane Downing had one child, a daughter Mabel Katherine Downing who was baptised on 21 August 1878 in Greenwich. Mabel Katherine Downing married the medical doctor Arthur Forbes Elliott in 1904.

Downing began publishing papers in 1877 and by the following year had around a dozen notes and papers in print. These include: A Determination of the Semi-diameter of Venus at the mean distance of the Sun from the Earth (1877); The Proper Motions of certain Stars in the Greenwich Seven-Year Catalogue for 1864 (1878); On the Probable Errors of Transits of the First and Second Limbs of the Sun, observed by the Chronographic Method (1878); The Proper Motions of the Edinburgh Star Catalogue (1878); The Pulkowa double star observations (Part1 and Part 2) (1878). For short extracts from these five publications, see THIS LINK.

Let us make two observations. The first is that he writes from two different addresses, namely 22 Waterloo Road, Dublin and 3 Park Terrace, Greenwich. Our second observation is to remark how the young astronomer, just starting out on his career, is prepared to praise or criticise leading astronomers. For example he gives much praise to Otto Struve (1819-1905) calling him "the able and energetic Director of the Imperial Observatory at Pulkowa" but Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, is heavily criticised with Downing writing, "If these are fair samples of Professor Smyth's work it appears that much reliance cannot be placed on it, ..." The authors of [5] write:-
A series of more than thirty papers followed, dealing with the comparison of star places in different catalogues, their correction for systematic errors, the computation of proper motions, and other inquiries important in fundamental astronomy. These won him a reputation as an able and conscientious worker in this essential but less popular side of the science ...
Downing was promoted to First Class Assistant at the Royal Observatory on 15 August 1881. He was editor of the Observatory from 1885 to 1887, carrying out this role for volumes, 8, 9 and 10. He also held important roles in the Royal Astronomical Society, serving nineteen years on the Council, being secretary from 1889 to 1892 and vice-president in 1890-91. He was also a founder member of the British Astronomical Association and we should say a little about how and why that organisation was founded.

The Royal Astronomical Society had been funded in 1820 but it was not a Society for everyone interested in astronomy. It charged a high subscription, it tended to publish highly technical papers and it was not open to women. There were other astronomical societies, for example the Liverpool Astronomical Society founded in 1881 but, although it had a very positive beginning, it soon declined. Elizabeth Brown (1830-1899), who specialised in solar astronomy, was a member of the Liverpool Astronomical Society but had to make a 140 mile round journey to attend meetings. She wrote many times to Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928) who was a colleague of Downing at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich encouraging him to consider setting up a new astronomical society. Maunder and Downing discussed the idea. Further impetus came from a letter in July 1890 from William Henry Stanley Monck to The English Mechanic, in which he proposed the setting up of an association of amateur astronomers for those excluded from the Royal Astronomical Society. Many people showed interest in the idea and when the first meeting was held in the Hall of the Society of Arts, John Street, Westminster, London on 24 October 1890 it was announced that the British Astronomical Association already had 283 members. Sixty people attended this first meeting when the Association declared its aim to be [9]:-
The association of observers, especially the possessors of small telescopes, for mutual help, and their organisation in the work of astronomical observation, the circulation of current astronomical information, and the encouragement of popular interest in astronomy.
Downing was elected Vice-President at this first meeting and, two years later in 1892, he was elected President of the British Astronomical Association, becoming its second president. One of the lectures that Downing delivered to the Association when he became President was "How to find Easter." You can read a version of his lecture at THIS LINK.

He also wrote an article on the International Date Line called When the day changes, that you can see at THIS LINK.

He continued to play a very active role in the Association, and remained a member of its council for many years. The Association decided to make their first eclipse expedition to Vadsö in Norway to study the total eclipse which was to take place on 9 August 1896. Downing was the secretary and organiser of the expedition and, before setting out, many meetings were held to make the necessary arrangements. Downing was one of the 58 members who sailed from Tilbury on 25 July on the Norse King aiming to reach Vadsö, a small fishing station, on Varanger Fjord. The party prepared for the eclipse on the journey. A formal meeting of the British Astronomical Association was held on board the Norse King on 28 July with Maunder, at that time President of the Association, in the chair and Downing as Secretary. On 2 August they set up camp on a small island opposite Vadsö, carried out a rehearsal for the eclipse on 7 August when the weather was glorious but sadly 9 August was cloudy. No data could be gathered but not all had been lost since members of the Association had been able to work and plan together in a way that had not happened before. Downing's excellent organising had played an important part.

By the time Downing was organising the eclipse expedition he had changed his job. On 1 January of 1892 he left his position at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to take up the position of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. His role in this position is described clearly in [5] and so we give an extended quote from that obituary:-
Here began his real life-work, 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 the 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. To his knowledge of mathematics he added decided skill in computation, but although he was less liable than most men to make mistakes, he in no case allowed himself to dispense with the most scrupulous revision of any work that he had in hand. 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, the cheque coming back with a notification that it was post-dated. After all, it was a natural mistake for one to make whose main work was wholly devoted to events due to occur some years ahead.

In addition to his strictly official work, the queries that were showered upon him were many and varied, relating to chronology, the calendar, eclipses, astronomical constants, the construction of the Nautical Almanac, and kindred matters. One inquirer perhaps wanted to know the exact time of some full moon of a century ago; another, its age on the night of the Gunpowder Plot. Or such inquiries might be made of him as, "What was the time of high water at Dover when Julius Caesar landed in August 55 B.C.?" 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.

An extensive piece of work which occupied seven years of his official life was his revision of Taylor's General Catalogue of 11,000 Stars for the Equinox, 1835.0, from Observations made at Madras Observatory, 1831 to 1842. This work was a natural sequel to the numerous and important contributions he had made in previous years to this branch of sidereal astronomy. In his preface he says "That his (Taylor's) work may now be rendered more useful to astronomy is the reward for which I hope in the publication of this revised edition," and that aim and hope illustrate the keynote of his character. He found the question of the expected reappearance of the Leonids an interesting and profitable study for several years, during which he collaborated with the late Dr Johnstone Stoney in an attempt to construct an ephemeris of the densest portion of the swarm. The calculations appertaining to this were made at H.M. Nautical Almanac Office under his superintendence, and went to show that the failure of the shower to reappear at the end of last century was probably due to the perturbations of the meteors by the action of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, while the meteors were travelling at a great distance from the Sun. The main body of the swarm was thus made to pass at a distance of nearly 1341\large\frac{3}{4}\normalsize millions of miles from the Earth's orbit.

Downing's term of office at Gray's Inn was marked by special efforts at cooperation between similar departments in other countries with the view of avoiding duplication of work, and led to the holding in Paris, in 1896 May, of an International Conference on Fundamental Stars, and the results of the Conference, the inauguration of which was due to him, were far-reaching.

In later years illness troubled Dr Downing considerably and appeared to intensify his natural reserve. He retired from the Nautical Almanac in 1910 on completing the sixtieth year of his age. It is the testimony of a member of his staff who was with him throughout the years of his Superintendency, that "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."

Downing was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1896. The citation for his election by his proposers E J Stone; W H M Christie; W J L Wharton; Rosse; Robert S Ball; J F Tennant; W Huggins; W de W Abney; A Cayley; J W L Glaisher; J R Hind; S Roberts; W Ellis; and G H Darwin, reads [7]:-
Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society. President of the British Astronomical Association. Superintendent of the Nature Almanac. Author of the following papers, among many others, which have appeared in the 'Monthly Notices' of the Royal Astronomical Society: - 'Proper Motions of Certain Stars in the Greenwich Seven Catalogue for 1860' (vol xl, p 85); 'The Greenwich Standard Right Ascensions' (vol xl, p 430); 'The Possible Ten-month Period of Variation in Latitude' (vol xl, p 430); 'On the NPD's of the Cape Catalogue for 1880, and on the Greenwich and Cape Mean Systems of North Polar Distances' (vol xlii, p 20); 'Discussion of the Observations of gamma Draconis, made with the Greenwich Reflex Zenith Tube, during the years 1857-1875' (vol xlii, p 326); 'On the relative Motion of the Components of 'p' Eridani (vol xliii, p 263); 'On the Orbit of gamma Coronae Australis' (vol xliii, p 368); 'On the Periodic Time of alpha Centauri' (vol xlv, p 151); 'A Comparison of the Star Places of the Argentine General Catalogue for 1875 with those of the Cape Catalogue, 1880' (vol xlvii, p 446); 'Positions for 1750 and Proper Motions of 154 Stars, S of -29 degrees dec, from a revision of Powalky's Reduction of the Star Places of Lacaille's Astronomiae Fundamenta' (vol xlviii, p 322); 'Discussion of Washington Observations of the Sun, 1875-1883' (vol xlix, p 431); 'Corrections to the Orbit of Juno' (vol 1, p 487); 'The Orbit of Flora, with corrections to Brunnow's Tafeln der Flora' (vol lii, p 585).
In addition to the honours already described, such as election to the Royal Society, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and, in 1893, Trinity College, Dublin awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

Downing retired from his position as Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac on 13 April 1910; retirement was required at the age of sixty. His years of retirement, however, were not ones which he was fully able to enjoy since he was troubled by a recurring heart condition. He died suddenly and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium on 13 December 1917.

The obituary [5] ends with the following assessment of his contributions:-
Reviewing Dr Downing's career as a whole, it might be summed up by saying that the talents he displayed were sober and solid rather than brilliant, but the useful work which he accomplished entitles him to an honourable place among professional astronomers.

References (show)

  1. Arthur Matthew Weld Downing,
  2. Arthur Matthew Weld Downing, The Royal Observatory Greenwich.
  3. Arthur Matthew Weld Downing, Notes, The Observatory 41 (1918), 66-74.
  4. A C D Crommelin, Dr A M W Downing, F.R.S., Nature 100 (212) (1917), 308-309.
  5. W F D and E W M, Obituary Notices: Fellows:- Downing, Arthur Matthew Weld, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 78 (4) (1918), 241-244.
  6. Downing, Arthur Matthew Weld,
  7. Downing, Arthur Matthew Weld: certificate of election to the Royal Society, The Royal Society.
  8. A M W Downing, Superintendent 1892-1910, The Nautical Almanac & Its Superintendents, H M Nautical Almanac Office, UK Hydrographic Office.
  9. H L Kelly, The History of the British Astronomical Association. The first fifty years (British Astronomical Association, 1948).
  10. A S D Maunder, Dr A M W Downing, M.A., F.R.S., Journal of the British Astronomical Association 28 (2) (1917), 67-69.

Additional Resources (show)

Honours (show)

Honours awarded to Arthur Downing

  1. Fellow of the Royal Society 1896

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2021