Sir George Bidell Airy, mathematician, astronomer, and creator of the Greenwich Meridian, (1801-1892)
Born July 27, 1801 in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. While he was still young (1813), his father lost his job as tax collector, and the family descended into poverty. Airy spent a lot of time living at his uncle's house, away from his parents. This uncle (Arthur Biddell) had a nice library, which Airy used well. In 1819 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge as a sizar. He tutored on the side for extra funds, but even with this busy schedule he managed to graduate as Senior Wrangler in 1823. He also won the Smith's prize. In 1824 he was awarded a fellowship at Trinity College.
That same year, he met Richarda Smith, to whom he proposed marriage two days later. Her father refused to allow any such thing until Airy could support a family.
Airy started working his way up in the world, first being appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (he was now an examiner for the Smith's prize), and then as a member of the Board of Longitude. His attempt to win the vacant post of Astronomer Royal for Ireland failed, but his attempt to be appointed as the Plumian Professor of Astronomy succeeded, and he talked the college into increasing the pay for that position. This gave him enough to finally marry Richarda Smith in 1830. (At this time he was also the director of the Cambridge Observatory).
In 1835 he was appointed as Astronomer Royal of England, and moved to Greenwich. He set about reorganizing and renovating the Royal Observatory. He added the altazimuth telescope, and the Airy Transit Circle. This transit was used to define the zero degree meridian of the Earth, thus establishing GMT. He also introduced photographic registration for timing transits, spectroscopic observations, and daily observations of sunspots, using the Kew heliograph.
He made some mistakes, too. His delay in looking for Neptune in the place that John Couch Adams had predicted it to be may have robbed Adams of getting full credit for his predictions, and Airy's unwillingness to let younger scientists think for themselves prevented new astronomers from being trained at the observatory.
Airy and Charles Babbage had a long standing rivalry. At one point, Airy declared that Babbage's calculating machine was worthless, and managed to stop government funding for it.
Among other things, Airy improved our understanding of the orbits of Venus and the moon, made a mathematical study of rainbows, computed the density of the Earth, advised on the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable, and advised on the construction of Big Ben's chimes.
A quick list of some of Airy's achievements that should be mentioned, but aren't really all that interesting:
1831 - Received Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London.
1834 - Made chairman of the commission to construct standard weights and measures.
1835 - Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
1836 - Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
1845 - Received Royal Medal from the Royal Society of London.
1872 - Knighted.
Seventh Astronomer Royal of England from 1835-1881
He died January 2, 1892 in Greenwich, England.