KEN FISHER’S new series on the magnetic draw of climbing to the top of Teide has garnered much interest. This time he turns his attentions to CHARLES PIAZZI SMYTH (1819-1900), the Astronomer Royal for Scotland and an Egyptologist
CHARLES PIAZZI SMYTH was born in Naples. His father was then a Captain and later an Admiral in the British Navy and also a keen amateur Astronomer. Charles’s godfather was Giuseppe Piazzi, a famous Italian astronomer, and therefore Charles’s future was most decidedly written in the stars.
Due to hard work and good connections Smyth had a meteoric rise and, at the age of 27 was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland.
In 1704, Isaac Newton had written in his book Opticks that telescopes cannot be so formed as to take away that confusion of the Rays which arises from the Tremors of the Atmosphere. The only Remedy is a most serene and quiet Air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of the highest Mountains above the grosser Clouds.
This suggestion had been ignored for 150 years until, in 1856, Piazzi Smyth petitioned the Admiralty for £500 to take a telescope to Tenerife to carry out an experiment to prove Newton’s theory. This was granted.
Before we go any further, I should explain that one of the two telescopes Piazzi Smyth acquired needed eight mules to carry it to the vantage point on Mount Teide; extremely different to the telescope used by Nelson when he scanned the harbour of Santa Cruz 60 years earlier. And this is where Piazzi Smyth had an enormous stroke of luck when Robert Stevenson MP, the greatest engineer of the 19th century, loaned his 140-ton yacht Titania and crew for the expedition. The two sailors allotted to the expedition were to become invaluable in mounting the smaller telescope, the Sheepshank.
Piazzi Smyth used a stereoscopic camera to register three-dimensional views and, by taking two pictures, to reduce the likelihood of accidental faults and tampering with the image. All we need to mention now is the photographer and this position was taken by Piazzi Smyth’s new bride, Jessica Duncan, who was thrilled to be part of this great adventure. She was an experienced geologist and over 40 years old when they married.
Two months on Mount Teide, the perfect honeymoon. Unfortunately I don’t know if her photo was taken before or after the experience. She is never mentioned in his reports but he calls her his intrepid wife in his book.
On their arrival in the Port of Orotava on July 10, 1856 the party were met by the acting Consul, Mr Andrew Goodall and, according to Piazzi Smyth, “We were happy to add to our Councils, Mr Charles Smith, a former graduate of St. John’s College, Cambridge; resident in Orotava for 20 years; and while keeping up his mathematical lore, adding practical science thereto, and, above everything else, a speciality for all that appertains to ascents of the Peak.”
Charles Smith was the patriarch of the family that owned Sitio Litre from 1854 to 1996 when it was purchased by John Lucas and transformed into the Orchid Garden. According to Olivia Stone, Smith had climbed to the peak of Teide several times.
After a full discussion of the needs of the expedition, the seasoned expert Charles Smith shouted out, “Guajara, that is the mountain for you; 10,000 feet high, four miles to the south of the peak.”
Smyth asked Smith if he was certain that Guajara was 10,000 feet. Smith wasn’t sure but knew that it was the highest mountain except for the peak itself.
Before sunrise, on the morning of July 14 the party of five on horseback, the consul’s nephew Andrew Carpenter joining them as interpreter, and 20 muleteers with their mules packed to the limit set off from the port. Within 24 hours after a couple of stops they reached the top of Mount Guajara at 9,000 feet having arrived in small clusters of twos and threes each group carrying its own story but the equipment arrived safe and sound.
Their first major job was to build a dry stone wall round the little compound to protect them from direct sunlight and any cold night winds that may occur. Fortunately, Andrew Carpenter was skilled in this method of building. The two seamen were perfectly happy to peform all the labouring work for setting up the telescope and finding and carrying the large stones for the compound.
This activity took days and Piazzi Smyth studied the lava fields and reached the conclusion that the Peak of Tenerife has, in fact, been steadily burning out for ages and is, happily for mankind, no longer in its youthful energy, nor in its primeval vigour of destructive power.
They were not always alone as they received visitors from the village of Chasnia (Vilaflor) who brought fresh goats milk. Other visitors came from the Port of Orotava. Charles Smith and his son called to advise them that they were catching the next steamer to England but couldn’t leave without coming to see how Smyth was prospering on that particular part of the mountain which they had recommended. As it happened, Piazzi Smyth was beginning to realise that they had pitched camp too low.
One afternoon a number of villagers came from Chasnia, smartly dressed, well mannered and of all ages. The children played but the elders had come for something more important. They had heard rumours that an English astronomer had arrived with a telescope so large that he has actually been able to see goats on the moon. If the moon was inhabited by people they would surely have goats!
Throughout the weeks Piazzi Smyth had sent regular reports back to the Admiralty, the Royal Society, Sir Robert Stephenson and all his sponsors. They were so well received that he decided to go higher as, at the present level, they had often been troubled with dust.
After scouting the area it was decided that it would be possible to climb to 10,500 ft at Alta Vista, on the peak itself. This was as high as the animals could go. And as such he could justify taking the large telescope.
Having made the decision Piazzi Smyth decided to go back himself to the Port of Orotava and organise the movement of the large telescope, using eight horses to carry all the parts. He was to write: “True, that experienced local men had declared the bringing up of such a telescope to be impossible; but as the interests of science demanded that it should be brought up, I determined to descend the mountain and see how the affair was to be managed.”
On August 25, Mr and Mrs Piazzi Smith plus the two Spanish guides left the camp in Alta Vista to wend their way back to Orotava, leaving behind the two sailors and Andrew Carpenter to fix the station. It took them five days to unpack and repack the telescope into smaller cases. This was done with the invaluable assistance of a German resident watchmaker by the name of Kreitz.
When they arrived back at Alta Vista everyone joined in setting up the telescope. It was called the Pattinson Equatorial – Mr Pattinson of Newcastle having lent them the monster. After the telescope had been erected and tested, they received a visit from a certain nobleman called Don Rodriguez. Such was his enthusiasm, Piazzi Smyth decided to take time out to do the final climb and reach the summit.
On September 8 they started off at daybreak. At first they encountered loose pumice, which hindered them, and, together with the cracks that were scattered around, they soon realised why this was too dangerous for animals but not too difficult for humans. Piazzi Smyth writes: “After the loose pumice we came across red lava crags offering such very fair footing that the ascent ought not to be spoken of as difficult by any man traveller.
Soon after this excursion, the weather changed, as they had envisaged when planning the expedition, so they packed up with the help of their new found friends in Chasnia and returned to Orotava.
So what did Charles Piazzi Smyth discover during his two months honeymoon in Las Cañadas and his stay at Alta Vista? Here is an extract from the web-site of The Sky of Teide, a great tourist attraction on Tenerife.
The work of the astronomer in Tenerife was so important that he was honoured with the crater Piazzi Smyth on the Moon.
The astronomical observations that Charles Piazzi Smyth conducted from Teide National Park in 1856 demonstrated that astronomical observatories should be installed, as suggested by Isaac Newton, on high mountains and not in big cities as had been done so far.
During his astronomical observations of the sky over Teide, Charles Piazzi Smyth observed the Moon and planets, identified Saturn and its rings, observed double stars as it had never been done before, studied the zodiacal light, the ultra-violet radiation of the Sun and the infra-red radiation of the Moon, among other astronomical observations of great importance for modern astronomy.
Charles Piazzi Smyth, the first person who enjoyed the pleasure of observing the sky from Las Cañadas del Teide in the summer of 1856, marked the beginning of modern astronomy in the Canary Islands.