Charles Piazzi Smyth lived from 3 January 1819 to 21 February 1900. He was Astronomer Royal for Scotland for over 40 years. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Charles Piazzi Smyth was born in Naples in Italy, the son of Admiral William Henry Smyth and his wife Annarelia. He was given the middle name Piazzi after his godfather, the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a friend of his parents. On returning to Britain, the family settled in Bedford, where his father built an observatory and Charles Piazzi Smyth started to learn astronomy. As a 16 year old he became an assistant to Sir Thomas Maclear at the observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, where he observed a number of comets and undertook other observations and calculations.
In 1845, at the age of just 26, he was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the Calton Hill Observatory in Edinburgh, and also Professor of Astronomy in the University of Edinburgh. In 1856 Smyth married Jessie Duncan, daughter of Thomas Duncan, RA, the Scottish portrait painter. He spent their honeymoon making astronomical observations from the peaks of Tenerife in the Canary Islands to test the benefits of a mountain observatory. His new wife might have been slightly appeased by the fact that the Admiralty funded the trip, which was undertaken in the engineer Robert Stephenson's yacht Titania. The results were impressive and Smyth can be said to have pioneered today's practice of positioning telescopes on mountain tops to obtain better observations.
In the 1870s Smyth investigated the spectra of the aurora, and began to become interested in weather forecasting. In 1878 he published the first map of the solar spectrum based on observations undertaken in Portugal. In 1888 Smyth resigned as Astronomer Royal for Scotland in protest at underfunding of the Calton Hill Observatory. His action prompted the establishment of a better funded and equipped Royal Observatory on Edinburgh's Blackford Hill, which opened in 1896. Smyth himself retired to Ripon in Yorkshire.
In parallel with his mainstream work, Smyth was very interested in the construction, dimensions, and purpose of the Great Pyramid of Giza. This resulted in his publication of The Great Pyramid: Its Secrets and Mysteries Revealed in 1864. He advanced knowledge considerably in terms of his accurate surveying and measurement of the Great Pyramid, and he was also the first to use magnesium flash to photograph the interior passages and chambers of the pyramid. But some of his conclusions and theories, including the claim the dimensions of the pyramid allowed the calculation of the date of the Second Coming, have a rather "New Age" feel to them.
Smyth died at his home near Ripon in 1900, and was buried in the churchyard of St John's Church in Sharow. His grave is marked by a small stone pyramid topped by a Christian cross.