Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

Sir Francis Ronalds at the Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory, drawn by Sir Francis Ronalds. Various meteorological instruments he designed and built are shown around the roof terrace and protruding from the dome. From his first annual report to the British Association (1844)

Sir Francis' lantern electrometers used at Kew. The angular separation of the two vertical straws hanging inside the container indicates the level of atmospheric electricity

Sir Francis Ronalds is central to the early history of the Kew Observatory: he served as the inaugural Honorary Director for a decade before his retirement in late 1853 at age 65. The observatory is situated just south of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on a bend of the River Thames.

Responsible to the council of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association), Sir Francis established the mission of the observatory, fought the battles necessary to ensure its early survival and created many meteorological instruments for the institution.

He commenced detailed observations of the electricity in the atmosphere in 1843, which remained an area of specialism at Kew until the Meteorological Office closed its operations there in 1980. He also developed more conventional meteorological instruments that saw long-term use. Examples of a number of these are held by the Science Museum.

Sir Francis additionally put considerable effort into advising other facilities on their equipment requirements and supervised the manufacture of instruments for observers as far afield as North America, India, the Arctic, and continental Europe, as well as in Britain.

His work gained him numerous influential supporters, including Colonel Edward Sabine of the Royal Artillery; astronomer Sir John Herschel; geology professor John Phillips; Revd Thomas Romney Robinson, who was director of the Armagh Astronomical Observatory; and businessman John Gassiot. He also unwittingly became the foe of the Astronomer Royal, George Airy, who saw Kew as a competitor to his own establishment - the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Airy's ploys to undermine Kew continued for many years.

Kew nonetheless became perhaps the most important meteorological and geomagnetic observatory in the world with an enduring reputation for the provision of quality instruments.

Further Information

Sir Francis Ronalds' first annual report to the British Association (1844)

Sir Francis Ronalds and the Early Years of the Kew Observatory (2016) - published by the Royal Meteorological Society

Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by Imperial College Press

Kew Observatory Today