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Insight into marine science
Observatory history

William E. Plummer
William Plummer was born in Greenwich in 1849, and at the age of 15 he entered the Royal Observatory at Greenwich as a 'supernumeral computer' attached to the astronomical department.



William E. Plummer.

In 1868 he went to work at a private observatory in Regent's Park, built by a local businessman, Mr Bishop where he made observations of the stars and computed the orbits of comets. He became known as the only Englishman, apart from Halley, to predict the return of comets.

In 1873 he was appointed First Assistant to Professor Pritchard at the new Observatory at Oxford University and became engaged in the new science of photographic astronomy. In 1879 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and served on the Council from 1889 to 1894.

William Plummer was appointed Director of the Liverpool Observatory, situated on Bidston Hill, Birkenhead (now known as the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory) in 1892, following the fatal accident of John Hartnup junior.

In 1894 charges were introduced for the testing of chronometers, which was one of the main reasons for the Observatory's existence. This had the immediate effect of halving the number of chronometers which were tested and rated.

Plummer continued with his astronomical work at the Liverpool Observatory (now known as the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory). He was Hon. Reader in Astronomy at Liverpool University for many years and gave lectures and practical demonstrations at the Observatory.

Under Plummer's Directorship, meteorological work increased at the Observatory. Information was passed to the local authorities and Medical Officers of Health as well as the Meteorological Office and local enquirers. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury was a regular customer, and the Liverpool Tramway officials also required meteorological information. During the early years of the century information about the clouds was sent on a monthly basis to Dr Hergesell, President of the British Aeronautical Society, in association with balloon ascents.

Under Plummer's guidance the Observatory's research into earthquakes increased. In 1897 an automatic instrument which registered the passage of earthquake waves through the earth was installed in the lower basement, courtesy of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It recorded the position of an image of an illuminated slit reflected in a delicately suspended mirror. This instrument registered earthquakes in Tashkent and Port-au-Prince the following year. Two more instruments were added over the next few years.

In 1905 Plummer noted that the earthquakes recorded at the Antarctic by Captain Scott were also recorded at Bidston. The following year the large earthquakes at San Francisco and Valparaiso were also recorded.

In 1909 Plummer discovered from the seismograph records that there was a regular deformation of the surface of the Earth's crust over the Wirral Peninsular due to the load of tidal water. This caused a great deal of scientific interest during the following years.

In 1911 radio signals were received from the Eiffel Tower and Middeich, Germany. This was the start of an attempt to confirm the longitudes between Liverpool and Greenwich, and Greenwich and Paris. Two years later a 'wireless installation' for receiving time signals from Paris and Norddeich was installed in connection with the International Time Service, and also in an attempt to re-determine the longitude of the Observatory at Bidston. Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, this research had to be abandoned, as the radio equipment had to be dismantled on the orders of the Postmaster General.

During the war years Plummer complained in a report, "Police regulations for obscuring artificial light have greatly interfered with the extra-meridianal observations. As a rule these have been limited to deriving the places of comets." In 1916 the Summer Time Act was introduced, when the clock was moved one hour ahead of Greenwich Time. The One O'clock Gun however, continued to be fired in Greenwich Time, as that was more relevant to mariners. The war also had an effect on the income from the testing of chronometers, as fewer of them arrived at the Observatory for testing. Meteorological observations were forwarded twice daily to the Meteorological Office, to be used in their forecasting work, and extra observations were also forwarded to local military establishments.

William E. Plummer was awarded by the Kingsley medal by the Chester Literary and Philosophical Society for his contribution to local scientific education.

He died whilst still in post in 1928. He is mostly remembered for his contributions to science in the fields of astronomy and seismology.


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