Kew Observatory, Richmond

Side view of Kew Observatory

Side view of Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory is close to the River Thames in the Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey. It is not open to the public, but can be viewed through the metal gates to its enclosure from the end of a road leading to it through the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Club. (Beware of flying golf balls!) In the middle years of the nineteenth century Kew was a major centre for research into Sun-Earth connections, geomagnetism and meteorology and from 1900 to 1902 it was briefly the first home of the National Physical Laboratory, now at Teddington.

On 3 June 1769 the second transit of Venus of the eighteenth century occurred. This event was partially visible from the UK and King George III commissioned the building of the observatory in the Old Deer Park. On 3 June the sky cleared just in time for the transit. The King, Demainbray and a small group of others successfully observed the ingress of Venus onto the Sun’s disc. In the 1770s Kew was the site of the successful testing of John Harrison’s marine chronometer that enabled sailors to find their longitude at sea.

In 1841 the government decided to stop maintaining the observatory and offered the use of the building to the Royal Society. In March 1842 the Royal Society turned down the government’s offer, but by then the Royal Society had a rival in the form of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), who quickly made moves to acquire it. Under the BAAS, Kew Observatory was soon re-established, initially concentrating on meteorology. The main mover and shaker behind the scenes at Kew under the BAAS was the geophysicist and Royal Artillery officer Edward Sabine. As well as meteorology, in the 1840s he gradually introduced geomagnetic research at Kew as the BAAS’s limited budget allowed.

The Sun and its influence on the Earth

Soon after Kew was acquired by the BAAS, German amateur astronomer Heinrich Schwabe discovered that the number of spots seen on the Sun varies in a cycle of approximately 10 years. In the early 1850s Sabine discovered that Schwabe’s sunspot cycle exactly matched a 10-year cycle of variations in Earth’s magnetic field. Astronomers quickly became interested in observing the Sun. In 1856 the printer, chemist and amateur astronomer Warren De La Rue designed a ‘photoheliograph’, a special telescope for recording photographic images of the Sun. This was used at Kew to take daily solar images from 1859 until the early 1870s. Solar activity was measured by working out the total surface area of the Sun covered by sunspots on the photographs.

In 1859 Kew played an important role in discovering a connection between what are now known as solar flares and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. On 1 September of that year the magnetometers at Kew recorded a brief but very noticeable jump in the Earth’s magnetic field at exactly the same time as a flare was observed by two amateur astronomers.

In 1860 the photoheliograph was briefly removed from Kew to a site in Spain, where De La Rue used it to take some of the first good pictures of a total solar eclipse. He used these images to show that prominences are part of the Sun and do not, as some believed, belong to the Moon.

Meteorology and the National Physical Laboratory

Ever since it was acquired by the BAAS in 1842, meteorology was a major part of the observational programme at Kew. Systematic records were kept of the main meteorological phenomena such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity and experiments were made in using automatic instruments to record the weather.

Meteorology itself underwent major changes in the years after 1852. In 1854 the Board of Trade established a ‘Meteorological Department’, now known as the Met Office, initially to provide weather information to ships at sea. From the earliest days of the Met Office, Kew was vital to its work. It became the Office’s central observatory, from which its best observations were obtained. Instruments to be used on board ships were sent to Kew for testing, to ensure they all complied with the same standard of accuracy. The testing of instruments became a major part of the work at Kew, especially towards the end of the century. From the 1870s instruments verified at Kew bore a distinctive monogram, which became an international symbol of instrument quality.

Meanwhile, the BAAS was finding Kew an increasingly expensive drain on its limited finances and so in 1870 it was taken over by the Royal Society. In the 1890s calls intensified for a national physical laboratory for calibrating instruments on a large scale and establishing standards of measurement. Kew Observatory, with its existing calibration programme, was the obvious location and the National Physical Laboratory was officially established there in 1900. However, the building soon proved to be too cramped for the purpose and local residents objected to new buildings going up in the Old Deer Park, so a new site had to be found. In 1902 the laboratory was moved to new premises at Bushy House, Teddington, the headquarters of the NPL today.

Kew Observatory in the 20th century and beyond

The solar programme was moved to Greenwich in 1873 and geomagnetic observations were discontinued in 1925. In 1910 the observatory was taken over by the Met Office and it remained a major observatory and research station in meteorology for much of the twentieth century. Sadly, government cutbacks forced the Met Office to close down operations at Kew at the end of 1980. Until 2011 the building was leased by the Crown Estate (its original owner) to the holding company of Autoglass, who used it as offices. Now (2013) it is about to be converted and modernised inside, before being sold as a kind of millionaire’s dream property. As a listed building, however, its external appearance cannot be significantly altered.

Further Reading

Cawood, John, 1979. The Magnetic Crusade: Science and Politics in Early Victorian Britain. Isis 70, 492-518.

Clark, Stuart, 2007. The Sun Kings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howarth, O J R, 1922. The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect. 1831-1921. London: BAAS. (A second edition was published in 1931.)

Jacobs, L, 1969. The 200-Years’ Story of Kew Observatory. Meteorological Magazine, 98, 162-171.

Magnello, Eileen, 2000. A Century of Measurement: An Illustrated History of the National Physical Laboratory. Canopus Publishing.

Scott, Robert Henry, 1885. The History of the Kew Observatory. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 39, 37-86.

Walker, Malcolm, 2012. History of the Meteorological Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

May and Baker (Sanofi-Aventis), Dagenham, East London

The Royal Society of Chemistry presented a National Chemical Landmark plaque to Sanofi-Aventis (formerly May and Baker) to commemorate its research and manufacturing activities at the Dagenham, East London, site which started there in 1934. The presentation was made on 2nd July 2010 by RSC President Elect Professor David Phillips to Jim Moretta, Site Director Sanofi-Aventis, and the plaque itself was unveiled by Councillor Nirmal Singh Gill, Mayor of Barking and Dagenham. The Historical Group was represented by David Leaback, Peter Morris and Alan Dronsfield

The citation on the plaque reads

“….in recognition of the pioneering research and manufacturing work
carried out at the May & Baker (sanofi-aventis)
Dagenham site in a wide range of chemical
and pharmaceutical fields since 1934.
These products continue to benefit patients
and their quality of life
around the world”

Colin Ward, Ex Head of Analytical Development & Compliance, Quality Operations, Dagenham, has kindly supplied the following background to the Award:

The Dagenham site was bought by May & Baker then based in Wandsworth, for £1l,000 in 1919 but was not opened for business until 1934. It was to become the headquarters of the multinational, May & Baker Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rhône-Poulenc S.A., and in its heyday the site employed some 4,000 people.

The Dagenham site was diverse in terms of chemical manufacture with active pharmaceutical ingredients, pharmaceutical products, veterinary medicines, aromatic chemicals, agrochemicals, photographic chemicals, plastics, industrial and fine chemicals being manufactured there over the last 75 years.

In addition to chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture, Dagenham had a strong R&D base and some significant molecules were synthesised here. Perhaps the most notable are the bacteriostatic sulphonamides, with M&B 693, Sulphapyridine, synthesised in 1937 and M&B 760, Sulphathiazole, a year later. Both were very active against cocci infections and were the forerunner of the antibiotics. During WW2, it was noted that M&B 693 had saved many thousands of lives. Indeed Sir Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of M&B 693 having been treated with it for pneumonia infections twice during the war.

Research on sulphonamides stopped after these two products but continued with other therapeutic agents and agrochemicals. Dagenham was instrumental in developing the diamidine group of bacteriostats, including Pentamidine, Propamidine and Dibromopropamidine, the beta-blocker Acebutolol hydrochloride, the HBN herbicides, Ioxynil and Bromoxynil, the phenoxybutyric acid herbicides and the carbamate herbicide, Asulam. In addition it developed and manufactured the veterinary compounds, Dimetridazole, Sulphaquinoxaline and Isometamidium chloride and marketed many improved products in the field of photographic chemicals, developers and fixers.

The site has won the Queens Award for Industry three times for technological innovation and in 1974 was granted a royal warrant as suppliers of agricultural herbicides to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

From its May & Baker beginnings. Dagenham has had several name changes and as the Company expanded and merged the site became consecutively Rhône-Poulenc Ltd., Rhône-Poulene Rorer, Aventis and latterly Sanofi-Aventis. However, although the sign on the gates is now Sanofi-Aventis, the site is still very much “May and Bakers” to the local community.

However, in recent years many of the plant’s activities have either been has been discontinued or transferred to other Sanofi-Aventis locations. At present it is only manufacturing sterile oncology products and a couple of other anti-cancer drugs. The work force has shrunk to 450 employees and in December 2009 it was announced that the whole Dagenham operation would close by 2013. The site will be redeveloped as an industrial park and sadly an era of London’s chemical industry will become history.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.