Following the Threads of 19th-Century Edinburgh Science
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Starting work at National Museums Scotland in 2020, while access to collections and archives was limited, prompted me to see what I could learn of 19th-century Edinburgh’s scientific circles from the life of a “genial and kindly” Scottish participant in the 1874 transit of Venus expeditions. I first encountered him in the humorous drawings by a fellow member of the Sandwich Islands Station, Lieutenant E. J. W. Noble, who evidently found this astronomer’s Scottishness amusing: his accent was noted, he was shown dancing a Highland fling at a soirée in Honolulu (which he did) and adopting “the Highland Costume” to confound or delight mosquitos (which he surely did not). Imagining the homecomings of the expedition team, Noble depicted John Walter Nichol “Away down to Edinburgh,” being greeted at the door of the Playfair Observatory on Calton Hill, where he had been assistant, by a bonneted, kilted figure, supposed to be the Astronomer Royal for Scotland (then Charles Piazzi Smyth, this kilt is even more unlikely).1