The First in His Profession
The Oxford historian Dr. Allan Chapman considers Airy to have been Britain's first truly professional astronomer. While it is certainly a fact that astronomers had been paid for their services many years before Airy came onto the scene, their salaries were very modest and most had to rely on landed wealth, strategic marriages or Holy Orders to provide them with enough income to live like gentlemen. When, at the age of only 34, the Government aske d Airy to succeed John Pond to become the 7th Astronomer Royal he demanded, and received, a salary of 800 pounds Sterling ($2,700) - a staggering 68,540 pounds ($230,285) in today's money and double the 400 pounds ($1,350) paid to his predecessor. For this remuneration - on par with a successful barrister - he was willing to surrender his entire professional time to his paymasters. For Airy, unlike previous Astronomers Royal, there were no financial problems to distract him from his duty.
Airy was undoubtedly a complex character. Certainly he was a workaholic, almost obsessed with facts and figures, but his intellectual brilliance was matched only by his shrewd practical judgment. Always cautious he was nonetheless ambitious though also modest. He was, of course, a pillar of the establishment: a solid member of Victorian middle class society. But he had no desire to accede to the House of Lords, unlike many of his scientific contemporaries.
Airy's first task as Astronomer Royal was to reform the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which operated under the auspices of the Admiralty. When the Observatory was founded in 1675 its role was to aid navigation at sea, mainly by promoting positional astronomy. It had subsequently evolved into a sort of gentlemen’s club and Airy set about making the Observatory more industrious by introducing an almost production line system of observation and analysis. This also involved the redesign of the Observatory's entire instrumentation: a difficult and lengthy process but one which Airy achieved with his usual efficiency.
During the 46 years he served as Astronomer Royal - a record matched only by Nevil Maskelyne (1765-1811) - he embraced the new technologies of the industrial revolution to modernize practical astronomy in England and drag it into the realm of professionalism. By the mid-1850s Airy had succeeded in having Greenwich Mean Time transmitted across Britain through the newly established commercial telegraph network, bringing time distribution to the public at large.