About Neil at Green Witch South

I became involved in astronomy more or less by accident. In 1976 while working at the Atlas Computer Laboratory I saw a job advertised at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO). I had just visited the RGO to attend its 300-year anniversary as it was a sister establishment within SERC. I was captivated by the site and thought it would be a wonderful place to work. Prior to this the RGO had just been three initials on a Dymotape label stuck to one of the modems in the computer room. The job was to work on automating instruments such as spectrographs and plate cameras.

Herstmonceux Castle - my apartment was in the turret on the right

My application was successful and I arrived at Herstmonceux Castle late one windy November night where I was shown to my accommodation in one of the top corners of the castle. It had previously been occupied by Sir Richard Wooley, the Astronomer Royal. I think I was the only resident at the time, apart from the duty custodian. The castle creaked and groaned in the wind and it felt like the opening scene of a horror movie.

Initially I worked in the new 'Automation Department' with zero budget and little direction but started introducing microprocessors which were in their infancy. Several projects came my way, the most successful being Taurus, an imaging Fabry-Perot instrument. I designed the control electronics for it and participated in observing trips to South Africa and Australia.

Taurus Imaging Fabry-Perot Instrument

Taurus with an acquisition and guidance test rig in the background

On moving to the Electronics Department I became involved with the Northern Hemisphere Observatory (NHO) as it was then called, as the final site hadn't been chosen. It later became the La Palma Observatory (LPO) before its current official title of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING).

I was promoted to Head of the Electronics Department which then absorbed the La Palma Computing Department and my role became increasingly managerial. Along the way I developed a modular set of microprocessor boards called MMS which were used extensively on instruments for the 1m Jakobus Kapteyn Telescope (JKT) and the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope (INT). These were based around Motorola 6800 microprocessors programmed in Forth. For the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope I introduced commercially available boards based on Motorola's 6809; we called this 4MS.

In 1986 I moved to the island of La Palma with my family as Head of Engineering where my main task was to complete the commissioning of the WHT and bring it into operation alongside the JKT and INT. I'd spent quite a bit of time prior to this on island visits lasting from two to seven weeks so was already quite familiar with the staff and equipment. The new role however meant I was responsible for everything from water catchment and treatment to the sewage system, electronics, mechanics, electrical systems, transport and safety. It was a great job and I wouldn't have swapped it for anything.

Isaac Newton Building on La Palma

The Isaac Newton Building on La Palma - shortly after completion

In Summer we had to deal with a forest fire and evacuated the site leaving two of us to do what we could to secure the buildings in case the fire came through. Fortunately it stopped just short. In Winter we had freezing fog causing metre long horizontal icicles to grow into the prevailing wind, and six feet of snow falling overnight.

Winter Ice on La Palma Lorry

Ice on one of our lorries - took quite a bit of effort to clear the windscreen

The commissioning of the WHT went remarkable smoothly, a testament to its designers and builders. Just to put things into historical context, the WHT was the first successful large telescope to be mounted alt-azimuthly. Nowadays, all large telescopes are on alt-azimuth mounts but the WHT broke new ground. At the time it was the third largest optical telescope in the world and Europe's biggest.

Isaac Newton Group from the Roque de los Muchachos

Isaac Newton Group from the Roque de los Muchachos (photo Nik Szymanek)

On returning to Herstmonceux I found the future of RGO being discussed. A move to co-locate it with a university was being considered, ostensibly to promote closer collaboration with the university community it was now supporting. Despite having strong research links with Sussex University in Brighton, a short list of six universities was drawn up and Cambridge eventually chosen.

The RGO Building in Cambridge

A brand new building was constructed at the rear of the Institute of Astronomy (IOA) and we moved to Cambridge in 1990. My position was Head of Technology and I was also Deputy Director. The main task for Technology Division was the RGO's contribution to Project Gemini. Project Gemini set out to build two 8m telescopes, one on Hawaii and one in Chile. Initially there were six partner countries, USA, Britain, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The project was run from Tucson and institutions in the partner countries were invited to bid for work packages. The RGO won more of these packages than any other institution, largely because of the strength of its technology gained on the La Palma Telescopes. We built the coating plants for the primary mirrors, the primary mirror active support system, acquisition and guidance facilities and all the telescope control software.

Gemini North Building on Hawaii

Gemini North Building on Mauna Kea, Hawaii

We also continued to support the telescopes on La Palma with new CCD camera systems, instrument, dome and telescope upgrades. For a period while the two Royal Observatories were combined under one management I ran the Technology Division in Edinburgh as well.

The long-term future of the two royal observatories came under increasing scrutiny, with many arguing that two royal observatories was at least one too many. When the new labour government came into power in 1997, against all the evidence it chose to close the RGO, to keep the Royal observatory Edinburgh (ROE) as a visitor centre and to create a new Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) on the ROE site. It 'gave' the RGO building to the University of Cambridge and constructed a brand new building for the UKATC. Most of the RGO staff were made redundant including yours truly.

In 1998 Lesley Vertue and I started Greenwich Observatory Limited so that I could continue the consultancy work I had been doing for Telescope Technologies Limited (which is another story in itself). Lesley was my PA at the RGO and to keep her fully occupied we started to sell telescopes to the amateur market. The timing and location proved ideal and Green Witch quickly grew and soon took not only all of Lesley's time but most of mine as well.

Since then we have seen the business grow and shrink again and is now in its 19th year. Along the way we recruited Lee who will tell his own story elsewhere. Green Witch now consists of the two of us helped part-time by my wife Lucy who you may meet at astronomy events.

My working life has been very full but I've found time for family and hobbies. I was in the TA for 18 years, most of it with 111 Engineer Regiment (V) where I was a troop commander with the rank of captain. I also had a private pilot's licence and flew single-engine fixed wing aircraft in Europe and the USA. I've let my licence lapse now, due to shortage of time and money.

CFV on La Palma

Charlie Foxtrot Victor ready to take friends on a trip over the Isaac Newton Group


Greenwich Observatory Ltd: the home of 

Green Witch Telescopes & Binoculars

Tel: 01924 477719