In a recent article I covered the life of Abraham Sharp (1653-1742), the first in my mini-series on three Bradford-educated astronomers with an international reputation.

While Sharp came from one of Bradford’s few privileged families in the 17th century and was educated at Bradford Grammar School, the second famous astronomer had a quite different background. Sir Frank Dyson (1868-1939) also left a most unusual legacy that we hear every day of our lives.

Over 200 years after Sharp’s birth, Frank Dyson was born in Leicestershire. When very young, he moved with his family to West Yorkshire and attended Bradford Grammar School. It was the early years of the school’s renaissance under the leadership of the legendary Rev WH Keeling, appointed in 1872 to rescue it from the doldrums. A headmaster for 44 years, he turned it into one of the best schools in the country.

Dyson was the beneficiary of a new Governors’ scholarship, worth £16 per annum, introduced for sons of parents who couldn’t afford the fees (Dyson’s father was a Baptist Minister). From the school he won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied mathematics and astronomy. He became the archetypal scholarship boy made good.

After a first-class degree with the second-highest marks, he became a fellow at Trinity College in 1891. In 1894 he was appointed Senior Assistant at Greenwich Observatory. He made an important contribution to the International Astrographic Catalogue, a worldwide project involving photography of specified regions of the sky, followed by measurement of positions of stars recorded.

In 1905 he moved to Edinburgh and was made Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Regius Professor of Astronomy at the university. Five years later he returned to Greenwich, as the ninth Astronomer Royal, and the only one to have held both Scottish and UK posts.

From 1900 when he observed the phenomenon from Portugal, Dyson became interested in observing solar eclipses and was involved in six such expeditions. He realised that Einstein’s recently propounded theory of relativity could be subjected to an observational test at the 1919 solar eclipse. This predicted that stars seen near the eclipsed sun would appear to be shifted in position by a small, but measurable, amount. Dyson demonstrated that the data supported Einstein’s predictions - a major turning point in scientific thought.

Today he is remembered for a very different legacy. Every day we hear the Greenwich ‘pips’ - ‘beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep’ on the five seconds leading to the hour and on the hour itself. The first five pips each last a tenth of a second, while the final pip lasts half a second. The start of the final pip indicates the moment when the hour changes. The pips are so familiar on the radio that you can easily believe they’ve always existed, but before February 5, 1924 they had not. What is more, they were created by this astronomer schooled in Bradford. The Greenwich Observatory had always been involved in time measurement. After the First World War, Dyson (now knighted) was approached by John Reith, first Director-General of the BBC, that the Observatory should provide time signals to the public via the broadcaster. The idea of the Greenwich Time Signal, the world standard for time, was born.

* Every Day Bradford by Martin Greenwood is available online and at bookshops.