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From the earliest days, Astronomy was studied in the University as a component of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. The Regius Chair of (Practical) Astronomy was founded within the Faculty of Arts in 1785, with Robert Blair (1748-1828) appointed as the first professor, though he gave no lectures as he lacked both observatory and instruments. Instead he focused on research. On his death, it was decided to leave the Chair vacant until an observatory was available. The University was given unlimited use of the Royal Observatory on Calton Hill in 1834 and Thomas Henderson (1798-1844) was appointed jointly Regius Professor and Astronomer Royal for Scotland the same year. He too failed to lecture.

The third professor (and second Astronomer Royal for Scotland) was Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900). He introduced the first course of lectures and also pursued research activities on an international scale. However resources were limited and and teaching was thus reduced. By the time Smyth retired in 1888, the Royal Observatory was also in a poor condition. He was succeeded the following year by Ralph Copeland (1837-1905) who developed both regular lectures and practical sessions.

In 1893, Astronomy moved to the new Faculty of Science and the word 'Practical' was dropped from the title of the Chair. The new Royal Observatory Edinburgh on Calton Hill was completed the following year. Copeland was succeeded by Sir Frank Watson Dyson (1868-1939) in 1905. He stayed for five years before returning to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Ralph Allen Sampson (1866-1939) was sixth professor. He greatly improved both teaching and research, undertaking pioneering work in the newest areas of the subject.

In 1938, William Michael Herbert Greaves (1897-1955) succeeded Sampson. The following year, the outbreak of war interrupted most of the work of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. 1950 brought the assistance of a lecturer from Mathematical Physics, with the establishment of a dedicated lectureship the year after. Hermann Alexander Brück (1905-2000) was appointed eighth professor in 1957 introducing, amongst other things, electronic instrumentation for measurement. In the 1960s, a greater alignment between the Departments of Astronomy came through a new BSc degree in Astrophysics. The same decade also saw new work in the field of infra-red astronomy. In 1967, Astronomy formally moved into the Faculty of Science.

After Brück came Vincent Reddish in 1975 and Malcolm Longair in 1980. When the latter retired in 1991, it was decided not to fill the Chair at the time. Instead, Peter Brand became Head of Department. In 1993, the departments of Astronomy and Physics were combined.