Reference Work Entry

Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

pp 920-921


Hay, William Thomson

  • Patrick MooreAffiliated with

Born Stockton-on-Tees, (Cleveland), England, 6 December 1888

Died Chelsea, (London), England, 18 April 1949

William Hay was an accomplished amateur astronomer who made one major discovery – the white spot on the planet Saturn – in 1933. To the public, however, he will be better remembered as Will Hay, the stage and screen comic actor.

Hay’s father, William Robert Hay, an engineer from Aberdeen, Scotland, married Elizabeth Ebdon in 1884; their union produced six children. The Hay family moved to England and a few years after William, the future astronomer, was born at Stockton-on-Tees, the family relocated to Manchester. It was there, when he was 15, that Hay met Gladys Perkins; they were married in 1907. Hay became an engineer apprentice, but was never really comfortable in that role. He had a great aptitude for languages, and having taught himself French, German, and subsequently Italian, he became an interpreter for a printers’ association in Manchester.

Meanwhile, Hay had taken part in charity entertainments as a juggler, and later as a comedian. After his marriage, he decided to abandon engineering in favor of the stage in 1909. Before long he had become a very successful professional music hall performer.

Hay’s absorbing interest in astronomy also dated from this period, and it remained his main hobby for the rest of his life. Hay set up an observatory at Norbury, in Outer London, and equipped it with a 6-in. refracting telescope and a 12½-in. reflector. It was from here, on 3 August 1933, that he discovered the white spot on Saturn. As soon as Hay turned the 6-in. toward the planet he realized that there was unusual activity; he telephoned another well-known amateur, Dr. William Steavenson , who immediately confirmed it. The outbreak lasted for weeks, and was in fact the brightest spot seen on Saturn during the twentieth century. It became visible with a small telescope, and at its greatest extent attained a length of 20,000 miles. The spot was used successfully for the determination of an accurate period of rotation for Saturn’s equatorial zone.

Hay was a skilled observer; his principal interest was in measuring the positions of comets with an accurate crossbar micrometer he made for himself. His training as an engineer enabled him to construct excellent pieces of apparatus including several chronographs assembled from Meccano parts and scrap gramophone motors, and a functioning blink-comparator. In 1935, he published a small but very well written book, Through My Telescope. Hay served for several years on the Council of the British Astronomical Association. He was always careful to separate his astronomical interests from his stage career.

Medically unfit for military service during World War I (though he did volunteer), Hay developed his acting technique, and made his name largely as a comic schoolmaster. Following successful tours of Australia and South Africa (1923/1924) and America (1927), he found that he was in great demand.

In 1932, the same year in which Hay became a member of the British Astronomical Association and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, he was regarded as one of the country’s leading comedians, and in 1934 he made his first film, Those Were the Days. Others followed, some of which, notably Oh, Mr. Porter! and Windbag the Sailor, are recognized as classics of their kind. In his finest films Hay was joined by Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt; the trio established themselves in the very forefront of the entertainment world.

Sadly, Hay’s marriage broke up in 1934, though he and Gladys never divorced. His companion during his later years was Randi Kopstadt, a Norwegian actress. In addition to astronomy, Hay was intensely interested in sailing, and maintained a launch in the Oslo Fjord. He was also a private pilot and for several years in the mid-1930s owned his own airplane.

During World War II, Hay was active in entertaining the troops, and also gave many lectures on astronomy. Several of his wartime films were widely acclaimed, notably The Goose Steps Out, in which the Nazis were lampooned, and The Black Sheep of Whitehall. He suffered a stroke in 1946, and though he made a partial recovery he was forced to curtail his activities. Hay moved to Hendon, and transferred his observatory there; he kept up with his astronomical observations, and made occasional public appearances. Will Hay, who died peacefully, will be long remembered as a brilliant comic actor, but he also deserves to be remembered as a serious and energetic observational astronomer.

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