The Observatory, named after Sir Norman Lockyer, started as a collection of instruments which he - as a self-taught astrophysicist, scientific journalist and entrepreneur - hoped would form the basis of a new kind of observatory. The Solar Physics Observatory became recognised in 1881, with Lockyer in charge. It closed in 1912 when most of the staff and instruments went to Cambridge.

Instead Lockyer chose to establish the Hill Observatory near Sidmouth. On his death, his son, Dr.W.J.S.Lockyer, became director and the site became known as the Norman Lockyer Observatory.

The last professional astronomer left in 1962. Following acquisition in 1984 by the East Devon District Council, the Observatory is now a centre for public science education as well as being the home of the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society.