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John Flamsteed England’s First Astronomer Royal

John Flamsteed England’s First Astronomer Royal

Brian Spencer follows the life of this Denby-born man who went on to be the first Astronomer Royal and set the stage for Greenwich to become the centre of time and space.

John Flamsteed was a sickly child, being troubled by arthritic knees and ankles, weak legs, and frequent headaches – conditions that affected him throughout his life.  Modern medical thinking suggests he was affected by rheumatic fever, a common illness in those days, tending to recur in different joints.

Despite his poor health, Flamsteed went to Derby Free School in St Peter’s Churchyard, Derby.  The school has disappeared under the foundations of a shop, but it was here that John gained a foundation into mathematics and science.  Worried about his son’s ill health which he claimed was aggravated by conditions at the school, his father withdrew the 14 year-old, but despite his disappointment, John continued his studies at home, teaching himself Latin and reading mathematical treatises – both of which proved useful in his later career.

With his understanding of mathematics, he was able to accurately calculate the solar eclipses of 22 June 1666 and 25 October 1668.  He sent the data he collated, along with a paper to explain how the position of stars could be fixed by the moon, to the Royal Society, the national academy of science founded by Charles II in 1660.  This led to Flamsteed being invited to London around Easter 1670, where he met and was befriended by Sir Jonas Moore, his Majesty’s Surveyor of Ordnance.  This meeting and friendship was to influence Flamsteed and change his life for ever.

The world was expanding rapidly by the late seventeenth century and with it, wealth from world trade.  Britain and France being traditional rivals were competing with each other to expand their colonies, especially in the New World across the Atlantic.  

Ships sailing to and fro across the Atlantic frequently disappeared through errors in navigation.  While it was possible to plot where a vessel was, north or south of a given point (latitude), it was impossible to know where the ship was east or west (longitude) and as a result shipping losses were horrendous, ships could be anything up to 200 miles out on longitude.  The answer was to divide the world up into 360 degrees, starting at a given point.   Charles II was horrified to discover that Louis XIV of France had stolen the lead by appointing the Italian astronomer G-D Cassini as Director of the Paris Observatory.  Something had to be done, and done quickly if Britain was to have its own observatory and, more important, set the zero meridian in order to control ships’ clocks that in turn would identify longitude.  The observatory had to be away from London’s polluted air. Fortunately there was crown land rising to a small hill at Greenwich, clearly visible to shipping leaving the Thames, and in addition, it would not cost the cash-strapped king a penny.

On 5th June 1674, Flamsteed was awarded a degree at Cambridge, but despite being ordained as a deacon and take holy orders in Derbyshire, the practice at that time, Flamsteed accepted the invitation of Sir Jonas Moore to stay with him in London.  Here on 4th March 1675 he was appointed by royal warrant to become ‘The King’s Astronomical Observator’, the first Astronomer Royal, with an allowance of £100 a year.  A little over a year later a warrant for building an Observatory at Greenwich was issued, but the cash-strapped king could only allow £500 towards the cost, together with ‘spare bricks from the Tilbury Fort’; and some timber, iron and lead from a demolished gatehouse at the Tower of London.  With the foundation stone laid a month later, the building was up to roof level by Christmas.  Despite the king’s promise to provide more money, nothing extra was forthcoming, but fortunately the observatory came in at only £20.9s.1d over budget.

The main part of the observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Flamsteed was given an apartment on the ground floor, designed as he put it, for his ‘habitation and a little for pompe’.  This room was called the Great Star Room (now called the Octagon Room), but most of Flamsteed’s observations were carried out in a small sextant house in the garden. 

Appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, Flamsteed moved into the completed Observatory on 10th July 1676, aged only 28 years, along with two assistants, Smith and Denton. His job description was to ‘forthwith apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of motion of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find the so-much-desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation’. Settled at Greenwich, he began work on measuring the distances between stars by using a sextant, the only equipment available at that time.  Remarkably and despite using such a basic instrument, his measurements were reasonably accurate.  On 12th December 1680 Flamsteed observed for the first time a great comet which was generally held by others – including Sir Isaac Newton, the scientist – to be two closely aligned comets.  

This difference of opinion over the so-called twin comets and other observations, led to a quarrel between Newton and Flamsteed, a quarrel that brought in Edmond Halley the predictor of a comet that regularly visits the earth.  

Recognised as the greatest scientist of the time, Newton, who it is said, developed his theory of gravity by watching an apple fall while resting in his Grantham orchard, was a difficult man to deal with socially.  Irritable, spiteful and often paranoid, he was basically a lonely man who demanded rather than earned respect.  His relationship with Flamsteed broke down when the latter refused to publish his astronomical observations, which Newton needed for a lunar theory he was working on.  Flamsteed’s refusal to publish was reasonable as he wanted his report to be accurate.  

In an attempt to force Flamsteed’s hand, Newton persuaded Queen Anne, who had become monarch in 1702, to appoint him as inspector in charge of the Observatory, effectively becoming Flamsteed’s boss.  The two then embarked on a series of petty litigations over such trivia as ‘failing to follow an instruction’, or ‘failing to return a book’.  The ever spiteful Newton vetoed Flamsteed’s well-earned election to the Royal Society.  The final straw was when Newton gave Flamsteed’s papers to Halley who promptly pirated them as his own work.  Flamsteed was not to know of Halley’s later appointment as Astronomer Royal as he only succeeded him after Flamsteed’s death on 12th January 1720.

Newton’s royal influence waned following Queen Anne’s death in 1714 and Flamsteed successfully sued to have the remaining copies of his findings returned, ( referring to them as ‘corrupted’).  He burnt 300 copies ‘as a sacrifice to heavenly truth’ on a bonfire in Greenwich Park.  He then resumed work on his own ‘official’ star catalogue, his Historia Coelestis Britannica. Unfinished at the time of his death, it was completed by two colleagues, Crosthwaite and Sharp, and published by his widow in 1725.

Today, the zero meridian, the prime meridian, the controller of world-wide time and space, is marked by a brass strip outside Greenwich Observatory.  Flamsteed could never have envisaged, when he chose the location of his observatory, that the position would be imprinted on every map drawn in every country throughout the world.

Denby, the village of John Flamsteed’s birth has lost its coal mines, but it remains as a pleasant rural spot, quietly at peace with the twenty-first century.  The name Flamsteed can be found on the lane where his family home once stood; two farms and the local comprehensive school also bear his name. Added to these is the Flamsteed Memorial Park where a grass maze leads to a rock bearing a bronze and brass stellar globe based on his Historia Coelestis Britannica.  The rotating map accurately shows the position of stars in the night sky at the precise moment of viewing.  The stars give off a faint red glow at night, and it is possible to trace each star from the globe up to its relevant position in the sky.  All this is accurately controlled by a quartz clock drive, something Flamsteed would quickly relate to.


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