Friday, August 19, 2016

The first Astronomer Royal

John Flamsteed, the first ever Astronomer Royal who catalogued hundreds of stars and laid the foundation stone of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, was born 370 years ago today. Later in life, he was in conflict with Isaac Newton, and with fellow astronomer Edmund Halley. He left behind an autobiography, many letters and a short diary, all of which were compiled, in the 19th century, into a large volume which included his catalogue of the stars.

Flamsteed was born on 19 August 1646 in Derbyshire, England, and educated in Derby, though from the age of 14 he suffered from chronic bouts of rheumatic illness, and, leaving school at 15, was unable to go to university. During his late teens and into his 20s he seems to have helped in his father’s brewing and malting business, and to have taught himself much about astronomy, through books and observations. In 1665, he presented, to William Litchford an expert on planets, his first essay, concerning the design, use and construction of an astronomer’s quadrant, including tables for the latitude of Derby. Around this time, he accurately predicted the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668. He is also credited with the earliest recorded sightings of Uranus.

By this time, Flamsteed was corresponding with astronomers, such as Vincent Wing, and other learned figures, not least Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, who had published a set of his astronomical projections in Philosophical Transactions. In 1670, Flamsteed visited Cambridge, and arranged to enter Jesus College, succeeding to an MA in 1674, the same year he first heard Isaac Newton’s Lucasian Lectures. Subsequently, he was ordained deacon, and was about to take up a living in his home county, when his patron Jonas Moore, Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, invited him to London. Moore had recently offered the Royal Society to pay for the establishment of an observatory. However, when Charles II set up a commission (including such notables as Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke) designed to investigate a specific proposal to calculate longitude by the position of the moon, Flamsteed was appointed as an official assistant to the commission, and supplied observations to test the idea.

Although the Commission found the specific idea was not worth pursuing, it recommended that the King should consider establishing an observatory in order to better map the stars and the motions of the moon in order to further investigate the lunar-distance method. Flamsteed was appointed by royal warrant ‘The King’s Astronomical Observator’ - the first English Astronomer Royal, with an allowance of £100 a year. A few months later, another royal warrant provided for the establishment of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and it was Flamsteed who laid the foundation stone. The following year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he moved to live at the Observatory where he stayed until 1684, when he was also appointed priest to the parish of Burstow, Surrey, not far from Greenwich. In 1692, he married Margaret Cooke, the granddaughter of his predecessor at Burstow.

Flamsteed contributed much data, requested by Newton for his work Principia, but, when the latter was published it was Edmund Halley, then secretary of the Royal Society, who received much credit as sponsor of the work. Flamsteed, who had long disliked Halley, felt slighted by the lack of recognition for his contribution. This had a negative effect on Flamsteed’s relations with Newton, and the two thereafter were often in conflict. Indeed, when Flamsteed refused to publish his star data until properly verified, Newton and Halley conspired to obtain and publish them. Flamsteed managed to gather several hundred - but not all - of the published copies and burn them. Flamsteed died in 1719. Further information is available form Wikipedia,, MacTutor, The Messier Catalog, or Jesus College.

More than a century after Flamsteed’s death, in 1835, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty printed An Account of the Revd John Flamsteed: The First Astronomer Royal; compiled from his own manuscripts, and other authentic documents, never before published. Edited by Francis Bailey, this included Flamsteed’s History of his own Life, many letters, a few reports and memoranda, and a short ‘diary of events’ with entries between 1704 and 1713 - the latter having been found scattered through several pages of a letter-book containing a variety of other documents. Half the book, around 350 pages is taken up with the autobiographical material, the diary absorbing only a dozen or so page, and the other half of the book is taken up with Flamsteed’s Catalogue of Stars, consisting of table lists of stars and many associated notes. The work can be read freely online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.

Here are three extracts from the Flamsteed’s ‘Diary of events’.

18 April 1706
‘Mr. Hudson here told me, if I would go up, Sir I. Newton would go to the Prince’s treasurer with me; urged me much: I went on the 19th mane: Sir Isaac was very grave: told me that, the Prince having subscribed a great sum to the Emperor’s loan, the whole money could not be received: that he had taken up monies for Mr. Churchill: would say nothing, when I asked if he had taken up also to pay me for my calculators; but that he must give bond to Mr. Churchill: I told him he had my catalogue and papers in his hands: he answered slightingly, that the catalogue was imperfect, which he knew when he received it sealed up, and was contented with it: I desired my MSS back, to correct the faults of the press: he told me we must go on slowly at first, quicker after, that in a few weeks he would return my MSS: Dr. Grey is at Oxford; suppose will not return till after term time: he must be paid for the needless collations, and they cannot be finished till his return: all this insincere practice I must bear, so long as God thinks fit: may his goodness deliver me speedily.’

19 July 1706
‘At London: waited on Sir I. Newton about printing 100 or 150 more copies: represented that I thought it needless, contrary to our agreement, &c.: he seemed to assent, and that we should go on, on the old foot: I suggested that it was probable Mr. Churchill had caused more to be printed than he ought, by 200: that if any besides myself had copies to sell, I should not make anything of mine: he agreed that nobody but I ought to have any copy to sell; and that, as I desired, the plates should be put into my hands, that I might cause them to be engraved and drawn off: promised to pay me £100, and I to send J. Hudson to him, to inform him about the Prince’s treasurer: promised to wait on him next week.’

1 August 1713
‘Sir Isaac Newton having, as I was told, presented his book of Principia, new printed, to the Queen, came to Greenwich, attended by Dr. Thorp, Dr. Halley, and his sons, Mr. Machin and Mr. Rowley. Mr. Hudson was with them, who had given me an intimation of it, the night before. But I had a letter of advice of it, directly from Mr. Machin. Sir I. Newton came first, about 3 o’clock; the others, half an hour after. Sir I. Newton said little till they entered; then he rose up and told me that by a Royal Order, by word of mouth, they were come down to visit the Observatory; to see what repairs were wanting, and what instruments. I gave them leave to go where they pleased, and sent my servant to wait on them, and show them all the places where repairs were wanting: and Mr. Clark and Mr. Ryley (whom I had sent for, on purpose to be witnesses of all that passed) accompanied them. I kept in my chamber: for I could not walk about with them. But, before they went out, I told them that the cogs in the greater semicircle were much worn; and that the instrument, for several reasons, was not very serviceable. And because Sir I. Newton had asked how we could observe a comet without it, I told him I could easily observe any comet that was visible in any part of the heavens, by a particular method that I knew of; but it was not now a time to talk of it; and that that instrument was my own. My friends and servants remember all that passed: I trouble not myself to report it. At parting, Sir I. Newton told me he had a Ptolemy of mine, and the minutes or night-notes of my observations, which he would return. I was glad to hear it; and told him I would retain his receipt for them. I pray God he be as good as his word.’

No comments: