Flamsteed Astronomy Society

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Wren choose Greenwich because it was cheap.  With a whole £500 he had to be a bit careful.  Greenwich was situated on a hill and was convenient to the river for travel to Westminster and the City, but mainly it was already a Royal Park and Wren got the land for nothing.  He saved more money by borrowing the bricks from a military construction downriver at Tilbury Fort (Tilbury had a budget of £40,000 !) and the wood and lead needed came from demolition at the Tower of London.  Wren economised even more by re-using the foundations of old Greenwich Castle, once used by Henry VIII to keep his wives and girlfriends apart at Greenwich, but now derelict.  In just 12 months and for the sum of £520 9s 1d, Wren built what we now call Flamsteed House.

Greenwich from the Park c 1620 (NMM)

Greenwich Castle is on the hill left

The Royal Warrant launched Flamsteed’s new career on March 4, 1675 but Wren’s fine building at Greenwich wouldn’t be ready until July 1676 (pretty quick by modern standards).  In the meantime Flamsteed wasted no time and started work, at first in Jonas Moore’s headquarters, the Tower of London.  In July 1675 when building at Greenwich began and he wanted to be near at hand, Flamsteed moved to the Queen’s House in Greenwich Park.  By May 1676 the observatory roof was on and he was able to install some instruments, finally taking up residence in July.

Flamsteed would have cause to mutter at Wren’s economies.  The old foundations weren’t aligned to a meridian and Flamsteed found he couldn’t conveniently mount a quadrant or transit telescope in the Great Room (now the Octagon Room) which in any case, had no line of sight out of the roof.  Flamsteed had to go out into the garden and build a garden shed (the Quadrant Room) where he could mount his instruments and conduct the majority of his observing programme. 

Observatory North Prospect engraving by Francis Place (NMM)

Flamsteed of course, did a lot of muttering anyway.  His health wasn’t great, and he was always short of cash.  He probably could have lived on his salary as Astronomical Observator of £100 a year, equivalent to maybe £20,000 in today’s values, but it was seldom paid.   To make ends meet he took in students, an imposition he resented because it distracted him from the work in hand.  He was very relieved to get the living of Burstow in 1684 which brought another £150 a year with it.  Much conspired to vex Flamsteed including Hooke’s efforts at providing the first quadrant (R).  Flamsteed disliked it heartily.  To avoid the need for precision dividing of the scale over the whole arc, Hooke had devised a double scale with a sliding secondary arc finely divided over just 5 degrees.  “… I tore my hands by it and had like to have deprived Cuthbert [Denton] of his fingers”.

For all his grumpiness Flamsteed was the best positional astronomer in the world, and Isaac Newton knew it.  Newton was driven nuts because perfectionist Flamsteed wouldn’t publish his numbers.  Newton had published his Theory of Gravitation Principia in 1687, and he wanted Flamsteed’s readings to help him develop a theory of the Moon.  In the end Newton got government backing to seize Flamsteed’s work and had Halley publish it as the ‘pirate catalogue’ of 1712.  Flamsteed was furious and never spoke to Halley again.  A few years later he got a court ruling to let him retrieve the un-distributed copies (300 of 400 printed) and burned them in Greenwich Park.

The post of Astronomer Royal is 330 years old