display | more...

Reverend John Flamsteed (August 19, 1646 - December 31, 1719), was a fellow of The Royal Society, and the first Astronomer Royal of England.

Flamsteed was born in Denby, Derbyshire. He was a sickly child, and his poor health hindered his education for many years. He did not even begin studying basic arithmetic until he was 16. However, once his education began, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and astronomy, and pursued them eagerly (a fact which angered his father, who wanted John to be a merchant). His independent work on the positions of stars and planets (made with crude and homemade instruments) brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, and Flamsteed entered Cambridge University, graduating in 1674. He took holy orders at this time, and wanted to return to Derbyshire to take over a parish. However, his life took a different turn.

In 1674, Flamsteed chaired a committee on whether the Crown should build an observatory in England dedicated to improving the positional accuracy of star atlases, an idea raised by a French astronomer visiting England at the time. This was an important field of research, because star charts were used extensively by the Navy for navigation and for determining ones latitude and longitude accurately. In the latter half of 1674, Flamsteed concluded that longitudes could not be precisely determined because the best star atlases of the day were not accurate enough. News of Flamsteed's conclusion reached King Charles II, who immediately ordered the construction of a new observatory at Greenwich to improve the positional accuracy of current star atlases. Flamsteed was appointed the director of Greenwich, and was made the first Astronomer Royal in 1675.

Despite the importance of his work, Flamsteed had problems from the start. Charles had only given 500 pounds and some scrap materiel for the construction of the observatory, and gave no money for instrumentation. Money for instrumentation came out of Flamsteed's already tiny salary of only 100 pounds per year, and as a result he had to build many of the instruments himself. He could not even afford observing assistants, and for most of his first twenty five years as director he conducted most of his work alone. He had a small patronage from Sir Jonas Moore, though Moore died in 1679, leaving him no money. He had to supplement his income with teaching, including both private students (more than 100 over the years), and a three year lectureship at Gresham College (April 27, 1681 - November 19, 1684), where he lectured on the state of astronomical knowledge at the time. He also edited and revised some standard astronomy books of the time, and received small fees for these. He was granted a small parish in Surrey in 1684 which provided some additional income.

Flamsteed worked for many decades on the new star atlas -- a revision and expansion of Tycho Brahe's catalogue. It was not until about 1700 (and the death of his father) that Flamsteed had enough money to hire assistants (Abraham Sharp, and later Joseph Crosthwait) to assist him with observations and calculations. Flamsteed finished a draft version of the catalogue, the Historia Coelestis in 1708, and this was published in 1712. A revised version of the catalogue, the Historia Coelestis Brittanica, was published posthumously in 1725. It was, at the time, the most accurate star atlas ever published.

Flamsteed's life was difficult, and he got along poorly with many of his contemporaries. Some of this may have had to do with his very strict Christian views, but was probably also due both to his financial problems and his poor health. His professorship at Gresham was not continued beyond late November of 1684, primarily due to his poor relations with the other faculty, and his lectures were not used or cited by his contemporaries. He had several severe disagreements with both Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. In 1691, Newton urged Flamsteed to publish his observations of the moon to aid Newton's derivation of the moon's orbit, but Flamsteed refused. He believed that the Greenwich observations should only be published as a whole because their impact (and as a result, Flamsteed's fame) would be greater. Independent observations were then made by Halley, which Newton used in his analysis. Flamsteed incorrectly claimed the observations were stolen.

He had several other personal and professional problems with Halley. First, Halley was a competitor both with the lunar observations and with the star catalogue. Halley actually worked with Flamsteed in 1675, as a student at Oxford University, and Flamsteed gave Halley due credit for his work in a 1675 paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. But in 1676, Halley was given a stipend of 300 pounds by his father, which he used to map the southern sky from the island of St. Helena. Halley's observations were sparse (only 341 stars) and not of high quality, but his catalogue has the distinction of being the first made with telescopic observations. Flamsteed and Halley also had problems on a personal level, since Halley had a more easygoing personality than Flamsteed's sour one. They were on poor terms for the remainder of Flamsteed's life.

Finally, even Flamsteed's own catalogue became an arguing point. Flamsteed withheld the catalogue for many years, wanting it to be as complete and perfect as possible. The Royal Society disagreed, and Historia Coelestis was published against Flamsteed's wishes. Flamsteed later had many copies recalled and burned, and spent the few remaining years of his life working on the revision. Presumably, after his death he was unable to complain, though publication still took an additional six years under the editorial work of Sharp and Crosthwait.

Edmond Halley was appointed the second Astronomer Royal in 1719. I don't know if it was before or after Flamsteed's death, but I'm sure it would have annoyed Flamsteed in either case...

Makers of Astronomy by Hector Macpherson, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1933 The Gresham Lectures of John Flamsteed edited by Eric Forbes, Mansell Press, 1975 Astronomers Royal by Colin Ronan, Doubleday, 1967 http://www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Flamsteed.html

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.