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Curator of History of Science and Technology
I research, speak and write about the NMM’s collection of instruments and objects relating to astronomy, the history of the Royal Observatory and the role of science and technology in Britain's maritime past.
My favourite subject to talk about
I'm fascinated by the ad hoc nature of the Observatory’s buildings: new astronomical techniques were developed, new instruments arrived, unforeseen needs arose and so a new building was thrown up or an old one knocked down. They tell us a lot about the development of astronomy between the 17th and early 20th centuries.
The questions I'm asked most often
Why is the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory?
There are an infinity of meridian lines around the globe, running from pole to pole, but they only become important when they are used as a reference point. This happens, for example, when astronomers set up their instrument on a meridian and make observations from that position. The more people who refer to a particular meridian – for determing their position in longitude or for determining time – the more important it becomes. By the 1770s the Greenwich Meridian was a reference point for most British sailors, astronomers and map-makers, and by 1880 it was used to determine standard time in Great Britain and was the most commonly used Prime Meridian for international shipping. Since 1851 the Greenwich Meridian has been defined by the Transit Circle installed by George Airy, 7th Astronomer Royal. This line slowly became an international Prime Meridian around the turn of the 20th century as, one by one, nations around the world decided to use it in their maps and to adopt a standard time linked to GMT.
Did anyone do astrology at the observatory?
The short answer is, no. However, John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, did draw up an astrological chart marking the foundation of the observatory on 10 August 1675. While this seems to have been a bit of a joke, Flamsteed, when he was younger and like many of his contemporaries, had been convinced by aspects of astrology. As Astronomer Royal he occasionally supplied astronomical observations to the authors of astrological almanacs, or made use of the almanacs himself. However, for most of the observatory’s history astrology had ceased to be a concern of the scientific elite.
My recommended books and links
A brief introduction to the history of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, can be found on the ROG's website, but the most thorough history of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich is the three volumes by Eric G. Forbes, A. J. Meadows and Derek Howse: Greenwich Observatory is available in the Museum's Caird Library.
Howse is also author of Greenwich Time and Longitude. For a fantastic, illustrated snapshot of what the Observatory was like at the end of the 19th century see E. Walter Maunder's The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: a Glance at its History and Work (1900) and my historic blog Cosmic Diary: Greenwich 1894 , which is based on the working journals of the Astronomer Royal and Chief Assistant.
Curator of History of Science and Technology
After completing my PhD in 2004 at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London, I undertook postdoctoral research at the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. I arrived at the NMM in May 2008. I blog regularly at The H Word, hosted by The Guardian.
Collections responsible for
- Astronomical instruments and related material (including armillary spheres, astrolabes, hour-glasses, nocturnals, orreries, quadrants, sextants, sundials, telescopes)
- Magnetic instruments (including dip circles, galvanometers and magnetometers)
- Meteorological instruments (including anemometers, barometers, thermometers and instruments for measuring rainfall and sunshine)
Areas of research and interest
My current research interest is the relationship of the Royal Observatory with other scientific institutions, including the Board of Longitude and Royal Society, and with the public. I am interested in how the government-funded staff at the observatory understood their role within the scientific world, how they explained their work to the public, how and why they popularised astronomy more broadly, and their understanding and use of the observatory’s heritage in these contexts.
Current NMM projects
I am one of the team working on an academic project with the University of Cambridge on the history of the Board of Longitude. I am also currently working on a forthcoming temporary exhibition on the search for a means of finding longitude at sea, a book to accompany the exhibition, and a collection of essays on the fifth Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne.
Past NMM projects
I was one of the curatorial team who contributed to the 2012 Royal River exhibition and catalogue, and have worked on small temporary exhibitions at the Royal Observatory, including 2009’s Solar Story and 2012’s Measuring the Universe. I have recorded a number of podcasts on the history of the Observatory and contribute to the Longitude Project blog and wrote much of the recent Royal Observatory’s Souvenir Guide.
External fellowships/honorary postitions/membership of professional bodies
- Honorary Fellow – Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London
- Member of Peer Review College, Arts and Humanities Research Council
- Member of the Council of the British Society for the History of Science
- Recreating Newton: Biographies of Newton and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007)
- (ed.) Nineteenth-Century Biography of Isaac Newton: Public Debate and Private Controversy, vol. 2 of Rob Iliffe, Milo Keynes and Rebekah Higgitt (eds), Early Biographies of Isaac Newton, 1660-1885 (2 vols, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006)
- ‘“The epitome of intellectual sagacity”: biographical treatments of Newton as a mathematician’, in Benjamin Wardhaugh (ed), The History of the History of Mathematics: Case Studies for the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Peter Lang: Oxford and Bern, 2012)
- ‘The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and its publics; past and present’, in Luisa Pigatto and Valeria Zanni (eds), Astronomy and its Instruments Before and After Galileo (International Astronomical Union, 2010), 439-450
- ‘The Royal Observatory, Greenwich’, in Clive Ruggles and Michel Cotte (eds), The Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the context of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention: A Thematic Study (ICOMOS/IAU, 2010), 195-8
- With Graham Dolan, 'Greenwich, time and the line', Endeavour 34 (2010), 35-39
- ‘Science and sociability: women as audience at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831-1901’, Isis 99 (2008), 1-27
- With Charles W.J. Withers and Diarmid Finnegan, ‘Historical geographies of provincial science: themes in the setting and reception of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Britain, 1831-c.1939’, British Journal for the History of Science, 41 (2008), 385–415
- ‘Discriminating days? Partiality and impartiality in nineteenth-century biographies of Newton’, in Thomas Söderqvist (ed.) The Poetics of Biography in Science, Technology and Medicine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 155-72
- With Charles W.J. Withers and Diarmid Finnegan, ‘Geography’s other histories? Geography and science in the British Association for the Advancement of Knowledge, 1831-c. 1933’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31 (2006), 433-51
- ‘Why I do not FRS my tail: Augustus De Morgan and The Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 60 (2006), 253-59
- ‘President, patron, friend and lover: Charles Montagu’s significance to the history of science’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 59 (2005), 155-70
- ‘Astronomers against Newton? Francis Baily’s Account of the First Astronomer Royal’, Endeavour 28 (2004), 20-24
- ‘“Newton dépossédé!” The British response to the Pascal forgeries of 1867’, British Journal for the History of Science 36 (2003), 437-53