In 2009 the Museum celebrates the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), which commemorates the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo in 1609 as well as, amongst other things, the first moon landing (1969). It is hoped that the IYA will increase our awareness of the impact that astronomy has on our every day lives and our understanding of how scientific knowledge can contribute to our daily existence.
During my travels around the Museum I noticed this fascinating reproduction of a 17th century print, which is currently on display in the stairwell adjoining the Octagon Room, at the Royal Observatory (ROG). It shows three figures using astronomical equipment in the Great Star Room or the Octagon Room, as it is known today, at the ROG. To the left an observer is using a quadrant to carry out astronomical observations. While a seated figure, on the right, studies the sky through a telescope. Portraits of Charles II, whose support Sir Jonas Moore had crucially secured for the founding of an observatory at Greenwich, and James, Duke of York (later James II), can be seen in the background.
This is a reproduction of one of twelve plates showing the Royal Observatory and its equipment that were produced by Francis Place, c. 1676, after drawings by Robert Thacker. The print series was commissioned by Sir Jonas Moore, a mathematician and one of the founders of the Royal Observatory, to commemorate the opening of the Observatory which was established to solve the problem of longitude in navigation. It was hoped that by charting the position of the stars relative to the position of the moon, astronomers would be able to solve the more earthly concern of navigation at sea and, consequently, reduce the risk of shipwrecks that inevitably resulted in loss of life and livelihoods.
The original print was probably made to illustrate the newly established Royal Observatory as well as the research it was undertaking into the compelling and earthly problem of navigation at sea. Like the IYA, which aims to raise awareness of the effect that astronomy has on our lives, the Royal Observatory was founded and equipped in recognition of the fact that an understanding of space and an ability to apply this knowledge can solve some of our more earthly and daily concerns.