The Astronomer Royal

The Astronomer Royal is the best-known and most prestigious post in astronomy with illustrious forebears such as Flamsteed and Halley.

What is an Astronomer Royal?

The title Astronomer Royal is an honour awarded to an eminent astronomer who is expected to advise the Queen on astronomical matters. The Queen makes the appointment with the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. It was a position created by King Charles II at the same time he set up the Royal Observatory.

The Astronomer Royal receives a stipend of £100 a year and is a member of the Royal Household.

Who was the first Astronomer Royal?  

The first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, was charged by King Charles II with drawing up a map of the heavens with enough accuracy to be reliable for navigation, no less than:

“the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation."

 

While the Observatory was being constructed, John Flamsteed took up residence in the Tower of London. His astronomical duties were often disrupted by the ravens at the Tower who would perch on and foul his telescopes. The King was on the point of giving orders for the ravens to be disposed of when he was told of the tradition that said when the ravens left the Tower, the Tower would fall, and probably the throne also. The ravens at the Tower are still cared for to this day. 

Eventually, Flamsteed moved all his equipment to the Queen's House, now on the National Maritime Museum grounds, to oversee the continuing building work on the Observatory.

Find out more about the Queen's House

When the Observatory was complete, John Flamsteed moved in. At the time he was known as the King's Astronomical Observator. His long tenure was matched by his immense industry and he left a large body of work mapping the stars. He was however rather unwilling to share his results in his own lifetime, and famously Isaac Newton published them against his will.

They would individually and collectively enrich our understanding of astronomy greatly. Because of astronomy's role in navigation, their work was often entwined with the stories of Britain’s great explorers such as Capt. James Cook and of course the story of longitude and Harrison’s Clocks.

Who were the Astronomer Royal?

John Flamsteed (1675-1720)

Perhaps the most famous of the Astronomers Royal, Flamsteed was integral in establishing the Royal Observatory as a powerhouse of scientific measurement. 

Edmond Halley (1720-1742)

A detail of an oil painting showing Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley, by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Best known for the comet bearing his name, Edmond Halley worked on a wide range of scientific problems before becoming Astronomer Royal in 1720, at the age of 64. 

Halley was responsible for re-equipping the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, using a grant from the Board of Ordnance, a government body that acted as custodian of British lands. He was forced to do this after Flamsteed's widow removed all the equipment and furniture there, regarding it as her late husband's property.

Halley saw his main task as improving the accuracy of the lunar tables, mathmatical tables that charted the position of the moon at any time. However despite his efforts, these measurements were still lacking in accuracy. Although they were eventually published, their limitations soon became obvious.

James Bradley (1742-62)

A priest and astronomer, Bradley made two huge discoveries during his time as Astronomer Royal. Both of these were described as 'the most brilliant and useful of the century' by the director of the Paris Observatory. 

Nathaniel Bliss (1762-4)

Many of Bliss' observations were to become key in solving the problem of Longitude. 

Nevil Maskelyne (1765-1811)

Nevil Maskelyne also played a key role in solving the problem of longitude, through his advocation of lunar tables. 

Find out more about Nevil Maskelyne

John Pond (1811-35)

John Pond was astronomer royal for 25 years, during which he reformed practical astronomy in Britain. 

Sir George Biddel Airy (1835-81)

Airy designed the telescope which determined exactly where the Prime Meridian lie. 

Find out more about Sir George Biddell Airy

Sir William Henry Mahoney Christie ( 1881-1910)

Originally chief assistant at the Royal Observatory, Christie was brought in after Airy's death. 

Sir Frank Watson Dyson (1910-33)

Dyson is remembered best for introducing the Greenwich time pips which played out after the news, as well as working to prove Einstein's theory of relativity. 

Find out more about Greenwich Time Pips

Sir Harold Spencer Jones ( 1933-55)

It was under Spencer Jones that the Observatory was officially moved away from Greenwich, to a darker location in the city. 

Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley (1956-71)

Wooley was a sceptic when it came to space travel, claiming its expense did not match up to what we could learn from it. 

 In 1972 Astronomer Royal became an honorary title. The astronomer royal still can however advise the monarch on scientific and astronomical matters. The four Astronomers Royal to hold the title after this change were Sir Martin Ryle (1972 - 82), Francis Graham Smith (1982-90), Professor Arnold W. Wolfendale (1990-1995) and Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow (1995-present)

Who was the first Astronomer Royal?

 

Royal Observatory - Flamsteed House at night
Royal Observatory - Flamsteed House at night

You can find out all about how the Astronomers Royal lived and worked at Flamsteed House, Royal Observatory Greenwich

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