The Astronomer Royal is the best-known and most prestigious post in astronomy with illustrious forebears such as Halley.
The title Astronomer Royal is an honour awarded to an eminent astronomer. He, or she, is expected to advise the Queen on astronomical matters. The Queen makes the appointment with the advice of the Prime Minister of the day.
The Astronomer Royal receives a stipend of £100 a year and is a member of the Royal Household.
The first Astronomer Royal
The first Astronomer Royal, John Flamstead, 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.
John Flamsteed moves to the Queen's House
John Flamsteed moved all his equipment to the Queen's House, now in the National Maritime Museum grounds, to oversee the continuing building work on the Observatory. When the Observatory was complete, The King's Astronomical Observator, as he was then known, moved in. 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 Newton published them against his will!
Best known for the comet bearing his name, which returned as he predicted in 1758, Edmond Halley worked on a wide range of scientific problems before becoming Astronomer Royal in 1720, at the age of 64. He re-equipped the Royal Observatory at Greenwich with a grant from the Board of Ordnance (since Flamsteed's widow had removed all the equipment and furniture there, regarding it as her late husband's property).
Now that there was a good star catalogue, Halley saw his main task as improving the accuracy of the lunar tables. These measurements were, however, lacking in accuracy and, though they were eventually published, their limitations soon became obvious.
While none of Halley’s successors could match his fame, they would individually and collectively enrich our understanding of astronomy greatly. Because of astronomy’s role in navigation for this sea-faring nation, 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.
- John Flamsteed (1675-1720)
- Edmund Halley (1720-1742)
- James Bradley (1742-62)
- Nathaniel Bliss (1762-4)
- Nevil Maskelyne (1765-1811)
- John Pond (1811-35)
- Sir George Biddel Airy (1835-81)
- Sir William Henry Mahoney Christie ( 1881-1910)
- Sir Frank Watson Dyson (1910-33)
- Sir Harold Spencer Jones ( 1933-55)
- Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley (1956-71)
- Sir Martin Ryle (1972- 82)
- Sir Francis Graham Smith (1982-90)
- Professor Arnold W. Wolfendale (1990-1995)
- Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow (1995-present)