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Royal Observatory

13 Mar 2015

Take a closer look at the career of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed through Francis Baily's account of his life and works.

March’s Item of the Month takes a look at the career of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Flamsteed served as Astronomer Royal from 1675–1719 and in 1835 Francis Baily published An account of the Revd John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer-Royal, compiled from his own manuscripts, and other authentic documents, never before published (RMG Item ID: PBG3248).
Francis Baily (1774–1844) was an English astronomer and influential in the foundation of the Royal Astronomical Society, serving as its president four times between 1825 and his death in 1844. His most notable astronomical discovery was of the 'Baily’s beads effect', the bright points of sunlight visible at the edge of the Moon’s shadow during a total eclipse of the sun. Whilst not the first to observe the effect, Baily recognised that the beads of light were the result of the rugged topography of the lunar surface allowing the bright light through.
In his publication, Baily seeks to redress popular opinion of the first Astronomer Royal and his legacy. John Flamsteed’s major work was the British Catalogue of Stars, the Historiae Coelestis, which would be the results of careful observations made at Greenwich. However, Flamsteed’s hesitancy to publish his observations for over 35 years could be interpreted as an impediment to scientific discovery. Leading figures of the time including Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley and David Gregory all found that their work was subject to access to Flamsteed’s observations. This criticism is acknowledged by Flamsteed and those who wrote to him. In a letter of 25 March 1703 letter, he states:
If Dr Gregory, or any other, says I did not impart observations sufficient for completing the numbers, you may tell them I was at the pains to calculate above 200 places of the Moon from my observations first, and after from my own tables, for Mr Newton ; which employed all my spare hours for more than three years [p. 241]
Flamsteed’s letters to Abraham Sharp are amongst the most candid in the collection of correspondence. Sharp served at the Royal Observatory with Flamsteed as an astronomer and was one of his most trusted confidants. Flamsteed notes this in a postscript to a letter of January 18 1703, saying that he writes with the same “plainness I used to discourse you by my fireside” [p. 211]. Sharp also wrote to Flamsteed plainly. Sharp also noted the popular perception of Flamsteed in a letter written on 1 August 1713, in which he defends him:
There is already sufficient to silence the unreasonable clamours of querulous and unthinking persons, who are too ready to pass unjust censures upon your having been so long in so considerable a post, and produced little or nothing… [p. 303]
Flamsteed had a strained relationship with both Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley. Matters came to a head in 1711 when they published an unauthorised version of Flamsteed’s observations. In the years leading up to this, Flamsteed had invested a considerable amount of his own money into his work at Greenwich. He paid for many pieces of equipment to allow him to observe the sky, but also paid for assistance to compute the data he was generating. Despite describing himself as 'a friend, I confess, to frugality' in a 1694 letter to Newton [p. 144], by 1701 Flamsteed notes that he has already spent more than £1000 on his work.
As a result of this, Flamsteed was unwilling to fund the printing of his observations. In 1704 Newton offerred to make representations to the Crown to get the work published, although Flamsteed was suspicious of his motives. In the late 1690s, Flamsteed had felt his work on lunar observations had not been sufficiently credited by Newton in his theories of gravitation, and was mistrustful of Newton in relation to his Catalogue:
Plainly, his design was to get the honour of all my pains to himself, as he had done formerly, and to leave me to answer for such faults as should be committed through his management [p. 217]
Flamsteed was, however, convinced to provide sealed copies of his observations to the Royal Society, but was later informed that these had been opened and were to be published with an introduction by Halley. The work had also been altered with stars renamed and other faults being exacerbated. Flamsteed decried the spoiling and theft of his work and in a letter drafted on 24 October 1715, states how he has been “unworthily, nay, treacherously” dealt with by Newton:
I wonder that he should so impudently pretend to dispose of the printed copies of my works, i.e. the printed observations : they cost him not a single hour’s labor or watching, nor was he at one penny expense in the making them ; but besides my daily labor and watchings, when he was asleep in his warm bed, it had cost me above £2000 out of my own pocket … in instruments and necessary assistance. [p. 316]
400 copies of the “corrupted” catalogue had been produced and, after a petition to the Crown, by 29 March 1716 Flamsteed tells Sharp that he has “got his Majesty’s order to have 300 copies of them delivered unto me…which I intend to sacrifice to TRUTH”. In a letter of 8 May 1716, Flamsteed writes that he:
… committed them to the fire about a fortnight ago. If Sir I. Newton would be sensible of it I have done him and Dr. Halley a very great kindness. [p. 322]
It is important for us to understand Flamsteed’s fury at the unauthorised publication, which drove him to burn the copies. In a letter to Newton from January 1699, Flamsteed shows some of his motivation for his work:
The works of Eternal Providence I hope will be a little better understood through your labours and mine, than they were formerly. [p. 169]
In addition to his desire to add to the knowledge of how the heavens work, Flamsteed was also keen that his personal investment was acknowledged. In a letter of 7 January 1699 Flamsteed says:
I have suffered much in my health by my night labours: the pains that I have employed in my calculations have been inconceivable: all the recompense I expect is acknowledgment of my industry. [p. 167]
Flamsteed’s ill-health had caused difficulties with his relationship with Newton. After a disagreement about the speed with which Newton was provided with lunar observations in 1695, Flamsteed wrote a note on an “unkind and arrogant” letter received from Newton:
I was ill all this summer, and could not furnish him as I had done formerly. He mistook my illness for design… [p. 158]
Through the correspondence, Baily discovered a thoughtful and diligent observer who wished his labours to produce the most accurate and useful data for posterity. For himself, Baily’s motivation for compiling the correspondence was to:
I have been led solely by a desire to place Flamsteed’s character and conduct in their true and simple colours, disentangled from all those extraneous matters with which they have been inadvertently involved. [p. 734]
A copy of An account of the Revd John Flamsteed is part of the Caird Library & Archive’s Airy Library Collection. The Airy Library collection represents the library of the Royal Observatory up to 1881. This volume is also a useful resource for study of the Observatory, as it includes the text of the warrant to build the observatory (p. 112) and a review of the state of the Observatory in October 1700.
Gareth, Library Manager

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