24 Mar 2009
Today has been designated Ada Lovelace Day - an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. It is named after Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the mathematician who is credited with writing the first ever computer programme for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a never-completed computing machine. Taking the idea of technology broadly, I thought this would be a good opportunity to begin a series of occasional blog entries on women connected to the ROG throughout its history.
The first woman who was seriously involved with life and work at the ROG was the wife of the first Astronomer Royal, Margaret Flamsteed (c.1670-1730). She was the daughter of a London lawyer, Ralph Cooke and granddaughter of John Flamsteed's predecessor as rector of the Surrey parish of Burstow. She was probably baptised in Hackney in 1670 making her about 22 when she married the 46-year-old Astronomer Royal on 23 October 1692. Despite the age gap, there seems to have been a sincere attachment between the two, if the words 'beloved Wife' in Flamsteed's will and Margaret's determination to secure her husband's pothumous reputation are anything to go by.
The Royal Observatory from Crooms Hill, in about 1680 - the time that Margaret Flamsteed began living there.
Margaret Flamsteed was clearly a well-educated woman, both literate and numerate. We know from Flamsteed's records that she was occasionally of practical assistance during observational and calculating work, and manuscripts in the RGO archive in Cambridge record her study of mathematics and astronomy. These studies may have reflected those undertaken by Flamsteed's paid assistants and paying pupils - men and boys that Margaret would have taken care of as part of her general management of the household on Greenwich Hill. She seems to have been a particular asset when acting as hostess to the Observatory's visitors, no doubt smoothing over her husband's sometimes prickly temper.
It is, however, as Flamsteed's widow that Margaret is best remembered. Firstly she worked with the Observatory's former assistants to publish the full version of Flamsteed's book, Historia Coelestis, an abridged version of which had, to Flamsteed's fury, been published by Edmond Halley in 1712. Rather more sadly for us, she also removed and sold all of the astronomical and horological equipment that Flamsteed used at the Observatory. This she was probably justified in doing, as Flamsteed had either paid for the equipment himself or had received it as a personal gift from his patron Jonas Moore. It was to take several more Astronomers Royal before the questions of ownership and copyright that dogged the Flamsteeds were sorted out.