Famous Londoners – John Flamsteed…

Memorialised in the name of the house where he once lived at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, John Flamsteed was the first Astronomer Royal.

Flamsteed was born in Denby, Derbyshire, on 16th August, 1646, and was the only child of Stephen Flamsteed, who among other things was involved in the brewing industry, and his first wife Mary (who died when John Flamsteed was still quite young).

A bust of John Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

He was educated at local schools but left off his studies at the age of 15 due to his own ill health and his father’s need for his assistance in the household and with his business.

His poor health meant he pursued some more sedentary activities and it was during this period that he established interest in astronomy, writing his first paper in 1665. Flamsteed did briefly attend Jesus College in Cambridge in the early 1670s, although it’s not thought he ever took up full residence.

Flamsteed was ordained a deacon and was preparing to take up a living in Derbyshire in 1675 – having by then obtained an MA from Cambridge – when his patron Jonas Moore, whom he’d met in the summer of 1670 during a visit to London and then visited again in mid-1674, invited him to return to the city, ostensibly to establish an observatory which Moore, who was Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, had offered to pay for.

Flamsteed arrived in February, 1675, stayed with Moore in the Tower before, after meeting King Charles II, was made an official assistant to a Royal Commission which the king had established charged with examining the merits of a proposal – put forward by a “le Sieur de St Pierre” to find longitude by the position of the Moon.

The commission decided the proposal wasn’t worth taking further but did recommend the establishment of an observatory from which the movement of the stars and Moon could be mapped in the hope of developing a method of finding longitude. Flamsteed was subsequently appointed “The King’s Astronomical Observator” – the first Astronomer Royal – on 4th March, 1675, by royal warrant, and in June that same year, another royal warrant provided for the founding of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Flamsteed laid the foundation stone on 10th August.

He was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Society in February the following year and in July he moved into the observatory, now known as Flamsteed House (it contains famed Octagonal Room with large windows from which celestial events could be watched), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It was to serve as Flamsteed’s home for next decade or so.

Flamsteed House, Royal Greenwich Observatory, its named after John Flamsteed. PICTURE: Dmitry Djouce.

Flamsteed’s achievements as an astronomer included the accurate calculation of the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668 and recording some of the earliest sightings of Uranus which he mistakenly thought was a star. He was also in regular contact with many other scientific luminaries of the day and famously fell out with both Sir Edmond Halley (his one-time assistant and future successor as Astronomer Royal) and Sir Isaac Newton.

Flamsteed’s own catalogue of almost 3,000 stars wasn’t published until after death in 1725 thanks to the effort’s of his wife Margaret – whom he had married on 23rd October, 1692 (they were to have no children although Flamsteed’s niece, Ann Heming, did live with them). Margaret also published his star atlas, Atlas Coelestis, posthumously in 1729.

In 1684, Flamsteed was elevated to the priesthood and made rector of the village of Burstow, near Crawley in Surrey – a post, which, along with that of Astronomer Royal, he held until his death on 31st December, 1719.

He was buried in Burstow and there is a plaque on the wall of the church there marking his grave (which was added long after his death). Aside from his earthly honours – which includes the name of Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory, a crater on the Moon is named after him as is an asteroid.

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