John Flamsteed

(1646—1719) astronomer

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(1646–1719) English astronomer

Flamsteed was born in Denby. Because of ill health, which was to dog his career, he was forced to leave school early and was therefore largely self educated. He started his scientific career under the patronage of William Brouncker, the first president of the Royal Society, having impressed him by computing an almanac of celestial events for 1670.

A major problem of the time – one tackled at some time by all major astronomers of the 17th century – was the determination of longitude at sea. A suggestion had been made that the motion of the Moon against the stellar background could be used to determine standard time. Flamsteed, asked by Brouncker to comment on this proposal, pointed out that the scheme was impractical because of the inaccuracy of contemporary tables. Charles II subsequently commanded that accurate tables should be constructed, appointing Flamsteed as first Astronomer Royal with this responsibility in 1675, and building the Royal Greenwich Observatory for him, which was opened in 1676. The limited nature of the royal patronage is indicated by the fact that Flamsteed was paid a salary of £100 a year but was expected to provide his own instruments and staff. He eventually managed to put together two small telescopes and then began his decades of observation, made more difficult by his lack of staff and the crippling headaches from which he suffered. In order to make ends meet he was forced to become a clergyman at Burstow in Surrey from 1684 until his death.

The results of his labors were eventually published posthumously in 1725 as the Historia coelestis Britannica (British Celestial Record). It contains the position of over 3000 stars calculated to an accuracy of ten seconds of arc. It was the first great modern comprehensive telescopic catalog and established Greenwich as one of the leading observatories of the world. The publication of the work was not without its difficulties. It involved Flamsteed in a long and bitter dispute with Newton. Flamsteed was reluctant to rush into print with his catalog, claiming, it seemed to Newton, far too much time for the checking of his numerous observations. The dispute lasted from Newton's assumption of the presidency of the Royal Society in 1703 until Flamsteed's death. It involved the virtual seizure of Flamsteed's papers by Newton, the editing and partial publication by Edmond Halley, and their total rejection by Flamsteed who even went so far as to acquire 300 of the 400 printed copies of his own work and burn them. He managed, however, to revise the first volume to his satisfaction before his death in 1719.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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