John Flamsteed – Astronomer Royal

John Flamsteed (19 August 1646 – 31 December 1719) was an English astronomer and the first Astronomer Royal. His main achievements were the preparation of a 3,000-star catalogue, Catalogus Britannicus, and a star atlas called Atlas Coelestis, both published posthumously.

John Flamsteed (19 August 1646 – 31 December 1719)

On March 4, 1675, the English King Charles II appoints John Flamsteed to “The King’s Astronomical Observator” – the first English Astronomer Royal, with an allowance of £100 a year. In the same year, the Royal Greenwich Observatory was founded and Flamsteed laid the foundation stone.

John Flamsteed’s early interests concentrated mainly on the fields of history and languages, especially Latin. He grew up in Denby, England as the son of a businessman. By the Master of the Derby School, he was recommended to continue his education at the Jesus College at Cambridge. Before enrolling however, Flamsteed helped out at his father’s business, where he gained significant interest in mathematics and astronomy. To his early influences counts the scholar, monk, astronomer, and teacher at the University of Paris, Johannes de Sacrobosco. Flamsteed especially enjoyed his ‘De spaera mundi‘, an introduction to the basic elements of astronomy. Other critical influences to Flamsteed were Thomas Street’s ‘Astronomia Carolina‘ or the astronomical tables by Jeremiah Horrocks.[4] Flamsteed’s first paper in the field of astronomy was titled ‘Mathematical Essays‘ and was published in 1665.

When Flamsteed prepared to take up a living in Derbyshire, he was invited to London and appointed “The King’s Astronomical Observator” in 1675. In the same year, another royal warrant provided for the founding of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Flamsteed was shortly after admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society and moved into the observatory where he lived until 1684. As Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed managed to gather numerous information on stars and recorded them in his star catalogue. Flamsteed did not indent to publish his data yet, since he was not completely sure they were as exact as he wished. Still, Isaac Newton,[5] who was back then President of the Royal Society, and Edmund Halley [6] obtained Flamsteed’s data and published his star catalogue. Flamsteed then managed to gather three hundred of the four hundred printings and burned them. In 1725, his own version of Historia Coelestis Britannica was published posthumously. The work included a catalogue of almost 3000 stars with a remarkable accuracy and further observations by Flamsteed.  It was considered the first significant contribution of the Greenwich Observatory, and the numerical Flamsteed designations for stars that were added subsequently to a French edition are still in use.

During his active years of research, Flamsteed managed to calculate the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668 very accurately. Also, the scientist was able to sight the planet Uranus several times, but unfortunately mistook the planet for a star, which he catalogued as ‘34 Tauri‘. In the 1680s, it was Flamsteed, who proposed that the two great comets observed in November and December of 1680 were not separate bodies, but rather a single comet traveling first towards the Sun and then away from it. Isaac Newton firstly disagreed with him, but later on agreed with him, theorizing that comets, like planets, moved around the sun in large, closed elliptical orbits.

John Flamsteed held the office of Astronomer Royal until his death on December 31, 1719.

At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy the video lecture ‘E.T Are you out there?‘ at the Royal Astronomical Society by Dr David Mannion.

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