The Founding of England's Royal Observatory

views updated

The Founding of England's Royal Observatory


European exploration of the New World ushered in the transformation of the political, economic, academic, and social systems that had predominated in late medieval Europe. Mercantilism, an economic philosophy that emphasized the need for massive gold reserves and promoted trade, became the dominant economic theory of many Western European nations. The increased perception of a need for gold bullion forced England, France, Spain, Holland, Portugal, and other nations into intense rivalries for dominion over the seas and land in the New World. Also, these nations all sought ways in which to expedite and gain monopolies over trade with the nations of the Far East. The competition for wealth to stock national coffers—both in terms of plunder and trade goods—revolutionized European business. Corporations were founded to subsidize colonial and trade ventures, banks were established to handle personal reserves, and credit was levied to help provide capital for such ventures.

This increased interest and economic reliance on trade and colonization was not without risk. In the seventeenth century the marine endeavors themselves were a great risk, both in terms of money and human life. Innovations in shipbuilding, weaponry, and navigational instruments abounded, but ships continued to be stranded or lost with alarming frequency. Not only was this phenomenon a problem for the merchant fleets, but it also plagued the burgeoning fleets of military ships needed to defend the competing national shipping interests. Perhaps the greatest question surrounding safe passage on the seas was finding a way for sailors to determine their longitude—one's precise position east and west—while at sea and out of the sight of land. To address this problem, King Charles II of England established the Royal Observatory. Advised by the predominant scientists of the time, the king believed that the answer to the problem lay in finding a method by which to calculate longitude using charts of celestial observations. The problem of determining longitude at sea was eventually settled in a much more practical manner, by the invention of a portable timepiece resistant to the constant motion of a ship, but the Royal Observatory remained dedicated to advancing the science of astronomy.


The Royal Observatory was founded at Greenwich, England, on June 22, 1675. The complex of buildings itself is an architectural masterpiece. Designed by renowned English architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the Observatory featured high vaulted ceilings that could accommodate great instruments. Its earliest contributions were in the fields of observational and practical astronomy, most especially in the determination of star positions, the transit of certain planets, and the compilation and publication of astronomical charts and almanacs that were used as navigational tools. Accurate timekeeping was also a major endeavor of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. For this purpose, The Nautical Almanac was published in 1767. The publication established the line of longitude (or meridian) that passed through Greenwich as a baseline for the calculation of time.

The matter of governing the Royal Observatory came into question in 1675. Charles II appointed John Flamsteed (1646-1719) the first Astronomer Royal, and charged the then-28-year-old clergyman "to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much-desired longitude of places for the perfecting the art of navigation." Flamsteed endeavored to find a method of calculating longitude using celestial observations and carefully calculated astronomical charts, an effort that took several voyages to the New World for which to collect data. However, he himself did not put forth any ultimate mathematical solution to the longitude problem.

Upon being granted the stewardship of the Royal Observatory, Flamsteed undertook the project of acquiring the necessary tools to collect the most accurate and scientific data then possible. The financial burden of equipping the Observatory fell almost solely upon Flamsteed himself. With the help of a small family inheritance and a few generous gifts from outside benefactors, he constructed a mural arc, a large instrument used for measuring the altitudes of stars as they passed over the meridian. He also purchased several practical tools used aboard ships for navigation in hopes of making technical advances on the instruments themselves, or incorporating their basic elements into equipment that would aid astronomical observations. The limited funding for the Observatory forced Flamsteed to take on students in order to earn his salary. This practice was eventually helpful in maintaining the caliber of scientific inquiry at the Observatory and ensuring its continuance beyond Flamsteed's tenure.


The accomplishments of the Royal Observatory and the several noteworthy astronomers who graced its halls are numerous. The Royal Observatory is perhaps the only institution of the Royal Society that from its inception promoted active research, scholarship, and publication of modern science. The Society, which held steadfast to an exclusion of matters political and religious, was a torch-bearer of the Enlightenmentera philosophy that made secular institutions of scientific inquiry more politically, socially, and academically palatable. However, even the Royal Observatory was not completely free from its own internal politics and academic prejudices.

One of Flamsteed's several regular duties included serving on the panel, composed of scholars from the Royal Society, appointed to evaluate the claims of those who asserted different methods and theories of solving the longitude problem. However, he was rumored to have demonstrated a bias in favor of astronomical methods of solving the longitude problem. Recent historians have levied the criticism that one of Flamsteed's successors, Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811), who was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1765 and who expanded upon Flamsteed's stellar catalog by adding lunar observations, and his colleagues may have, through deft bureaucratic maneuverings, hindered the development and final acceptance of a mechanical timepiece, now called the Harrison Timepiece after its creator, as a means of readily ascertaining longitude at sea.

Flamsteed's position as director of the Royal Observatory put him in contact with several of the foremost astronomers and scientists of the age, including Sir Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Indeed, it was Flamsteed's equipment at the Royal Observatory that Halley used to sight and track the comet that is his namesake. However, relations between the other scientists and Flamsteed were not always cordial. Recurring illness plagued Flamsteed and reportedly he was often ill tempered. Flamsteed spent decades compiling a remarkable atlas of stellar observations. Though he had already amassed a substantial volume, Flamsteed wished to delay publication on any part of the work until it was completed in entirety. Both Halley and Newton led the charge for the immediate publication of the atlas and gained the sponsorship of the Prince of Denmark to pay for the printing costs. The Prince died a few years later, but Halley continued to edit the volume and push for its publication. Despite Flamsteed's objections, 400 copies of the volume were published in 1712. Flamsteed managed to secure 300 copies of the newly printed atlas and burned them. The completed catalog of his observations was published in 1725 under the title Historia Coelestis Britannica. The compilation listed the names and positions of over 3,000 stars.

Discoveries and innovations in the field of astronomy continued throughout the entire life of the Royal Observatory. However, with the problem of longitude solved, the research of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at the Observatory were primarily focused on using practical astronomy to accurately measure time and distance on Earth. The reliance of international mariners on charts and catalogs from the Royal Observatory strengthened the case for the longitude of Greenwich itself to be designated the Prime Meridian, the imaginary line that marks 0° 0' 0", the longitude from which all east-west directional coordinates are measured. An international convention approved the designation of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1884. The exact location of the meridian is marked by the sighting crosshairs inside of the eyepiece of a telescope inside the Observatory. The distinction of the Prime Meridian meant that not only east-west bearings, but also international time zones were measured from Greenwich—hence the advent of the designation of Greenwich Mean Time (or Universal Standard Time.)

Fleeing light pollution from nearby London, the Royal Observatory left its historic grounds at Greenwich in 1948. The institution carried on its research at Hertmonceux in Sussex until 1990, when it moved again to the grounds of Cambridge University. With university resources, Observatory research once again pioneered new fields in astronomy and particle physics—especially in efforts to further determine the dynamics of the Milky Way and the composition of stellar objects. After 300 years of pioneering research in astronomy, the Royal Observatory was disbanded. Research in progress and equipment was moved to the UK Astronomy Technology Center at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh; historic instruments, charts, catalogs, and other devices were returned to the old complex at Greenwich, now a museum. At its close in 1998, the Royal Observatory was the oldest scientific institution in the British Isles.


Further Reading

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Penguin, 1996.

About this article

The Founding of England's Royal Observatory

Updated About content Print Article