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John Flamsteed

John FlamsteedBorn: 19-Aug-1646
Birthplace: Denby, Derbyshire, England
Died: 31-Dec-1719
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Astronomer

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Founder of Greenwich Observatory

English astronomer, born at Denby, near Derby, on the 19th of August 1646. The only son of Stephen Flamsteed, a maltster, he was educated at the free school of Derby, but left it finally in May 1662, in consequence of a rheumatic affection of the joints, due to a chill caught while bathing. Medical aid having proved of no avail, he went to Ireland in 1665 to be "stroked" by Valentine Greatrakes, but "found not his disease to stir." Meanwhile, he solaced his enforced leisure with astronomical studies. Beginning with J. Sacrobosco's De sphaera, he read all the books on the subject that he could buy or borrow; observed a partial solar eclipse on the 12th of September 1662; and attempted the construction of measuring instruments. A tract on the equation of time, written by him in 1667, was published by Dr. John Wallis with the Posthumous Works of Jeremiah Horrocks (1673); and a paper embodying his calculations of appulses to stars by the moon, which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (iv. 1099), signed In Mathesi a sole fundes, an anagram "of Johannes Flamsteedius", secured for him, from 1670, general scientific recognition.

On his return from a visit to London in 1670 he became acquainted with Isaac Newton at Cambridge, entered his name at Jesus college, and took, four years later, a degree of M.A. by letters-patent. An essay composed by him in 1673 on the true and apparent diameters of the planets furnished Newton with data for the third book of the Principia, and he fitted numerical elements to J. Horrocks's theory of the moon. In 1674, and again in 1675, he was invited to London by Sir Jonas Moore, governor of the Tower of London, who proposed to establish him in a private observatory at Chelsea, but the plan was anticipated by the determination of King Charles II to have the tables of the heavenly bodies corrected, and the places of the fixed stars rectified "for the use of his seamen", and Flamsteed was appointed "astronomical observator" by a royal warrant dated 4th of March 1675. His salary of 100 a year was cut down by taxation to 90; he had to provide his own instruments, and to instruct, into the bargain, two boys from Christ's hospital. Sheer necessity drove him, in addition, to take many private pupils; but having been ordained in 1675, he was presented by Lord North in 1684 to the living of Burstow in Surrey; and his financial position was further improved by a small inheritance on his father's death in 1688. He now ordered, at an expense of 120, a mural arc from Abraham Sharp, with which he began to observe systematically on the 12th of September 1689.

The latter part of Flamsteed's life passed in a turmoil of controversy regarding the publication of his results. He struggled to withhold them until they could be presented in a complete form; but they were urgently needed for the progress of science, and the astronomer-royal was a public servant. Sir Isaac Newton, who depended for the perfecting of his lunar theory upon "places of the moon" reluctantly doled out from Greenwich, led the movement for immediate communication; from that arose much ill-feeling between him and Flamsteed. At last, in 1704, Prince George of Denmark undertook the cost of printing; a committee of the Royal Society was appointed to arrange preliminaries, and Flamsteed, protesting and exasperated, had to submit. The work was only partially through the press when the prince died, on the 28th of October 1708, and its completion devolved upon a board of visitors to the observatory endowed with ample powers by a royal order of the 12th of December 1712. As the upshot, the Historia Coelestis, embodying the first Greenwich star-catalogue, together with the mural arc observations made 1689-1705, was issued under Edmund Halley's editorship in 1712. Flamsteed denounced the production as surreptitious; he committed to the flames three hundred copies, of which he obtained possession through the favor of Sir Robert Walpole; and, in defiance of bodily infirmities, vigorously prosecuted his designs for the entire and adequate publication of the materials he continued to accumulate. They were but partially executed when he died on the 31st of December 1719.

The preparation of Flamsteed's monumental work, Historia Coelestis (3 vols. folio, 1725), was finished by his assistant, Joseph Crosthwait, aided by Abraham Sharp. The first two volumes included the whole of Flamsteed's observations at Derby and Greenwich; the third contained the British Catalogue of nearly 3000 stars. Numerous errors in this valuable record having been detected by Sir William Herschel, Caroline Herschel drew up a list of 560 stars observed, but not catalogued, while 111 of those catalogued proved to have never been observed (Phil. Trans. lxxxvii. 293). The appearance of the Atlas Coelestis, corresponding to the British Catalogue, was delayed until 1729. A portrait of Flamsteed, painted by Thomas Gibson in 1712, hangs in the rooms of the Royal Society. The extent and quality of his performance were the more remarkable considering his severe physical sufferings, his straitened means, and the antagonism to which he was exposed. Estimable in private life, he was highly susceptible in professional matters, and hence failed to keep on terms with his contemporaries.

Father: Stephen Flamsteed (maltster, d. 1688)

    University: Jesus College, Cambridge University (1674)

    Astronomer Royal 1675-1719


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