The First Astronomer Royal
As part of Derby Council’s ongoing scheme to recognize key historical figures from the city’s past, a blue plaque is being placed on the old clockworks at 28 Queen Street – the one time home of two important Derby residents. The first of these was John Flamsteed, who inherited the house from his father in 1688 and used it for visits. Flamsteed in best known for his work in Greenwich’s Royal Observatory but his influences stretch much further and his career path was almost very different.The later resident was Joseph Wright.
Flamsteed’s early life shaped his interests in a way he had not planned.
John was born on the 19th of August, 1646, in Denby, Derbyshire and briefly educated at Derby school where he initially became interested in Latin and History. His chronic ill health brought him out of school, also delaying his university education, and it was during this time – stuck at home, helping his widower father – that he learnt about astronomy. He was greatly inspired by Johannes de Sacrobosco and his first partial solar eclipse in1662 and, aged 19, he began to form new friendships with other devotees, going on to write a paper for William Litchford on the design of astronomer’s quadrants and tables of latitude for Derby. Eventually, Flamsteed was able to enrol in university and began his studies in Cambridge in 1670, aged 24.
John Flamsteed became the first Astronomer Royal.
In 1674, John graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge and was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal, a post that meant moving to London and an allowance of £100 a year, issued by Charles II. The following year, the Royal Greenwich Observatory was founded and Flamsteed was given the honour of laying the foundation stone. During his time working and living there – the observatory becoming his home in 1684 – he catalogued over 3000 stars, was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, accurately calculated the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668 and made a number of important discoveries. Arguably the most interesting by today’s standards is that he made the earliest recording of Uranus in December 1690, although it was wrongly noted as the star 34 Tauri at first. Isaac Newton, whose lectures were admired by Flamsteed at university, become a critic and something of a rival during 1681 as they disputed the nature of comets and Newton’s access to Flamsteed’s information.
There was more to John Flamsteed than being the Astronomer Royal.
This coveted position was not the only role that John took on during his adult life – he was also a priest to the parish of Burstow in Surrey and a devoted husband to his wife Margaret. He had initially taken the role in Greenwich over a much different position in Derbyshire, having been ordained a deacon, but in 1684 he moved to Surrey and successfully held both posts until his death. His wife Margaret, who survived him, played an important role in his posthumous impact on his field in two ways: at first she took possession of all his work and equipment, meaning some important items were lost, but she later edited and published two works under his name. The first was the Historia Coelestis Brittannica in 1725 – a catalogue that is considered to be the first significant contribution to the observatory – and the second was his Atlas Coelestis in 1729.
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Flamsteed’s death and ongoing legacy within the world of astronomy.
John died on the 31st of December, 1719, in his parish of Burstow, where he was also buried and a stained glass window was installed in his honour. Like all beloved sons of Derby, there are the usual memorials in place to remember Flamsteed’s life and work, such as the aforementioned place in the city’s blue plaque scheme and a series of educational institutions being named in his honour; however, the dedications to this first Astronomer Royal go much further than Derby, Burstow or even Greenwich. The Royal observatory houses a bust of the man in the museum and they named their astronomical society after him but there is also an asteroid bearing his name and a crater on the moon. He may have ruffled a few feathers with his peers when he was alive and been viewed as weak, sickly man but in death, the work left behind and the numerous tributes show just what he meant to the observatory and to our knowledge of astronomy.