Reverend John Flamsteed (August 19, 1646 - December 31, 1719), was a fellow
of The Royal Society, and the first Astronomer Royal of England.
Flamsteed was born in Denby, Derbyshire. He was a sickly child, and his
poor health hindered his education for many years. He did not even begin
studying basic arithmetic until he was 16. However, once his education began,
he showed an aptitude for mathematics and astronomy, and pursued them
eagerly (a fact which angered his father, who wanted John to be a merchant).
His independent work on the positions of stars and planets (made with crude
and homemade instruments) brought him to the attention of the Royal Society,
and Flamsteed entered Cambridge University, graduating in 1674. He took
holy orders at this time, and wanted to return to Derbyshire to take over
a parish. However, his life took a different turn.
In 1674, Flamsteed chaired a committee on whether the Crown should build an
observatory in England dedicated to improving the positional accuracy of
star atlases, an idea raised by a French astronomer visiting England
at the time. This was an important field of research, because star charts
were used extensively by the Navy for navigation and for determining ones
latitude and longitude accurately. In the latter half of 1674, Flamsteed
concluded that longitudes could not be precisely determined because the best
star atlases of the day were not accurate enough. News of Flamsteed's
conclusion reached King Charles II, who immediately ordered the construction
of a new observatory at Greenwich to improve
the positional accuracy of current star atlases. Flamsteed was appointed the
director of Greenwich, and was made the first Astronomer Royal in 1675.
Despite the importance of his work, Flamsteed had problems from the start.
Charles had only given 500 pounds and some scrap materiel for the
construction of the observatory, and gave no money for instrumentation. Money
for instrumentation came out of Flamsteed's already tiny salary of only 100
pounds per year, and as a result he had to build many of the instruments
himself. He could not even afford observing assistants, and for most of his
first twenty five years as director he conducted most of his work alone.
He had a small patronage from Sir Jonas Moore, though Moore died in 1679,
leaving him no money. He had to supplement his income with teaching, including
both private students (more than 100 over the years), and a three year
lectureship at Gresham College (April 27, 1681 - November 19, 1684),
where he lectured on the state of astronomical knowledge at the time. He also
edited and revised some standard astronomy books of the time, and received
small fees for these. He was granted a small parish in Surrey in 1684
which provided some additional income.
Flamsteed worked for many decades on the new star atlas -- a revision and
expansion of Tycho Brahe's catalogue. It was not until about 1700
(and the death of his father) that Flamsteed had enough money to hire
assistants (Abraham Sharp, and later Joseph Crosthwait) to assist him with
observations and calculations. Flamsteed finished a draft version of the
catalogue, the Historia Coelestis in 1708, and this was published
in 1712. A revised version of the catalogue, the Historia Coelestis
Brittanica, was published posthumously in 1725. It was, at the time,
the most accurate star atlas ever published.
Flamsteed's life was difficult, and he got along poorly with many of his
contemporaries. Some of this may have had to do with his very strict
Christian views, but was probably also due both to his financial problems and
his poor health. His professorship at Gresham was not continued beyond
late November of 1684, primarily due to his poor relations with the other
faculty, and his lectures were not used or cited by his contemporaries.
He had several severe disagreements with both Isaac Newton and Edmond
Halley. In 1691, Newton urged Flamsteed to publish his observations of
the moon to aid Newton's derivation of the moon's orbit,
but Flamsteed refused. He believed that the Greenwich observations should only
be published as a whole because their impact (and as a result, Flamsteed's
fame) would be greater. Independent observations were then made by Halley,
which Newton used in his analysis. Flamsteed incorrectly claimed the
observations were stolen.
He had several other personal and professional problems with Halley. First,
Halley was a competitor both with the lunar observations and with the
star catalogue. Halley actually worked with Flamsteed in 1675, as a student
at Oxford University, and Flamsteed gave Halley due credit for his work in
a 1675 paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
But in 1676, Halley was given a stipend of 300 pounds by his father, which
he used to map the southern sky from the island of St. Helena. Halley's
observations were sparse (only 341 stars) and not of high quality, but his
catalogue has the distinction of being the first made with
telescopic observations. Flamsteed and Halley also had problems
on a personal level, since Halley had a more easygoing personality than
Flamsteed's sour one. They were on poor terms for the remainder of Flamsteed's
Finally, even Flamsteed's own catalogue became an arguing point. Flamsteed
withheld the catalogue for many years, wanting it to be as complete and
perfect as possible. The Royal Society disagreed, and Historia Coelestis
was published against Flamsteed's wishes. Flamsteed later had many copies
recalled and burned, and spent the few remaining years of his life
working on the revision. Presumably, after his death he was unable to
complain, though publication still took an additional six years under the
editorial work of Sharp and Crosthwait.
Edmond Halley was appointed the second Astronomer Royal in 1719. I don't know
if it was before or after Flamsteed's death, but I'm sure it would have
annoyed Flamsteed in either case...
Makers of Astronomy by Hector Macpherson, Oxford at the Clarendon
The Gresham Lectures of John Flamsteed edited by Eric Forbes,
Mansell Press, 1975
Astronomers Royal by Colin Ronan, Doubleday, 1967