John Flamsteed must rank as one of Britain's finest astronomers. He was the first 'Astronomer Royal', and occupied the Royal Observatory built by King Charles the Second at Greewich for some 44 years, seeing astronomy emerge from the mysteries and myths of the middle ages, to become a modern, mathematical and scientific discipline.
A small plaque on a large modern house in Denby, Derbyshire, reminds one of his birthplace in an isolated house overlooking the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. The local comprehensive school bears his name. His father Stephen Flamsteed was a maltster and ironmonger of the St Werburgh Parish in Derby. They had moved to Denby temporarily to escape the troubles in Derby at the time.
Flamsteed was educated at the Derby Free Grammer School, whose puritantic masters focused learning on the teaching of maths and Latin.Poor health prevented him from attending university,so instead he helped out with his father's business and studied at home in his spare time. He became passionately fond of astronomy, reading all the major works available, his knowledge of Latin enabling him to understand the scientific literature, which at that time was universally written in Latin.
With a home made telescope he could measure the positions of the moon and the planets and soon began to forecast their future positions for himself, finding that they did not agree with the astronomical tables that existed at the time.
He soon became recognized as an outstanding observational astronomer and in 1674 was granted a master's degree from Cambridge University without having to do the normal residential requirement.
One important problem at the time, especially for a sea faring nation, was the inability of sea captains to work out their longitude when crossing the oceans. A Frenchman by the name of Soeur de St Pierre claimed that he had found a solution. John Flamsteed was appointed to join the Royal Commission looking into his claim. Flamsteed provided astronomical details to test Pierre's claim and gave the opinion that although based on reasonable theory it would not work in practise because of the insufficient accuracy of the tables that existed. King Charles, determined to remedy this situation, had the Royal Observatory designed by Christopher Wren and built at Greenwich. Charles appointed Flamsteed as its first director at a salary of £100 per annum in 1875. Flamsteed stayed there until his death in 1719.
His star catalogue listing more than 3000 stars, gave their positions more accurately then ever before. He spent much of the time arguing with Issac Newton and Edmond Halley over their requests for access to his astronomical observations and the early publication of some of his own work by Halley. He died before he could complete publication of his own work himself. This was left to 2 former assistants, who published 'Historiae Coelestis Britannica' in 1725 and his 'Atlas Coelestis' in 1729. These 2 publications put Britain at the forefront of astronomy and contained the most accurate information on the position of the stars and planets available for many years to come.
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