Flamsteed v Newton

Isaac Newton needed astronomical data to give a full theory of the motion of the moon, something which he had left incomplete in the first edition of the Principia. In the summer of 1694 Newton went by boat down the Thames to Greenwich for his first meeting with Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory. Newton persuaded Flamsteed to give him 50 of his observations of the moon, and he also managed to get a promise of another 100 observations. In return Flamsteed made Newton promise only to use them personally and not to make them public. Continued pressure by Newton prised further observations from Flamsteed over the next months. Newton promised Flamsteed fame if the observations were published along with his theory:-

I will make you readily acknowledged the most exact observer that has appeared in the world. ...if you publish them without such a theory ... they will only be thrown into the heap of observations of former astronomers.

Soon Newton and Flamsteed grew to hate each other despite both realising that he needed the other. When Flamsteed made public the fact that Newton was preparing a new edition of the Principia, Newton was furious:-

I was concerned to be publicly brought upon the stage about what perhaps will never be fitted for the public and thereby the world put into an expectation of what perhaps they are never like to have: I do not love to be printed upon every occasion much less to be dunned and teazed by foreigners about mathematical things, or thought by our own people to be trifling away my time ...

In the end Halley published Newton's theory of the moon as a booklet entitled The famous Mr Isaac Newton's Theory of the Moon.

Later, as President of the Royal Society, Newton got control of the Royal Observatory and had Halley print Flamsteed's star catalogue without his knowledge. He ordered Flamsteed to appear before him. We have a description of this meeting as set out in a letter which Flamsteed wrote to his friend Abraham Sharp:

I have had another contest with the President (Sir Isaac Newton) of the Royal Society, who had formed a plot to make my instruments theirs; and sent for me to a Committee, where only himself and two physicians (Dr Sloane, and another as little skilful as himself) were present. The President ran himself into a great heat, and very indecent passion.

I had resolved aforehand his knavish talk should not move me; showed him that all the instruments in the Observatory were my own; the mural arch and voluble quadrant having been made at my own charge, the rest purchased with my own money, except the sextant and two clocks, which were given me by Sir Jonas Moore, with Mr Towneley's micrometer, his gift, some years before I came to Greenwich. This nettled him; for he has got a letter from the Secretary of State for the Royal Society to be Visitors of the Observatory, and he said, "as good have no observatory as no instruments."

I complained then of my catalogue being printed by Raymer, without my knowledge, and that I was robbed of the fruit of my labours. At this he fired, and called me all the ill names, puppy, etc., that he could think of. All I returned was, I put him in mind of his passion, desired him to govern it, and keep his temper: this made him rage worse, and he told me how much I had received from the Government in thirty-six years I had served. I asked what he had done for the pounds500 per annum that he had received ever since he had settled in London.

This made him calmer; but finding him going to burst out again, I only told him my catalogue, half finished, was delivered into his hands, on his own request, sealed up. He could not deny it, but said Dr Arbuthnot had procured the Queen's order for opening it. This, I am persuaded, was false; or it was got after it had been opened. I said nothing to him in return; but, with a little more spirit than I had hitherto showed, told them that God (who was seldom spoken of with due reverence in that meeting) had hitherto prospered all my labours, and I doubted not would do so to a happy conclusion; took my leave and left them.

Dr Sloane had said nothing all this while; the other Doctor told me I was proud, and insulted the President, and ran into the same passion with the President. At my going out, I called to Dr Sloane, told him he had behaved himself civilly, and thanked him for it. I saw Raymer after, drank a dish of coffee with him, and told him, still calmly, of the villainy of his conduct, and called it blockish. Since then they let me be quiet; but how long they will do so I know not, nor am I solicitous.


JOC/EFR November 2006

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