John Flamsteed


Born: 19 August 1646 in Denby (near Derby), Derbyshire, England
Died: 31 December 1719 in Greenwich, London, England


John Flamsteed's father was a business man who was quite wealthy. Flamsteed's mother however died when he was still a child and this affected his upbringing.

Flamsteed attended Derby free school which prepared children for a university education. However life did not go smoothly for Flamsteed who, at the age of 14, developed severe health problems. A chronic rheumatic condition led to his father deciding not to send him to university. Flamsteed was extremely disappointed but he did not let it prevent him from studying.

Between 1662 and 1669 Flamsteed studied astronomy on his own without the help of teachers. In fact he does not seem to have missed the formal teaching but his father continued to oppose his studies and this made far more difficulties for Flamsteed than the fact that he could not attend lectures. Flamsteed's father always maintained that it was because of his son's ill health that he opposed his studying but Flamsteed, in his correspondence in later life, suggested that his father may have had other motives. Since Flamsteed's mother had died when he was young, Flamsteed was useful to his father as someone to look after the home. Whether or not this was his father's motive, certainly Flamsteed felt bitterness towards his father.

Flamsteed began systematic observations in 1671. He also began corresponding with Henry Oldenburg and John Collins. These two arranged for Flamsteed to meet Jonas Moore during a visit Flamsteed made to the Royal Society in London in 1670. Moore became his patron and persuaded Charles II to grant a warrant so that Jesus College Cambridge could award an M.A. to Flamsteed in 1674.

In February 1675 Flamsteed arrived in London to stay with Moore and Moore arranged that Flamsteed visit the King, Charles II, to ask for a Royal Observatory. In fact Flamsteed had to some extent paved the way to find favour with the King, having made a barometer and a thermometer for Charles II and the Duke of York in previous year. On 4 March 1675 the King appointed Flamsteed his astronomical observer by Royal Warrant. From his salary of £100 he had to pay £10 taxes and also provide all his own instruments. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was built and equipped for his observations and he began observing there in 1676.

Ordained in 1675, Flamsteed received the income of the living of Burstow, Surrey from 1684. In 1677 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Flamsteed was a skilled observer and had a number of observing programmes at the Royal Observatory to answer major questions. Among his other achievements was the fact that Flamsteed invented the conical projection, an important projection of the sphere onto a plane which is used in cartography.

Newton required data for his understanding of the orbit of the Moon, a difficult problem to which Newton applied his universal law of gravity. Flamsteed never quite seemed to understand what Newton required and the two were not on the best of terms, in fact Flamsteed was a perfectionist and was not an easy man to get on with.

In [1] he is described as follows:-

Possessed of an attitude that can only be described as uncompromising, he was an intemperate man even by the standards of an intemperate age. The particular and enduring subject of his passion was Edmond Halley. The last thirty years of Flamsteed's extensive correspondence is infused with vituperative remarks about the man who should have been his most natural ally.

It is hard to say exactly why Flamsteed was so bitter towards Halley but their personalities certainly clashed while there must have been a certain professional jealousy between them. The battle Flamsteed had with Halley over the publication of his carefully made observations is described in [2]:-

The latter part of Flamsteed's life passed in controversy over the publication of his excellent observations. He struggled to withhold them until completed, but they were urgently needed by Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, among others. Newton, through the Royal Society, led the movement for their immediate publication. In 1704 Prince George of Denmark undertook the cost of publication, and, despite the prince's death in 1708 and Flamsteed's objections, the incomplete observations were edited by Halley, and 400 copies were printed in 1712. Flamsteed later managed to burn 300 of them.

Flamsteed did publish his star catalogue Historia Coelestis Britannica in 1725 containing data on 3000 stars. It listed more stars and gave their positions considerably more accurately than any other previous publication had done. It was ironical that his greatest enemy, Halley, should succeed him as the second Astronomer Royal.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

April 1997


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Flamsteed.html]