John Flamsteed’s Election For The Foundation Of The Royal Greenwich Observatory

John Flamsteed (1646 – 1719) was an English astronomer, a member of the Royal Society. and the first Astronomer Royal. On 4 March 1675 Flamsteed was appointed by Royal Warrant “The King’s Astronomical Observator”. The warrant stated Flamsteed’s task as:

“rectifieing the Tables of the motions of the Heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired Longitude of places for Perfecteing the Art of Navigation”.

In 1725, after a lifetime of observing the heavens, Flamsteed’s own edition of Historia Coelestis Britannica was published posthumously. The book contained his astronomical observations, including a catalogue of 2,935 stars. During his career, Flamsteed accurately calculated the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668. He was also responsible for some of the earliest recorded sightings of the planet Uranus, which he mistook for a star.

In June 1675, a second Royal Warrant was issued. It was concerned with the founding of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which was intended to be a:

“small observatory within our park at Greenwich, upon the highest ground, at or near the place where the castle stood”.

(Greenwich Observatory [Latinised as “Observatorium Anglicanum Hoc Grenovici prope Londinum”], as illustrated in Doppelmayr’s map of the southern celestial hemisphere, ca. 1730)

It is fairly well documented that, in his youth, Flamsteed was very interested in astrology. In his autobiography, we find that in 1665, he busied himself very much in:

“… calculating the nativities of my friends and acquaintance…”

and in 1666, he:

“… spent some part of my time in astrological studies”

We also know that Flamsteed provided the astrologers Vincent Wing and George Parker with data for their planetary tables. In 1673 he began to work on “His large Ephemeris for the yeare 1674”, stating that in this ephemeris, he:

“… showed the falsity of astrology, and the ignorance of those who pretend to it.”

In the preface, he wrote under the pseudonym of Thomas Feilden:

“Indeed, so small is the verity of astrology that even astrologers do not agree on where it lies. Thus William Ramsey (Astrologia Restaurata 1653) says it lies with elections while William Lilly (Christian Astrology 1647) says it lies with horary (he makes his living by them), but John Gadbury (Genethlialogia 1658) laughs at both, thinks that elections are a vanity and horary uncertain, and says it lies with nativities, which I can disprove with one of his own examples of a famous person where, if the name of the person were concealed, the chart would be judged as indicating an idiot rather than a famous person.” (A Preface to the Readers Concerneing the Vanity of Astrology, & the practices of Astrologers; Source:

It has to be noted though, that neither the preface nor the ephemeris were ever published! It is thought that Flamsteed never found a publisher, willing to print his work, but there is also the possibility that he changed his mind. One year after he finished the draft for his ephemeris, Flamsteed produced an election for the foundation of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, shown below:

The chart includes the Latin motto “Risum teneatis amici”, translated as “could you, my friends, refrain from laughing”. He may have found some merit in astrology after all!


(Doppelmayr’s celestial map of the southern hemisphere published in Atlas Coelestis in quo Mundus Spectabilis…, decorated with vignettes of the astronomical observatories at Greenwich, Copenhagen, Cassel, and Berlin.)

Athanasius Kircher on the Celestial Spheres

Athansius Kircher was a Jesuit scholar who lived between 1602 and 1680. He was born in Germany and lived there and in France, until in 1633 the Austrian Emperor called him to Vienna to succeed Kepler as mathematician of the Habsburg court. On the way there Kircher’s ship was blown off course and he ended up in Rome, where he spent the rest of his life. He published 40 books on various subjects in the fields of Egyptology, geology and medicine. Although he was a contemporary of Rene Descartes, whose rationalism was beginning to  change the world for ever, Kircher’s thinking was still rooted in the Renaissance and particularly in Ficinian Neoplatonism. In his works he extensively quotes from Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Pimander and the Asclepius. He even gives his own version of Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in his Obe eliscus Pamphilius, published in 1650. Although a Jesuit, Kircher was involved in natural magic; he rejected daemonic magic, but was a Cabalist, trying to establish a synthesis between Hermetism and Cabalism in the sense of Pico della Mirandola.

What is of interest in the context of celestial spheres (see as well my web log entry On the Nine Spheres of Heaven) is a plate of comparative pictures of different cosmological systems. The plate reproduced here was first published by Kircher in his Iter Extaticum, Rome 1671. A pdf version of this book can be accessed here: Iter Extaticum

The plate depicts the following cosmological systems:

I. The Ptolemaic system

This is the basic system with the earth at its centre; the seven spheres of the Planets (moon, Mercury, Venus, sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) surround the earth. They are all moving in concentric circles. Above the sphere of Saturn are placed the spheres of the fixed stars and the zodiac. This model was in use until it was overturned by the Copernican revolution.

II. The Platonic system

For Plato the cosmos was principally the image of the cosmic soul, mixed together from the three ingredients, being, sameness and difference, each of which is an intermediate state between the indivisibility of the noetic world and the divisibility of perceptible phenomena. It was structured by the demiurge, who indicated time by placing circular moving heavenly bodies in the circuits of the cosmic soul. For an in-depth discussion of this subject see Plato’s Timaeus, 34b-36b. Note hat Plato puts the sun directly above the moon.

III. The pseudo-Egyptian system

This system was adopted by Vitruvius who lived between ca 80 – 70 BC and 15 BC. He was a Roman writer and architect who was rediscovered in the Renaissance. Here Mercury and Venus are revolving around the sun. Like the other Planets, the sun revolves around the earth.

IV. and V. Tycho Brahe’s system

This system was suggested by Tycho Brahe, who lived between 1546 and 1601, was a famous astronomer and alchemist. He tried to combine the Copernican system with the Ptolemaic system, the so-called Tychonic system. In his system there are two centres; the sun revolves around the earth and is at the same time the centre of the five other planets.

VI. The Copernican system

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus, the famous Renaissance astronomer, formulated his heliocentric cosmology. His book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium can be regarded as the first textbook of modern astronomy. Having put the sun in the centre of the celestial spheres, he showed that his system corresponded with the Hermetic idea of the refinement of matter from lead (Saturn) towards gold (Sun), represented by the innermost, central position of the sun. Nevertheless Copernicus’ discovery was predated by the vision of Nicholas of Cusa, a German bishop, who lived between 1404 and 1461. Cusa was a Neoplatonist who reached the conclusion that the earth, rotating on its own axis, was circling the sun already in 1445. Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Johnnes Kepler and Galileo Galilei were all aware of Cusa’s writings. Giordano Bruno often quoted Cusa in stating that “because God was infinite the universe would reflect this fact in boundless immensity”.