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: astrology-and-science.com)

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_Hemisphaerium_Coeli_Australe...,_c_1730

(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.)