Johannes Flamsteedius Derbiensis or John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, 1712
About this image
Engraved by Geo. Vertue (1721) from a painting by T. Gibson (1712).
John Flamsteed (also sometimes spelt Flamstead) was one of Derby's most notable people, famed for becoming the first Astronomer Royal in 1675. He was born on the 19th August 1646 in Denby (near Derby), Derbyshire, the son of a moderately wealthy business man. He had an unfortunate childhood with the premature death of his mother and developing ill health at the age of 14.
Flamsteed attended Derby free school which prepared children for a university education. His chronic rheumatic condition, however 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. He finally managed to study at Jesus College, Cambridge.
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. Jonas 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 Jonas 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 the 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. He possessed an uncompromising attitude, particularly towards fellow astronomer Edmond Halley, possibly due to professional jealousy.
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. He died on the 31st December 1719 in Greenwich, London. Flamsteed's assistants finally republished his star catalogue 'Historia Coelestis Britannica' in 1725 (six years after his death), 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. (information partly extracted from an article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson at www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Flamsteed.html)
This image is one of a collection by the famous local antiquarian, Thomas Bateman, of Middleton by Youlgreave. (1821-1861). Bateman organized his collection by inserting them into a 4 volume copy of Lysons Magna Britannia, Derbyshire, creating a fascinating and unique illustrated record of the county. The purchase of the collection for Derbyshire Libraries was made possible by the generous bequest of Miss Frances Webb of Whaley Bridge, well known local historian, who died in December 2006.