The Royal Observatory has several possible birthdays. I have, for example, seen it given as 4 March or 22 June 1675. The first is the date of Charles II’s Royal Warrant that ordered the Board of Ordnance to pay for “the support and Maintenance” of John Flamsteed, appointed “our astronomical observator” and charged “to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find our the so much-desired longitude of places for the perfecting the art of navigation”.
The second date is that on another Royal Warrant, this time authorising the construction of the “small observatory within our park at Greenwich, upon the highest ground, at or near the place where the castle
stood”. It stated that Sir Christopher Wren
, the surveyor-general, should design the building (although it is clear that his assistant Robert Hooke
actually led the project), and that its cost, defrayed in part by selling off old gunpowder, “shall not exceed five hundred pounds”.
Another possible date is 12 June 1676, when there was a partial solar eclipse which was to be viewed as something of an opening ceremony: it was hoped that the King would attend but he did not, Lord Brouncker
, President of the Royal Society, being the guest of honour instead. Or perhaps 10 July, which is when Flamsteed began living at the Observatory with his two servants, or 19 July, which is the date on which his long series of Greenwich observations began?
But no. As the title of this post suggests, the real birthday of the Observatory is today. 10 August 1675 is the date on which the foundation stone was laid and – something which clinches it – the date for which Flamsteed cast a horoscope. The horoscope, of course, also tells us the exact time that the foundation stone was laid: 3.14pm.
It should come as no surprise that a 17th-century astronomer was capable of drawing up an astrological chart. Although astronomy and astrology are now very different things, in the early modern period they were still closely allied. In this context it can be useful to think of astronomy as the observational practice that supplied data for a number of purposes, chiefly navigation, surveying, timekeeping and astrology. Flamsteed, like many other early modern astronomers, supplied his data to astrologers and evidently knew well how to cast and interpret a horoscope himself.
Nevertheless, this horoscope remains intriguing, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it includes the Latin motto “Risum teneatis amici”, taken from Horace and usually translated as “could you, my friends, refrain from laughing?”. Was this meant sarcastically, or defensively? Secondly, John Flamsteed had, in the 1670s, compiled a serious, but unpublished, attack on astrologers (which also survives in Cambridge, RGO 1/75-76). Yet the horoscope itself was cast properly and it appears
that the date and time of laying the foundation were delibately chosen as auspicious. Flamsteed’s attitude is, therefore, well summed up in an article by Michael Hunter as ”an ambivalence towards the art coexisting with overt hostility” directed at bad and ignorant practitioners.
Although astrology had nothing to do with it, the Royal Observatory got off to a reasonable start and, whatever run-ins Flamsteed himself had with the Royal Society and it later president, Isaac Newton, the institution itself was remarkably persistent. Despite the death of its major patron, Jonas Moore, a constitutional revoution and the death of its first astronomer, the Observatory was to survive for three centuries. The building itself will, I hope, last several centuries more!
 Michael Hunter, ‘Science and astrology in seventeenth-century England: an unpublished polemic by John Flamsteed’, in Patrick Curry (ed), Astrology, Science and Society: Historical Essays (Woodbridge, SF: 1987).
Image: Horoscope of the Royal Observatory, cast by John Flamsteed (RGO Manuscripts, University of Cambridge: RGO 1/18)
Back in April we met Annie Russell Maunder, but she was not, in fact, the first woman to be paid for her work at Greenwich under Astronomer Royal William Christie’s new scheme. Russell’s friend Alice Everett (1865-1949) had begun work as a supernumerary computer almost two years earlier, in January 1890.
Like Russell, Everett had attended Girton College, Cambridge and took the Mathematical Tripos, which essentially made both women as well-qualified as the Chief Assistant, Frank Dyson, who began work in 1894. Before this Everett had also attended Queen’s College, Belfast, where she had taken first place in the first-year scholarship examination – causing the college authorities to question and decide against the eligibility of women in the competition.
At Greenwich, Everett was assigned to work in the Astrographic Department, contributing to the international Carte du Ciel project which aimed to map the skies using the still-new technique of stellar photography. Although her job-title was ‘computer’ (i.e. those who carried out routine calculations to ‘reduce’ raw observational data into usable tables), Everett was in fact trained to use the Observatory’s new astrographic telescope in order to take the photographs, as well as then measuring the plates, calculating the co-ordinates of the stars and reducing the data for the catalogue. She also made observations for the Transit Department with the Prime-Meridian-defining Airy Transit Circle. Everett necessarily worked at the ROG at night, though we don’t know whether she made her way through the park or stayed on-site when it was dark.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich’s astrographic telescope
Again like Russell, Everett was proposed but rejected for fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society and instead found an outlet for her enthusiasm in the amateur British Astronomical Association, although she published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as in the BAA’s journal, The Observatory and elsewhere.
After five years at Greenwich, Everett moved to the observatory in Potsdam, Europe’s leading institution for astrophysical research, to continue work on the Carte du Ciel. This was only a temporary post, and after three years Everett was on the move again, this time for a year at the observatory of Vassar College. She failed to find another post in the USA and returned to London in 1900, where her interests turned to optics. She undertook a translation of a German optical text and carried out a number of experiments, but was unable to find regular paid work until the First World War, which gave many women an opportunity to enter the workforce. In 1917 she joined the staff of the National Physical Laboratory, where she remained until her retirement in 1925.
Even after retirement, Everett did not sit still. She took qualifications in electrical engineering and became involved with the Baird Television Company and Television Society, associations that were to last for the rest of her life. On her death in 1949 she left her library of scientific books to the Television Society.
For more information on and pictures of both these remarkable women, see Mary T. Brück, ‘Alice Everett and Annie Russell Maunder torch bearing women astronomers’.
This Sunday sees the 150th anniversary of the starting of the Great Westminster Clock, popularly known as Big Ben after its great bell. While Parliament is enjoying this anniversary (see http://www.bigben.parliament.uk/), it seems timely to remember the ROG’s connection to these events.
Edward John Dent, engraving by Charles Baugniet, 1853.
The Westminster Clock was built and designed by Edward John Dent
, who made many of the clocks used by the ROG and now in the NMM collections. His recommendation as maker, and much of the design was, however, suggested by George Biddell Airy
, the 7th Astronomer Royal.
George Biddell Airy, engraving by Thomas Herbert Maguire, 1852
Airy had frequently collaborated with Dent on Observatory equipment and to try out his own ideas in clock-making theory. Not least, they had already collaborated on another important turret clock, which was made for the Royal Exchange. This was so successful that Dent remarked, “The mechanical world in my opinion lost its greatest genius when Mr. Airy became an Astronomer….”.
Perhaps most importantly, from the ROG perspective, it was Airy who drew up the specification to which both the Royal Exchange clock and the Westminster clock should conform. They were to be far more accurate than previous public clocks of this type, for Airy specified that the first stroke of each hour should be accurate to a second. This was to be regulated to Greenwich Time, by being checked twice a day at the ROG via telegraph. As historian of science Jim Bennett explains, Airy not only devoted a lot of time to these clocks, but “it is clear that his general intention was not simply that another clock should be built, but to effect a change of attitude to public timekeeping”.
Westminster Clock Tower, watercolour by William Lionel Wyllie (late 19th/early 20th century)
Things did not proceed quite as easily as they had with the Royal Exchange clock and, perhaps because of lack of time, Airy asked the MP and amateur clock-maker Edmund Beckett Denison to assist in overseeing the project. Differences between the two led to Airy resigning in 1853 – but his demand for accuracy and the link to GMT remained.
See the UK Parliament website for an account of the various other delays that hit the building of the clock, the tower and the bell – and you can see some fantastic images of the Clock Tower and the workings of the clock on the BBC website.
Continuing the theme of women connected to the ROG, this post leaps forward from Margaret Flamsteed in the 17th century to Annie Scott Dill Russell, in the 19th. Hired as a ‘lady computer’ at the ROG in 1891, Annie spent five years calculating and observing at Greenwich. In 1895 she then married E. Walter Maunder, the ROG First Assistant in charge of the Photographic and Spectroscopic Department. And, unusually for this period, marriage did not spell the end of her career in astronomy.
Annie was born in County Tyrone in 1868, and was educated at home and at the Ladies’ Collegiate School in Belfast before gaining a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and graduating with second-class honours in the mathematical tripos of 1889. She spent a year teaching mathematics before, in September 1891, she was hired to work at the ROG as one of the few female ‘supernumerary computers’ – those hired on a short-term basis rather than being permanent members of staff.
Usually computers were boys, arriving straight from local schools. But hiring women allowed William Christie, then Astronomer Royal, the luxury of gaining well-trained mathematicians at a cheap rate (they were paid about £4 a month, rising to £6 as ‘soon as efficiency in the use of the Photographic Equatorial is acquired’). The experiment was something of a stop-gap, for Christie was in the process of persuading the Admiralty to increase the Observatory’s (male) workforce. There may also have been a shortage of women prepared to accept the low wages: as Annie wrote, it ‘is so small that I could scarcely live on it’.
Annie resigned her post in 1895, in preparation for marriage, although she did return to formal duties at Greenwich as a volunteer during the First World War. In between these periods she continued to pursue her interests in practical astronomy, receiving a small grant from Girton College to make a photographic study of the Milky Way. However, it was her husband’s connection with Greenwich and her involvement with the British Astronomical Association that allowed Annie access to the equipment and resources needed for serious astronomical work.
She accompanied Walter on several eclipse expeditions and worked with him on the periodicity of sunspot activity, as well as publishing a number of books and papers under her own name or jointly with her husband. These included a catalogue of some 600 recurrent sunspot groups observed and photographed at Greenwich (1907), and The Heavens and their Story (1910). She was also editor of the BAA’s journal for 15 years.
Maunder (centre) preparing to observe the 1900 eclipse in Algiers with the
British Astronomical Association (from E. Walter Maunder (ed.), The Total
Solar Eclipse of May 1900).
In 1916 Annie became one of the first female fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. She survived her husband by almost 20 years and late in life became an authority in ancient astronomies. Although she lived in Greenwich for at least 33 years, she later moved to Wandsworth, where she died in 1947.