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Flamsteed, John

1. Dates
Born: Denby, near Derby, 19 Aug. 1646
Died: Greenwich, 3 Dec. 1719
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 73
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
Stephen Flamsteed is described as a prosperous maltster.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
Derby free school. Flamsteed was not sent to the university because of ill health.
Studied astronomical science by himself, 1662-9--apparently against the wishes of his father.
Enrolled non-residently at Cambridge, 1670-4. I am not listing this.
M.A. at Cambridge by letter-patent, 1674. That is, though he received a degree, he did not really study at a university. I am not listing the M.A.
Note: no B.A.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
After he received his M.A., Flamsteed took orders and eventually served a parish near Greenwich.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Astronomy
Subordinate: Optics, Meteorology
Flamsteed's lifelong task was to replace existing observational data of the heavens with more exact tables. Lunar theory was always a special interest. His Historia coelestis britannica, 1725, contained his catalogue of 3000 stars.
Flamsteed's method of determining right ascensions has been called the basis of modern astronomy.
In his Gresham lectures he dealt with the optics of telescopes.
He kept observations of the barometer, which he correlated with the weather.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Government, Church Life
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Personal Means
Astronomer Royal at an annual stipend of L100, 1675-1719.
Granted the living of Burstow in Surrey by Lord North, 1684-1719.
Private instruction, 1676-1709, about 140 pupils in all.
Inherited something from his father, 1688.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official, Aristrocrat
The King appointed him Astronomer Royal in 1675.
Sir Jonas Moore, Master of the Royal Ordnance, proposed to establish him in a private observatory which he intended to erect at Chelsea College in 1674. After Flamsteed took the position of Astronomer Royal (obtained in part through Moore's influence), Moore furnished him a micrometer, lenses and two clocks and those were the only instruments he got at that time. Moore had been one of his best friends and greatest admirers since their first meeting in 1670.
Lord North granted him the living of Burstow in Surrey in 1884.
Dr. Bernard offered to resigh the Savilian professorship of astronomy in his favour in 1677. (This is interesting, but I don't think it counts as patronage.)
In 1704 Prince George of Denmark (the consort of Queen Anne) undertook to publish Flamsteed's catalogue, though in the end, after much conflict with Newton, the Prince died before the publication could be completed.
In 1715, the Lord Chamberlain, the Duke of Bolton, arranged to have the remaining 300 copies (out of 400 published) of the Newtonian edition of the Historia delivered into Flamsteed's hands, to be destroyed.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Navigation
Instruments were of immense importance to Flamsteed. They bulk very large in his autobiographical accounts of his life, and they form the central theme of his Preface to the Historia. Early in his life he learned to grind lenses. He was constantly concerned with making and improving instruments--a sextant, a quadrant, a mural arc of 140 degrees, telescopes, the graduation and calibration of the scales and micrometer-screws. The great mural arc is considered to have been a major step forward in precision instrumentation and Flamsteed to have stood at the beginning of a new era in instrument technology.
In 1674 he presented Charles II and the Duke of York with barometers and thermometers of his design, for use in forecasting weather.
In 1675 he showed that a method to determine longitude at sea (via the position of the moon) could not possibly work given the existing astronomical data. This incident led directly to the establishment of the Royal Observatory, with the specific aim of perfecting navigation. The needs of navigation were the initial inspiration for the Historia.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal Connections: Extensive correspondence with Oldenburg and John Collins and other members of the Royal Society, 1670-86. The frienship and ultimate hostility with Newton, 1670-1719. The frienship and collaboration with Abraham Sharp and Joseph Crosthwait, 1681-1719. Extensive correspondence survives, much of it published. The correspondence with Collins in the early 70s seems full of insight into how a community could function through correspondence.
Early in his career Flamsteed visited the Towneley estate, observed with Richard Towneley, and became familiar with Gascoigne's instruments. A correspondence with Towneley followed.
Later on he corresponded some with Cassini.
Royal Society, 1677-1709. Member of council, 1681-4, 1698- 1700.
  1. Francis Baily, "Preface," to An Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, (London, 1835), pp. xxiii-xlix, QB36 .F6A2 This work contains Flamsteed's autobiographical sketches and his correspondence as it was then known.
  2. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 7, 241-8. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 3, 1943-58.
  3. Robert McKeon, "Le début de l'astronomie de precision," Physis, 13 (1971), 225-88; 14 (1972), 221-42; especially 13, 284.
  4. John Flamsteed, The "Gresham Lectures" of John Flamsteed, ed. Eric G. Forbes, (London, 1975).
  5. _____, The Preface to John Flamsteed's "Historia coelestis britannica", (Maritime Monographs and Reports, No. 52), ed. Allan Chapman, (Greenwich, 1982).
  6. Allan Chapman, Three North Country Astronomers, (Manchester, 1982), pp. 37-8.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. E.F. MacPike, Hevelius, Flamsteed, and Halley, (London, 1937).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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