Among the manuscripts preserved at Greenwich Observatory are certain documents in which Flamsteed gives an account of his own life. We may commence our sketch by quoting the following passage from this autobiography:--"To keep myself from idleness, and to recreate myself, I have intended here to give some account of my life, in my youth, before the actions thereof, and the providences of God therein, be too far passed out of my memory; and to observe the accidents of all my years, and inclinations of my mind, that whosoever may light upon these papers may see I was not so wholly taken up, either with my father's business or my mathematics, but that I both admitted and found time for other as weighty considerations."
The chief interest which attaches to the name of Flamsteed arises from the fact that he was the first of the illustrious series of Astronomers Royal who have presided over Greenwich Observatory. In that capacity Flamsteed was able to render material assistance to Newton by providing him with the observations which his lunar theory required.
John Flamsteed was born at Denby, in Derbyshire, on the 19th of August, 1646. His mother died when he was three years old, and the second wife, whom his father took three years later, only lived until Flamsteed was eight, there being also two younger sisters. In his boyhood the future astronomer tells us that he was very fond of those romances which affect boy's imagination, but as he writes, "At twelve years of age I left all the wild ones and betook myself to read the better sort of them, which, though they were not probable, yet carried no seeming impossibility in the picturing." By the time Flamsteed was fifteen years old he had embarked in still more serious work, for he had read Plutarch's "Lives," Tacitus' "Roman History," and many other books of a similar description. In 1661 he became ill with some serious rheumatic affection, which obliged him to be withdrawn from school. It was then for the first time that he received the rudiments of a scientific education. He had, however, attained his sixteenth year before he made any progress in arithmetic. He tells us how his father taught him "the doctrine of fractions," and "the golden rule of three"--lessons which he seemed to have learned easily and quickly. One of the books which he read at this time directed his attention to astronomical instruments, and he was thus led to construct for himself a quadrant, by which he could take some simple astronomical observations. He further calculated a table to give the sun's altitudes at different hours, and thus displayed those tastes for practical astronomy which he lived to develop so greatly. It appears that these scientific studies were discountenanced by his father, who designed that his son should follow a business career. Flamsteed's natural inclination, however, forced him to prosecute astronomical work, notwithstanding the impediments that lay in his path. Unfortunately, his constitutional delicacy seems to have increased, and he had just completed his eighteenth year, "when," to use his own words, "the winter came on and thrust me again into the chimney, whence the heat and the dryness of the preceding summer had happily once before withdrawn me. But, it not being a fit season for physic, it was thought fit to let me alone this winter, and try the skill of another physician on me in the spring."
It appears that at this time a quack named Valentine Greatrackes, was reputed to have effected most astonishing cures in Ireland merely by the stroke of his hands, without the application of any medicine whatever. Flamsteed's father, despairing of any remedy for his son from the legitimate branch of the profession, despatched him to Ireland on August 26th, 1665, he being then, as recorded with astronomical accuracy, "nineteen years, six days, and eleven hours old." The young astronomer, accompanied by a friend, arrived on a Tuesday at Liverpool but the wind not being favourable, they remained there till the following Friday, when a shift of the wind to the east took place. They embarked accordingly on a vessel called the SUPPLY at noon, and on Saturday night came in sight of Dublin. Ere they could land, however, they were nearly being wrecked on Lambay Island. This peril safely passed, there was a long delay for quarantine before they were at last allowed on shore. On Thursday, September 6th, they set out from Dublin, where they had been sojourning at the "Ship" Hotel, in Dame Street, towards Assaune, where Greatrackes received his patients.
Flamsteed gives an interesting account of his travels in Ireland. They dined at Naas on the first day, and on September 8th they reached Carlow, a town which is described as one of the fairest they saw on their journey. By Sunday morning, September 10th, having lost their way several times, they reached Castleton, called commonly Four Mile Waters. Flamsteed inquired of the host in the inn where they might find a church, but was told that the minister lived twelve miles away, and that they had no sermon except when he came to receive his tithes once a year, and a woman added that "they had plenty enough of everything necessary except the word of God." The travellers accordingly went on to Cappoquin, which lies up the river Blackwater, on the road to Lismore, eight miles from Youghal. Thence they immediately started on foot to Assaune. About a mile from Cappoquin, and entering into the house of Mr. Greatrackes, they saw him touch several patients, "whereof some were nearly cured, others were on the mending hand, and some on whom his strokes had no effect." Flamsteed was touched by the famous quack on the afternoon of September 11th, but we are hardly surprised to hear his remark that "he found not his disease to stir." Next morning the astronomer came again to see Mr. Greatrackes, who had "a kind of majestical yet affable presence, and a composed carriage." Even after the third touching had been submitted to, no benefit seems to have been derived. We must, however record, to the credit of Mr. Greatrackes, that he refused to accept any payment from Flamsteed, because he was a stranger.
Finding it useless to protract his stay any longer, Flamsteed and his friend set out on their return to Dublin. In the course of his journey he seems to have been much impressed with Clonmel, which he describes as an "exceedingly pleasantly seated town." But in those days a journey to Ireland was so serious an enterprise that when Flamsteed did arrive safely back at Derby after an absence of a month, he adds, "For God's providence in this journey, His name be praised, Amen."
As to the expected benefits to his health from the expedition we may quote his own words: "In the winter following I was indifferent hearty, and my disease was not so violent as it used to be at that time formerly. But whether through God's mercy I received this through Mr. Greatrackes' touch, or my journey and vomiting at sea, I am uncertain; but, by some circumstances, I guess that I received a benefit from both."
It is evident that by this time Flamsteed's interest in all astronomical matters had greatly increased. He studied the construction of sun-dials, he formed a catalogue of seventy of the fixed stars, with their places on the heavens, and he computed the circumstances of the solar eclipse which was to happen on June 22nd, 1666. It is interesting to note that even in those days the doctrines of the astrologers still found a considerable degree of credence, and Flamsteed spent a good deal of his time in astrological studies and computations. He investigated the methods of casting a nativity, but a suspicion, or, indeed, rather more than a suspicion, seems to have crossed his mind as to the value of these astrological predictions, for he says in fine, "I found astrology to give generally strong conjectural hints, not perfect declarations."
All this time, however, the future Astronomer Royal was steadily advancing in astronomical inquiries of a recondite nature. He had investigated the obliquity of the ecliptic with extreme care, so far as the circumstances of astronomical observation would at that time permit. He had also sought to discover the sun's distance from the earth in so far as it could be obtained by determining when the moon was exactly half illuminated, and he had measured, with much accuracy, the length of the tropical year. It will thus be seen that, even at the age of twenty, Flamsteed had made marked progress, considering how much his time had been interfered with by ill-health.
Other branches of astronomy began also to claim his attention. We learn that in 1669 and 1670 he compared the planets Jupiter and Mars with certain fixed stars near which they passed. His instrumental means, though very imperfect, were still sufficient to enable him to measure the intervals on the celestial sphere between the planets and the stars. As the places of the stars were known, Flamsteed was thus able to obtain the places of the planets. This is substantially the way in which astronomers of the present day still proceed when they desire to determine the places of the planets, inasmuch as, directly or indirectly those places are always obtained relatively to the fixed stars. By his observations at this early period, Flamsteed was, it is true, not able to obtain any great degree of accuracy; he succeeded, however, in proving that the tables by which the places of the planets were ordinarily given were not to be relied upon.
Flamsteed's labours in astronomy and in the allied branches of science were now becoming generally known, and he gradually came to correspond with many distinguished men of learning. One of the first occasions which brought the talents of the young astronomer into fame was the publication of some calculations concerning certain astronomical phenomena which were to happen in the year 1670. In the monthly revolution of the moon its disc passes over those stars which lie along its track. The disappearance of a star by the interposition of the moon is called an "occultation." Owing to the fact that our satellite is comparatively near us, the position which the moon appears to occupy on the heavens varies from different parts of the earth, it consequently happens that a star which would be occulted to an observer in one locality, would often not be occulted to an observer who was situated elsewhere. Even when an occultation is visible from both places, the times at which the star disappears from view will, generally speaking, be different. Much calculation is therefore necessary to decide the circumstances under which the occultations of stars may be visible from any particular station. Having a taste for such computations, Flamsteed calculated the occultations which were to happen in the year 1670, it being the case that several remarkable stars would be passed over by the moon during this year. Of course at the present time, we find such information duly set forth in the NAUTICAL ALMANAC, but a couple of centuries ago there was no such source of astronomical knowledge as is now to be found in that invaluable publication, which astronomers and navigators know so well. Flamsteed accordingly sent the results of his work to the President of the Royal Society. The paper which contained them was received very favourably, and at once brought Flamsteed into notice among the most eminent members of that illustrious body, one of whom, Mr. Collins, became through life his faithful friend and constant correspondent. Flamsteed's father was naturally gratified with the remarkable notice which his son was receiving from the great and learned; accordingly he desired him to go to London, that he might make the personal acquaintance of those scientific friends whom he had only known by correspondence previously. Flamsteed was indeed glad to avail himself of this opportunity. Thus he became acquainted with Dr. Barrow, and especially with Newton, who was then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. It seems to have been in consequence of this visit to London that Flamsteed entered himself as a member of Jesus College, Cambridge. We have but little information as to his University career, but at all events he took his degree of M.A. on June 5th, 1674.
Up to this time it would seem that Flamsteed had been engaged, to a certain extent, in the business carried on by his father. It is true that he does not give any explicit details, yet there are frequent references to journeys which he had to take on business matters. But the time now approached when Flamsteed was to start on an independent career, and it appears that he took his degree in Cambridge with the object of entering into holy orders, so that he might settle in a small living near Derby, which was in the gift of a friend of his father, and would be at the disposal of the young astronomer. This scheme was, however, not carried out, but Flamsteed does not tell us why it failed, his only remark being, that "the good providence of God that had designed me for another station ordered it otherwise."
Sir Jonas Moore, one of the influential friends whom Flamsteed's talents had attracted, seems to have procured for him the position of king's astronomer, with a salary of 100 pounds per annum. A larger salary appears to have been designed at first for this office, which was now being newly created, but as Flamsteed was resolved on taking holy orders, a lesser salary was in his case deemed sufficient. The building of the observatory, in which the first Astronomer Royal was to be installed, seems to have been brought about, or, at all events, its progress was accelerated, in a somewhat curious manner.
A Frenchman, named Le Sieur de S. Pierre, came over to London to promulgate a scheme for discovering longitudes, then a question of much importance. He brought with him introductions to distinguished people, and his mission attracted a great deal of attention. The proposals which he made came under Flamsteed's notice, who pointed out that the Frenchman's projects were quite inapplicable in the present state of astronomical science, inasmuch as the places of the stars were not known with the degree of accuracy which would be necessary if such methods were to be rendered available. Flamsteed then goes on to say:--"I heard no more of the Frenchman after this; but was told that my letters had been shown King Charles. He was startled at the assertion of the fixed stars' places being false in the catalogue, and said, with some vehemence, he must have them anew observed, examined, and corrected, for the use of his seamen."
The first question to be settled was the site for the new observatory. Hyde Park and Chelsea College were both mentioned as suitable localities, but, at Sir Christopher Wren's suggestion, Greenwich Hill was finally resolved upon. The king made a grant of five hundred pounds of money. He gave bricks from Tilbury Fort, while materials, in the shape of wood, iron, and lead, were available from a gatehouse demolished in the Tower. The king also promised whatever further material aid might be shown to be necessary. The first stone of the Royal Observatory was laid on August 10th, 1675, and within a few years a building was erected in which the art of modern practical astronomy was to be created. Flamsteed strove with extraordinary diligence, and in spite of many difficulties, to obtain a due provision of astronomical instruments, and to arrange for the carrying on of his observations. Notwithstanding the king's promises, the astronomer was, however, but scantily provided with means, and he had no assistants to help him in his work. It follows that all the observations, as well as the reductions, and, indeed, all the incidental work of the observatory, had to be carried on by himself alone. Flamsteed, as we have seen, had, however, many staunch friends. Sir Jonas Moore in particular at all times rendered him most valuable assistance, and encouraged him by the warm sympathy and keen interest which he showed in astronomy. The work of the first Astronomer Royal was frequently interrupted by recurrent attacks of the complaints to which we have already referred. He says himself that "his distempers stick so close that that he cannot remove them," and he lost much time by prostration from headaches, as well as from more serious affections.
The year 1678 found him in the full tide of work in his observatory. He was specially engaged on the problem of the earth's motion, which he sought to derive from observations of the sun and of Venus. But this, as well as many other astronomical researches which he undertook, were only subsidiary to that which he made the main task of his life, namely, the formation of a catalogue of fixed stars. At the time when Flamsteed commenced his career, the only available catalogue of fixed stars was that of Tycho Brahe. This work had been published at the commencement of the seventeenth century, and it contained about a thousand stars. The positions assigned to these stars, though obtained with wonderful skill, considering the many difficulties under which Tycho laboured, were quite inaccurate when judged by our modern standards. Tycho's instruments were necessarily most rudely divided, and he had, of course, no telescopes to aid him. Consequently it was merely by a process of sighting that he could obtain the places of the stars. It must further be remembered that Tycho had no clocks, and no micrometers. He had, indeed, but little correct knowledge of the motions of the heavenly bodies to guide him. To determine the longitudes of a few principal stars he conceived the ingenious idea of measuring by day the position of Venus with respect to the sun, an observation which the exceptional brightness of this planet rendered possible without telescopic aid, and then by night he observed the position of Venus with regard to the stars.
It has been well remarked by Mr. Baily, in his introduction to the "British Catalogue of Stars," that "Flamsteed's observations, by a fortunate combination of circumstances, commenced a new and a brilliant era. It happened that, at that period, the powerful mind of Newton was directed to this subject; a friendly intercourse then existed between these two distinguished characters; and thus the first observations that could lay any claim to accuracy were at once brought in aid of those deep researches in which our illustrious geometer was then engaged. The first edition of the `Principia' bears testimony to the assistance afforded by Flamsteed to Newton in these inquiries; although the former considers that the acknowledgment is not so ample as it ought to have been."
Although Flamsteed's observations can hardly be said to possess the accuracy of those made in more recent times, when instruments so much superior to his have been available, yet they possess an interest of a special kind from their very antiquity. This circumstance renders them of particular importance to the astronomer, inasmuch as they are calculated to throw light on the proper motions of the stars. Flamsteed's work may, indeed, be regarded as the origin of all subsequent catalogues, and the nomenclature which he adopted, though in some respects it can hardly be said to be very defensible, is, nevertheless, that which has been adopted by all subsequent astronomers. There were also a great many errors, as might be expected in a work of such extent, composed almost entirely of numerical detail. Many of these errors have been corrected by Baily himself, the assiduous editor of "Flamsteed's Life and Works," for Flamsteed was so harassed from various causes in the latter part of his life, and was so subject to infirmities all through his career, that he was unable to revise his computations with the care that would have been necessary. Indeed, he observed many additional stars which he never included in the British Catalogue. It is, as Baily well remarks, "rather a matter of astonishment that he accomplished so much, considering his slender means, his weak frame, and the vexations which he constantly experienced."
Flamsteed had the misfortune, in the latter part of his life, to become estranged from his most eminent scientific contemporaries. He had supplied Newton with places of the moon, at the urgent solicitation of the author of the "Principia," in order that the lunar theory should be carefully compared with observation. But Flamsteed appears to have thought that in Newton's further request for similar information, he appeared to be demanding as a right that which Flamsteed considered he was only called upon to render as a favour. A considerable dispute grew out of this matter, and there are many letters and documents, bearing on the difficulties which subsequently arose, that are not, perhaps, very creditable to either party.
Notwithstanding his feeble constitution, Flamsteed lived to the age of seventy-three, his death occurring on the last day of the year 1719.