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British Astronomy - Early History - 19th Century

Astronomy – observation and theory – has been practiced in Britain* since prehistoric times.  Among the many megalithic monuments in Britain is Stonehenge in southern England (2700 BC-).  It has alignments over the Heel Stone towards sunrise and other alignments of such complexity that it could be, in principle, used to predict eclipses. The Temple Wood circle in Argyllshire in Scotland (2nd millennium BC) appears to be a lunar observatory. The Newgrange burial barrow (3200 BC- ) in the Boyne valley in Ireland contains a unique ‘roof-box’ which admits the rays of the rising Sun at the midwinter solstice into the grave passage.

The Roman occupation of Britain (55 BC- c. AD 400) brought a knowledge of practical astronomy, including timekeeping and calendrical calculations. This knowledge was maintained in relation to the calculation of Easter by monasteries when the Romans left, but developed little until Islamic astronomy came to Britain in the medieval period, and brought with it the classical texts. The first English-language poet, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), author of the Canterbury Tales, wrote for the benefit of his son A Treatise on the Astrolabe, the oldest known ‘technical manual’ in English.  The plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) show a detailed practical knowledge of astronomical phenomena and a (somewhat sceptical) knowledge of astrology.

Up to the 17th century the teachers of astronomy in Britain were, in the main, clerics with an interest in proclaiming the glory of God and teaching the ‘quadrivium’ (the four classical subjects of arithmetic, harmony, geometry and astronomy, knowledge of which made a man educated in science).  Modern knowledge such as Copernicus’ and Kepler’s explanations of the motions of the planets and Galileo’s theory of dynamics were taken up by amateurs outside the established educational professions, like the group that formed around William Crabtree (1610-1644), a Lancashire instrument maker, and Jeremiah Horrocks (1619-1641), a schoolmaster. With his own theory of celestial dynamics, related to Kepler’s, Horrocks predicted a transit of Venus, which he and Crabtree observed.


The Royal Observatory

In the 17th century the British Government began to take a structural interest in astronomy. King Charles II was persuaded to found the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675, in order to provide astronomical predictions for the purposes of navigation, for the benefit of the Royal Navy. John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the Royal Observatory’s first director, made careful and precise observations, from which increasingly accurate predictions and investigations could be made of astronomical phenomena.   Developing from this historic base, annual volumes of The Astronomical Almanac, The Nautical Almanac, Astronomical Phenomena, The Star Almanac and The UK Air Almanac are still published in the UK by Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office (HMNAO), located now at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory (RAL), several of them in collaboration with the US Naval Observatory.

At the same time that Flamsteed was making accurate observations at Greenwich, from the universities Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was formulating mathematical theories of motion and gravitation, presented in an equivalent of calculus (but expressed in traditional geometric terms). Newton and Flamsteed clashed over the running of the Royal Observatory. Flamsteed wanted the observations to be the best possible, sought grants to make the best equipment and took time to develop the observing techniques. Newton wanted observations too, but quickly in order to test his gravitational theory of the planets and the Moon. They quarrelled. This tension between the institutes and the academics recurred in 20th century Britain.  Edmund Halley (1656-1742), travelled to St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, then the British Empire’s southernmost possession, to observe the southern stars for Flamsteed in the first overseas astronomical expedition by a British astronomer and helped Newton publish his book on gravitation and mechanics, Principia.

The second half of the 17th and early 18th century saw the increasing professionalisation of science.  Not only was the Royal Observatory founded, but also the Royal Society of London was established in 1666 by twelve scientists including Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the Gresham and later the Savilian professor of astronomy (London and Oxford respectively) and only later an architect (of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, etc.).  At first the Royal Society counted wealthy amateurs as well as professional scientists among its members (or ‘Fellows’), but by the first half of the 19th century it had become an exclusive group of elite scientists, elected on the basis of their scientific work.  The Royal Society is the national academy of sciences in the UK and is independent of Government, but nevertheless most of its income nowadays is from a Government grant spent on the support of research (including prestigious fellowships and professorships), the membership of international bodies and to develop scientific advice on issues of national political interest.

Flamsteed, as director of the Royal Observatory, had taken by his own initiative the title Astronomer Royal (AR) as a sign of the state patronage of astronomy as practiced in Greenwich.  This title was decoupled from the Royal Observatory in 1972 and became honorary.  It was an inept time to do this.  The Royal Observatory was appointing its first (and only) female director, Margaret Burbidge, denied the title (some said) by gender discrimination.  Likewise the title of Astronomer Royal for Scotland was established in 1834 for the director of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (ROE), but was decoupled in 1995. The present title-holders are Sir Martin Rees (Lord Rees – he has said that he will resign the position of AR now that he has been elected as President of the Royal Society and to the House of Lords) and Prof John Brown, respectively.

The British royal court has from time to time continued its more personal interests in astronomy by maintaining court astronomers under the confusingly similar title of Royal Astronomer. Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) and his sister Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), at first supporting themselves through musical performances and teaching, constructed telescopes with which they made significant discoveries—comets, nebulae, double stars, even a new planet—and both were rewarded with royal pensions. William was given a stipend and called the Royal Astronomer, his duties being to get his telescope ready sometimes on fine nights to show discoveries (e.g. new comets) to King George and the royal court.  Caroline was awarded a pension of half her brother’s amount.

* The modern name of the nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (abbreviated UK).   There is no adjective except the noun used as an adjective – for example ‘the United Kingdom Government’.  Before the independence of Eire, less than 100 years ago (a short time in astronomical history), the country was known as Great Britain (the qualifier referring not to the power of an empire, as is often supposed, but to the entirety of the geographic region, including islands offshore from the main one).  Great Britain nowadays is a geographical region comprising three countries: England, Wales and Scotland.  England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have their own educational systems, but funding for scientific research is organised nationally by the research councils, which are therefore UK organisations, like PPARC.   In this article for simplicity I sweep all these issues into the single adjective ‘British’, except where I deliberately mean the modern nation of the UK, when I use the abbreviation as an adjective.