Papers of John Flamsteed, 1550 - 1923
Scope and Contents
The collection comprises observations, calculations, catalogues, tables and notes of the day-to-day running of the Observatory; observations made prior to Flamsteed's appointment as Astronomer Royal; private and official correspondence; and miscellaneous lectures, memoirs, treatises and other manuscripts on various subjects by Flamsteed and other authors. The papers are principally in Flamsteed's hand, but also feature those of Joseph Crosthwait, James Hodgson and Abraham Sharp, among others. The text is mainly in English, but also includes Latin.
The largest component of the collection is Flamsteed's observations, which are preserved both in their original notebooks and in the form in which he eventually prepared them for publication in his 'Historiae Coelestis' and 'Atlas Coelestis'. There is also a substantial quantity of correspondence. Much of this relates to the dispute concerning the publication of his astronomical results. However, there are also letters and some documents concerning aspects of his life outside astronomy, including letters of instruction and reprimand to the curates of his parish of Burstow; correspondence with officials in Derby relating to his position as the inheritor of his father's lead mining interests; and letters from amateur astronomers asking for his help and sending him data.
- 1550 - 1923
Conditions Governing Access
Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact email@example.com. Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (www.lib.cam.ac.uk).
Biographical / Historical
John Flamsteed (1646-1719) was born at Denby, near Derby, on 19 August 1646. He attended the free school at Derby until the age of fifteen, but was unable to attend university at that time due to ill health. He turned instead to private study, and having developed an interest in astronomy began systematic astronomical observations. In 1670 he was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he made the acquaintance of Isaac Newton, and was awarded his M.A. (1674).
Flamsteed was asked to assist a committee examining astronomical methods of finding longitude at sea. Having argued the case for more accurate observations and a new star catalogue, he was appointed in 1675 to the new position of 'Astronomical Observator', known subsequently as the Astronomer Royal, in order to carry out this work. He took up permanent residence at the new observatory at Greenwich Park the following year, and began regular observations with the sextant in September. He employed a variety of assistants and calculators, and with the available instruments was able to improve on contemporary standards of accuracy in his tables and charts. The first volume of Flamsteed's catalogue and observations was published in 1707, but further publications were delayed while he worked on his star catalogue and papers. As a result of this delay, he became embroiled in a dispute with Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, who published an imperfect edition of his later observations without his consent in 1712.
As Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed took part in the discussion of contemporary issues such as the detection of stellar parallax, refraction, cometary motion, the unequal motions of Sun, Moon and planets, and matters in mathematics and optics. He corresponded with many of the leading figures of the day, such as James Gregory, Edmond Halley, Johannes Hevelius and Giovanni Domenico Cassini, as well as with Newton, who used his observations in writing his 'Principia' (1687).
Flamsteed was ordained in 1675, and presented to the living of Burstow, in Surrey, in 1684. In 1677 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died at the Greenwich Observatory on 31 December 1719, and was buried at Burstow. The authorised version of his observations was eventually completed by his assistant Joseph Crosthwait, and published in 1725 as the three-volume 'Historia Coelestis Britannica'. The 'Atlas Coelestis' followed in 1729.
155 volume(s) : paper
4 archive box(es) (4 boxes)
1 envelope(s) (1 envelope)
Language of Materials
During the 1830s, the collection was arranged and catalogued by the stockbroker and astronomer Francis Baily (1774-1844). Baily examined a rough catalogue of the papers that had been compiled in or soon after 1771, and concluded that while the overall composition of the collection had been retained since Flamsteed's death, the papers had become disordered through neglect. He undertook a reorganisation of the collection, giving prominence to the dispute connected with the Prince Consort's sponsorship of the publication of Flamsteed's stellar catalogue. He separated letters relating to this dispute from the bulk of Flamsteed's correspondence, and created a related series containing Flamsteed's correspondence with his friend and assistant Abraham Sharp. The remaining letters were arranged in alphabetical order of writer. The completed catalogue was published in 1835 as a prefix to Baily's 'Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed'. The modern catalogue essentially retains the order established by Baily, with the addition of the later accessions, RGO 1/72-76.
Other Finding Aids
A word-processed handlist is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. For further information see 'List of Royal Observatory Manuscripts, Part I - 1675-1881', available in the Manuscripts Reading Room, and Frances Willmoth, 'A Summary Catalogue of Flamsteed's Papers in the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives', in Frances Willmoth, ed., 'Flamsteed's Stars: New Perspectives on the First Astronomer Royal (1646-1719)' (Woodbridge, 1997), a copy of which is kept with the handlist.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Flamsteed's papers passed on his death to his wife, and possibly thereafter to his son-in-law, James Hodgson, who died intestate in 1755. The papers then passed into obscurity until 1771, when they were found at Islington by the surgeon John Belchier. The Board of Longitude purchased the papers from Mrs Elizabeth Tew, the widow of Hodgson's representative, and returned them to the Observatory. RCMS 72-76 were added to the collection subsequently.
Existence and Location of Copies
RGO 36/1 contains microfilms of the whole of this series. Consult the hard copy catalogue of this series (available in the Manuscripts Reading Room) to obtain the classmark in use at the time of filming.
This description was created by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives with reference to the catalogue prepared by Frances Willmoth. The biographical history was compiled with reference to the entry on John Flamsteed in Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds, 'Dictionary of National Biography', Vol. VII (London, 1908), pp. 241-248. It was emended in January 2009 by Zoe A. Rees.
Finding aid date