British Science Week 2023: John Flamsteed

16 March 2023

It’s British Science Week and we’ve got a good ‘un.

John Flamsteed is remembered as a key early resource in mapping the night sky, the first Astronomer Royal, the layer of the foundation stone of the Royal Observatory, and… for burning at least 300 copies of his own work.

Flamsteed was in a feud with Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet) and Isaac Newton (of, well, gravity and the laws of motion) over his incomplete astronomical observations. He wanted time to finish them, and Halley and Newton were insistent that they needed them immediately. When Halley went over his head to edit and publish Flamsteed’s observations in 1712 without his permission, Flamsteed was furious. This was an act, he thought, showing the “malice of Godless persons.”

So, he burned 300 copies of the Historia Coelestis Libri Duo, saving only a few to distribute to friends – “evidence” of Halley and Newton’s misdeeds. It is nothing short of remarkable that we have one of these copies in our archive’s rare book collection. Original to 1712, it contains 10 of the late 17th century engraved illustrations, or “plates,” that make these 1712 copies practically unique – the number of engravings we have is second only to Samuel Pepys’s copy. According to researcher Emma Hill, the portrait of John Flamsteed would not have appeared in the original copy, so is likely to have been added by Flamsteed’s friend after his death.

We’re delighted for this opportunity to share one of these plates with you: plate 9, which shows astronomers at work within the Royal Observatory: