Royal Observatory

Royal Observatory

The White Tower

Heavens above! Explore the history of the Royal Observatory, founded in 1675

The Royal Observatory was originally built so that observations could be made to improve the Navy's navigational tables by astronomical means. This went hand in hand with the accurate measurement of time for which the Observatory became more generally famous in the 19th century.

  • 4 March 1675 - John Flamsteed is appointed by Charles II as 'the King's Astronomical Observator'
  • 18 April 1675 - Flamsteed's first recorded Tower observation
  • Summer 1675 - Work begins on building the Royal Observatory at Greenwich to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren
  • 1676 - Flamsteed is appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society

Although there is no contemporary evidence where exactly Flamsteed’s observations were carried out,  it seems reasonable that he might have made use of the roof of the White Tower as the highest point on site. Today the North East turret of the White Tower is still known as the Flamsteed Tower.

Important personalities

The White TowerJohn Flamsteed (1646-1719)
Clergyman and mathematician

Although Flamsteed lacked any formal scientific education, he absorbed himself in the study of astronomy and arithmetic and corresponded with leading scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton.

From 1670 his friendship with Sir Jonas Moore, the Surveyor General of the Ordnance, and Moore’s patronage of his career brought him to royal attention. Appointed ‘Astronomical Observator’ in 1675, he was in effect the first Astronomer Royal and in charge of running the Royal Observatory.

Sir Jonas Moore (1617-1679)

After the English Civil Wars, Moore emerged in 1650 as an established mathematics teacher and author of a book on arithmetic. Appointed surveyor, his first government commission was mapping the Thames from Westminster to the sea in 1662.

From 1669 he lived in the Tower, and it was at the Tower that he first entertained Flamsteed in 1674. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he counted among his friends Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke.  He was also instrumental in establishing the Royal Observatory.

He died having contracted a fever during a visit to Portsmouth, and is buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

Did you know?

A Raven with the Raven MasterBird brained

According to popular myth one of the main legacies of Flamsteed’s association with the Tower are the modern ravens.

Finding his astronomical observations compromised by the resident ravens’ incontinence, Flamsteed complained to King Charles II who ordered their destruction.

Conveniently, one of his advisors reminded him of the legend that if the ravens left the Tower, then the English monarchy would be under threat. Having just been restored to the throne Charles was naturally unwilling to take any unnecessary risks and changed his mind.

Sadly no contemporary corroborating evidence for this story has yet been found. 

King Charles II and the Sciences

Charles II was a noted patron of the scientific community. The king had an enquiring mind, particularly when it came to technological innovation and it is no great surprise that he supported the formation of the Royal Society in 1660.

Charles II was also personal patron of another member of the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor of the King’s Works.

Wren’s most notable achievement was rebuilding much of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666 but he also designed the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and was Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.

This exhibition is supported by:

Ordnance Survey Logo History Logo

You may also be interested in...