Today In Science History – August 19 – John Flamsteed

John Flamsteed
John Flamsteed (1646-1719) Self Taught English Astronomer and first Astronomer Royal.

August 19 is John Flamsteed’s birthday. Flamsteed was an English astronomer and first Astronomer Royal.

Flamsteed was a good student and was set to go to Oxford but developed severe health problems. While he missed out on University, he continued to study. One subject he particularly enjoyed was astronomy. He read all he could about the subject and began his own observations at age 29. During a visit to the Royal Society, he was introduced to Jonas Moore. Moore was a patron of many scientists and decided to patronize Flamsteed as well. Moore petitioned a warrant from Charles II for Jesus College Cambridge to award Flamsteed his degree.

Moore also arranged an audience with King Charles II to convince the King to build a Royal Observatory. Flamsteed had already tried to buy some favor by gifting a barometer and thermometer of his construction to the King. His Royal Highness must have liked them because he commissioned the building of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. He also appointed Flamsteed “The King’s Astronomical Observator”, otherwise known as the Astronomer Royal. The job paid £100 a year, but he had to pay £10 in taxes and provide all his own instrumentation.

Flamsteed poured himself into the position. He spent the next forty years compiling a detailed and precise list of stellar observations forming his own catalogue. Among these observations was an entry for a star called 34 Tauri. It would later be determined to not be a star at all, but the earliest recorded sighting of the planet Uranus. Another observation was a star listed as 3 Cassiopeiae that does not appear in the sky today. Three hundred years later, it was calculated Flamsteed’s star was actually a supernova explosion of Cassiopeia A. He also suggested that two comets seen in 1680 were actually the same comet. The first sighting was as the comet approached the Sun and the second as it passed around the other side. This was the first instance where it was believed comets orbit the Sun much like the planets.

Flamsteed was very private about his catalogue. He did not want to risk his reputation on work that was unverified by others and kept it under Seal at Greenwich. Royal Society President Isaac Newton wanted access to Flamsteed’s lunar orbit data for his Principia and other Royal Society scientists wanted data for their research. Flamsteed refused at first but allowed Newton to look at it for his own private use. Instead, Newton got Edmond Halley to publish Flamsteed’s work through the Royal Society. Flamsteed was furious. He felt the data was his to publish, and certainly not before it was finished. Newton argued the Royal Observatory was part of the Royal Society and could publish anything belonging to them. Flamsteed managed to track down 300 of the 400 published copies and publicly burned them. He would feel animosity towards Newton and Halley the rest of his life.

Flamsteed catalogue was eventually published. The Historia Coelestis Britannica was published in 1725 by his wife six years after his death. It contained data on nearly 3000 stars and is the first major work done by the Greenwich Observatory.

After Flamsteed’s death, Edmond Halley would succeed him as the second Royal Astronomer. I’m sure he would not have liked that.

Notable Science Events for August 19

1995 – William Summer Johnson died.

Johnson was an American biochemist who developed the first artificially produced steroids and considered one of the leaders in the field of organic synthesis. He produced several techniques to simplify the synthesis of several steroids and vitamins.

1994 – Linus Pauling died.

Linus Pauling
Linus Pauling (1901 – 1994). Library of Congress

Pauling was an American chemist who was one of the pioneers of quantum chemistry and mechanics. His research into chemical bonding earned him the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He introduced the concept of electronegativity, or the ability of an atom to attract electrons to form bonds.

After World War II, he became an outspoken critic of atomic weapons and the effects of fallout. His efforts to eliminate above ground atomic testing earned him the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

1993 – Donald William Kerst died.

Donald W. Kerst
Donald W. Kerst
Los Alamos National Lab

Kerst was an American physicist who invented the betatron which accelerated electrons through magnetic induction with sufficient energy to cause nuclear transformations. His first betatron produced a stream of electrons at 2.3 MeV. Future versions would use tuned magnets to account for the relativistic speeds of the electrons and produce energies near 300 MeV. Betatrons are used in nuclear and medical research to produce gamma rays and x-rays.

1957 – Carl-Gustaf Rossby died.

Rossby was a Swedish-American meteorologist who explained the large-scale atmospheric motions in terms of fluid mechanics. He used this to identify the jet stream and a phenomenon he called Rossby waves. Rossby waves are currents of air set in motion due to the Coriolis force and pressure gradients caused by the rotation of the Earth. This wave motion was eventually found in the currents of the ocean as well as the atmosphere.

Rossby also established the first weather service for civil aviation and headed a project to model air motion and forecast the weather using an electronic computer. 

1887 – Spencer Fullerton Baird died.

Spencer Baird
Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823 – 1887). Library of Congress

Baird was an American naturalist who would transform the Smithsonian into a major natural history museum. He started the Smithsonian’s natural collection with his own large collections and donations from his friend, John Audubon. He encouraged many government survey projects to include training for scientific exploration and collections.

1871 – Orville Wright was born.

Orville Wright (1871 - 1948). Library of Congress
Orville Wright (1871 – 1948). Library of Congress

Orville was the younger of the Wright brothers who were the first to accomplish controlled and sustained powered flight. Their aircraft used three axes of control to maintain steady flight: pitch, yaw, and roll which is the standard control for planes to this day.

1765 – Axel Fredrik Cronstedt died.

Axel Fredrik Cronstedt (1722 - 1765).
Axel Fredrik Cronstedt (1722 – 1765).

Cronstedt was a Swedish chemist who discovered the element nickel. He described the metal as kupfernickel or “the Devil’s copper”. He tried to develop a procedure involving the use of blowpipes for analyzing the composition of minerals.

1745 – Johan Gottlieb Gahn was born.

Johan Gottlieb Gahn
Johan Gottlieb Gahn (1745 – 1818). Journal of Chemical Education, January 1932

Gahn was a Swedish chemist and mineralogist who first isolated the element manganese. He was active in the copper smelting industry and made several improvements in the smelting process. He also discovered phosphoric acid in bones with Carl Scheele and separated phosphorus from bones.

1646 – John Flamsteed was born.