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Great Astronomers

Flamsteed
Among the manuscripts preserved at Greenwich Observatory are certain documents in
which Flamsteed gives an account of his own life. We may commence our sketch by
quoting the following passage from this autobiography:--"To keep myself from idleness,
and to recreate myself, I have intended here to give some account of my life, in my youth,
before the actions thereof, and the providences of God therein, be too far passed out of
my memory; and to observe the accidents of all my years, and inclinations of my mind,
that whosoever may light upon these papers may see I was not so wholly taken up, either
with my father's business or my mathematics, but that I both admitted and found time for
other as weighty considerations."
The chief interest which attaches to the name of Flamsteed arises from the fact that he
was the first of the illustrious series of Astronomers Royal who have presided over
Greenwich Observatory. In that capacity Flamsteed was able to render material assistance
to Newton by providing him with the observations which his lunar theory required.
John Flamsteed was born at Denby, in Derbyshire, on the 19th of August, 1646. His
mother died when he was three years old, and the second wife, whom his father took
three years later, only lived until Flamsteed was eight, there being also two younger
sisters. In his boyhood the future astronomer tells us that he was very fond of those
romances which affect boy's imagination, but as he writes, "At twelve years of age I left
all the wild ones and betook myself to read the better sort of them, which, though they
were not probable, yet carried no seeming impossibility in the picturing." By the time
Flamsteed was fifteen years old he had embarked in still more serious work, for he had
read Plutarch's "Lives," Tacitus' "Roman History," and many other books of a similar
description. In 1661 he became ill with some serious rheumatic affection, which obliged
him to be withdrawn from school. It was then for the first time that he received the
rudiments of a scientific education. He had, however, attained his sixteenth year before
he made any progress in arithmetic. He tells us how his father taught him "the doctrine of
fractions," and "the golden rule of three"--lessons which he seemed to have learned easily
and quickly. One of the books which he read at this time directed his attention to
astronomical instruments, and he was thus led to construct for himself a quadrant, by
which he could take some simple astronomical observations. He further calculated a table
to give the sun's altitudes at different hours, and thus displayed those tastes for practical
astronomy which he lived to develop so greatly. It appears that these scientific studies
were discountenanced by his father, who designed that his son should follow a business
career. Flamsteed's natural inclination, however, forced him to prosecute astronomical
work, notwithstanding the impediments that lay in his path. Unfortunately, his
constitutional delicacy seems to have increased, and he had just completed his eighteenth
year, "when," to use his own words, "the winter came on and thrust me again into the
chimney, whence the heat and the dryness of the preceding summer had happily once
before withdrawn me. But, it not being a fit season for physic, it was thought fit to let me
alone this winter, and try the skill of another physician on me in the spring."
 
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