Research highlights role of Greenwich Observatory in London’s history

New research from the University highlights the importance of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in shaping London’s mathematical practice and teaching in the 17th century.

Although the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, founded in 1675, is known as Britain’s first government-funded scientific institution, it was not until a series of expansions in the 19th century that the establishment increased to more than two paid staff, including the Astronomer Royal.

But the research, from Dr Rebekah Higgitt of the University’s School of History, shows the importance of the early Royal Observatory in areas other than astronomical observation.

Published in the British Journal for the History of Science, Dr Higgitt’s study, entitled ‘Greenwich near London’: the Royal Observatory and its London networks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traces how the institution transformed over time ‘from what might have been a unique habitation for a king’s astronomer into a long-lasting and ultimately, widely known institution’.

Dr Higgitt said: ‘While its location close to London was inevitable, given the various interests that led to its foundation, it was also its relationship with key networks and institutions that gave it form and ongoing existence’.

Dr Higgitt puts a particular focus on the importance of mathematical teaching, linked to navigation, both within the observatory and as an extension of its regime into the context of London’s practical community and schools.

She concludes that further research is now required on the relationship between observatory staff and other London-based mathematical practitioners, instrument-makers, printers publishers, artists and individuals based within government and military departments, such as the Ordnance, Royal Navy and Excise.