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Astronomers and their public image

Since astronomers started to get paid for their work (which in England started with the founding of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich), they have needed to win public approval and understanding for their subject. These images below show some of the ways in which that was done.

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

John Flamsteed, first Astronomer Royal

John Flamsteed, first Astronomer Royal

This picture is from the frontispiece of Flamsteed’s great star map, his Historia Coelestis. Flamsteed like many astronomers of his day was also a cleric as is illustrated here by his outfit.

Thomas Gibson (artist) and George Vertue (engraver), 31 December 1719
© National Maritime Museum, London


Edmund Halley, second Astronomer Royal and discoverer of a comet

Edmund Halley, second Astronomer Royal and discoverer of a comet

Halley only became Astronomer Royal when he was 64 years old. Before that he had been a gentleman of leisure thanks to his wealthy family background (allowing him to do things like get his portrait painted by a famous artist) and a sea captain sailing to the island of St Helena in the Southern hemisphere to plot the southern constellations. On his return to England he was appointed Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, a decision criticised by Flamsteed on the grounds that Halley “now talks, swears, and drinks brandy like a sea captain”.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1656-1746
© National Maritime Museum, London


Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich checking the Sunshine recorder

Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich checking the Sunshine recorder

This picture is from the Illustrated London News. It is part of a whole series showing the activities of the Magnetic and Meteorological Department of the Observatory. Over the 19th century there seems to have been a fair amount of interest in what it is astronomers actually do, and a number of articles appeared in this and other popular journals answering just that question.

Illustrated London News, p. 464, 6 November 1850
© National Maritime Museum, London


Refracting telescope by James Short

Refracting telescope by James Short

James Short, an Edinburgh instrument maker from the mid to late 18th century, made this portable reflecting telescope. This type of telescope would have been used not by professional astronomers such as you would find at the Royal Observatory, but by amateurs to view comets and planets or to simply have on show in their homes to show their cultured tastes.

James Short, 1738-68
© National Maritime Museum, London


Front cover to a piece of music. To G.H. Browne Esq. Sultan of Mocha Quadrille By Henry Watson.

Front cover to a piece of music. To G.H. Browne Esq. Sultan of Mocha Quadrille By Henry Watson.

This image is not strictly of an astronomer but I like it. It shows a Greenwich pensioner (the subject of the piece of music), complete with wooden leg, glass of rum and naval telescope (different it should be said from an astronomical telescope, this one shows the image the right way up).

Home (engraver): MacDonald (engraver): Henry Watson & Co. (publishers), Unknown
© National Maritime Museum, London



National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund