ART. V. – An Account of the Rev. John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal; compiled from his own Manuscripts, and other authentic Documents, never before Published. To which is added, his British Catalogue of Stars, Corrected and Enlarged. By FRANCIS BAILY, Esq. Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society. 4 to. London: 1835.

THE present volume comes before the world through an unusual channel, having been printed at the public expense, for the benefit of science, by order of the Lords Commissioners' of the Admiralty. The editor, Mr Baily, is a gentleman of great eminence in the scientific world, and distinguished as the author of several works and memoirs on astronomy, of the highest utility and excellence. The subject matter of it relates to the life and astronomical labours of an individual, of whom, perhaps, some of our readers may not have heard, but who was, nevertheless, a very distinguished character in his day, — the father of practical astronomy in England, and the author of a great national work, the Historia Britannica Cœlestis.

The history of the publication is not a little curious.

' Some time during the year 1832,' says Mr Baily, ' I was informed that an opposite neighbour of mine (Edward Giles, Esq., No.5, Tavistock Place) was in possession of a large collection of original manuscript letter, written by the celebrated Mr John Flamsteed to his friend, Mr Abraham Sharp, who had formerly been his assistant at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and who made the mural arc then in use. These letters were found some years ago, at Mr Sharp's house, in a box deposited in a garret, filled with various books and papers; and Mr Giles was good enough to send them over to me for my perusal. I immediately recognised the handwriting of Flamsteed, and found that they contained much interesting and original matter connected with his astronomical labours not generally known. The whole collection (at least that part of it which relates to Flamsteed) consists not only of the letters written by Mr Flamsteed (124 in number), but also of one letter from Mrs Flamsteed, and 60 from Mr Joseph Crosthwait, his assistant likewise at the Royal Observatory, all addressed to Mr Sharp, who at that time resided at Little Horton, near Bradford, in Yorkshire, on an estate of his own, where he lived a very secluded life, passing most of his time in astronomical calculations. When Flamsteed set about reducing his observations, he requested Mr Sharp to undertake the computation of the places of several of the stars in his catalogue, and also of the moon and planets, from the original observations; and an extensive and friendly correspondence was thus commenced and kept up between them till the time of Flamsteed's death, which was afterward continued with Mr Crosthwait, who super <360> intended the printing of Flamsteed's works, after his decease. This correspondence embraces a variety of subjects; but the principal, the most novel, and the most interesting, is the account of the repeated difficulties and impediments which delayed and almost prevented the publication of the Historia Cœlestis, and the new light which it throws, not only on the history of that transaction, but also on the whole of Flamsteed's labours in the science of Astronomy ,' — P. xiii.

The perusal of these interesting documents induced Mr Baily to make further enquiries; and, having instituted a search at the Royal Observatory, he found, 'to his great surprise and delight, a vast mass of manuscript books, papers, and letters, belonging to Flamsteed, which had been lying on the shelves of the library, for the last sixty years, unnoticed and unknown.' These manuscripts belonged to government, having been purchased by the Board of Longitude, in 1771, on the recommendation of the Royal Society.

'They contain, amongst a mass of valuable matter, the original entries, not only of Flamsteed's astronomical observations, made at the Royal Observatory, but also those which he previously made at Derby and the Tower, as well as duplicate copies of the same — a great variety of computations connected with his astronomical labours and researches, more especially those from which the British Catalogue has been deduced — several of his catalogues, in various states of progress — many particulars relative to the history of his own life — the original preface that was intended for the third volume of the Historia Cœlestis, but which was suppressed by his editors — a vast collection of letters, from various individuals in this and in foreign countries, amongst which are nearly the whole of Mr Sharp's answers, to those of Flamsteed, already mentioned in the early part of this preface — together with much other matter, the nature of which will be best learned from an inspection of the Catalogue above alluded to; nearly all of which (with the exception of the correspondence) are in Flamsteed's own handwriting,' — P. xv.

On examining the various documents which had thus fallen into his hands, Mr Baily soon perceived that the information they contained was equally novel and important. Flamsteed's catalogue of nearly 3000 stars, independently of its intrinsic value, is peculiarly interesting to astronomers, from its being the first that was computed from observations made with the telescope and micrometer, But, for various reasons, which had never yet been very satisfactorily explained, this monument of Flamsteed's labours, and indeed the whole of his works, were given to the world under circumstances of peculiar disadvantage. The catalogue, as is generally known, was first published under the care of Dr Halley, not only without the consent of the author, but in direct opposition to his wishes, and in spite of his remonstrances. It was also known, that Halley took the liberty of introducing considerable alterations — that Flamsteed <361> was so much dissatisfied with the performance that he undertook to reduce it anew, and publish it, together with his numerous observations, at his own expense — that he died whilst the work was in progress — and that it finally appeared at the expense of his widow, and through the exertions of two of his friends, who had been his assistants in the Observatory. These facts have long been matter of history; but the reasons which prevented him from publishing the catalogue himself in the first instance — the causes of his quarrel with Newton and the committee of the Royal Society, who were appointed by the Crown, visitors of the Observatory — the great difficulties he had to struggle against through want of proper support from the government — the zeal with which he prosecuted his important labours, in spite of ill health and impediments of various kinds — and the pecuniary sacrifices he made to procure instruments and assistance in the public service (all which circumstances are recorded and minutely detailed in the manuscripts), were either altogether unknown, or had been invidiously misrepresented.

Conceiving the vindication of a man, who had been treated with much neglect by the governments of his day, and whose labours reflected so much honour on the country, to be an act of public justice, Mr Baily addressed a letter to his Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex, President of the Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory, representing the circumstances, and suggesting the republication of the Catalogue, in a corrected form, accompanied by such portions of the papers as were necessary to place Flamsteed's character in its true light, or as tended to illustrate the scientific history of the period; and offering at the same time to take upon himself the labour of correcting the Catalogue, arranging and selecting the papers, and superintending the publication. This representation was transmitted by the Board to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, with a recommendation that it should be carried into effect; and the result has been the appearance of the sumptuous volume now before us. The whole impression, which was a very small one, has been distributed among the public libraries and scientific institutions, and individuals known to be interested in astronomical science.

The work consists of two distinct parts. The first part, besides an excellent preface by the editor, contains an account (or rather accounts- — or there are no fewer than seven separate fragments) of Flamsteed's life and astronomical labours, written by himself; and followed by an appendix of 258 pages, consisting of correspondence with Sir Jonas Moore, Sir Christopher Wren, Dr Wallis, Sir Isaac Newton, Dr Halley, Dr Arbuth <362> not, Mr Sharp, and other celebrated men of that time; besides various other documents, illustrative of the facts stated in the autobiography. Most of these letters and documents were found in the collections we have above alluded to; but Mr Baily, in order to render the work as complete as possible, extended his researches to various other quarters where information was likely to be obtained. He informs us that he had free access to all the documents in the British Museum; that he procured a search to be made in the several libraries at Oxford; examined the collection of Newton's MS. letters preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; and was permitted to inspect the valuable collection of Newton MSS. belonging to the Earl of Portsmouth. In the course of his enquiries, he met with several interesting documents connected with his subject, which had never yet been published, and which have been incorporated in the present volume. The whole collection forms one of the most remarkable literary productions ever given to the world.

The second part of the volume contains the British Catalogue, corrected and enlarged, with a very valuable Introduction by Mr Baily, describing the mode in which was originally constructed, and the nature of the corrections and additions that have now been made; various Notes from the same quarter, of great interest to the practical astronomer; and several Tables to aid the computer who would compare the places of Flamsteed's stars with those of modern catalogues. Of the manner in which the editor has executed this laborious, and, in a scientific point of view, most important part of his task, it would be difficult to speak in terms of too high praise. But our present concern is with Flamsteed's history.

At first view it must appear extraordinary, that the real circumstances of transactions of so public a nature as those here detailed, should have remained so long unknown, or rather should have been forgotten; for it appears they did not escape remark at the time. The explanation, however, is easy. Flamsteed had the misfortune to live in a state of violent hostility with men, who, from their eminent position in the scientific world, exercised much influence on public opinion; and such meagre and imperfect accounts of the circumstances as have been hitherto known, have come to us indirectly through the biographers and eulogists of his enemies. Flamsteed has never been heard in his own defence; for the vindication which he prepared in the last years of his life, and intended to form the preface to his Historia Cœlestis, was suppressed by his editors; either from regard to the feelings of the eminent individuals (then alive) against whom he <363> brings forward so many heavy accusations, or perhaps, from a conviction that his statements were in some degree overcharged, and a colouring given to transactions susceptible of a more favourable explanation. The latter was probably the chief reason; for there is sufficient evidence that neither Crosthwait nor Sharp, who jointly took charge of the publication, entertained any favourable regard for Halley, whose conduct is most severely reprobated. On the other hand, Flamsteed's charges are preferred in a manner which could not fail to render them peculiarly offensive, and are sometimes exaggerated to a degree that at the present time makes them appear almost ludicrous. But the reasons, whatever they were, which prompted the suppression of the original preface, have long ceased to exist; and justice to the memory of Flamsteed requires the truth to be told. We therefore think the editor has exercised a sound discretion, both in bringing the whole case before the public, and in adopting the present mode of doing it. Instead of presenting us with a narrative of his own, Flamsteed is himself brought into court, and allowed to make his own statement in his own manner, and in his own words; — and, if he occasionally indulges in strictures on the conduct of his contemporaries with a severity which the occasion does not seem to call for, and uses language that cannot, under any circumstances or state of manners, be justified, some allowance will be made for the provocation he received, and for a temper whose constitutional irascibility was increased by almost continual ill health. Above all, it will not be forgotten, that his Letters, in which these offences against good taste are most conspicuous, were written to his confidential friends, and certainly not with the remotest intention of their being brought before the public.

Flamsteed's autobiography commences with the hour of his birth; for, as he remarks, 'ingenious men are much delighted to know both the beginnings and the progresses of their studies, and the circumstances of their lives, whom God has made eminent in the world.'

'I was born at Denby (five miles from Derby), in Derbyshire, August 19, 1646, at a quarter of an hour past seven at night; as I find in some old notes of my father's, who was the third and youngest son of Mr William Flamsteed of Little Hallam, in Derbyshire. My mother, Mary; was the daughter of Mr John Spateman of Derby. In my infancy, sickly. I was educated (at the free school) at Derby, where my father lived (till sixteen years old. My father removed his family to Denby, because the sickness was then in Derby). At fourteen years of age, when I was nearly arrived to be at the head of the free school, visited with a fit of sickness, that was followed with a consumption, and other distempers; which yet did not so much hinder me in my learning but that I still kept my station till the form broke up, and some of my fellows went to the <364> Universities: for which, though I was designed, my father thought it not advisable to send me, by reason of my distemper.' — Pp. 25, 26.

He further tells us, that 'while languishing at home,' after he had left school, he had Sacrobosco de Spæra put into his hands, from which, and some of the other common works on astromony to be met with in those days, be derived the elements of his mathematical and astronomical knowledge. At the age of nineteen, having found no benefit from the advice of his physicians, and his weakness continuing, he undertook a journey into Ireland, to be touched by a celebrated empiric who cured his patients 'by the stroke of his hands, without the application of any medicine.' But though he was 'the eyewitness of several cures,' it was not his good fortune to derive any benefit from the operation. On his return to Derby, he resumed his studies in astronomy; he also dipped a little into astrology, — and he states as the result of his experience in this dark science, that he found astrology 'to give generally strong conjectural hints, not perfect declarations.' In the year 1669 he entered into correspondence with the Royal Society, by presenting to it a collection of occultations of the fixed stars by the moon, which he had computed from the Caroline Tables. This contribution was favourably received by the Society, and procured him the friendship of Mr Oldenburg and Mr Collins, two of its most distinguished members. Having now made himself known as an astronomer to some of the most eminent scientific characters of that day, he undertook a journey to London in 1670, in order to become personally acquainted with them; and on this occasion was introduced to Sir Jonas Moore, the Surveyor of the Ordnance, who became his firm friend and patron. On his way home he visited Barrow and Newton at Cambridge, and enrolled himself a student in Jesus College. In what manner he employed his time at Cambridge, or whether he resided there at all, we have no distinct intimation; but his astronomical studies appear to have sustained no interruption; for in the following year we find him erecting telescopes at Derby, and busily engaged in measuring the diameters of the moon and planets, and making such other observations as his instruments were fit for, and also undertaking to compute tables of the moon from the theory of Horrox. By this time he had rendered himself probably the best practical astronomer in England; and the subjects to which he devoted himself being of a popular kind, he began to acquire a great reputation. Having taken his degree at Cambridge in 1674, he designed to enter the Church, and to settle on a small living near Derby, in the gift of a friend of his father. In the mean time, however, he was invited to London by Sir Jonas Moore, who, he says, designed for him some em <365> ployment 'wherein he might be helpful to his son, for whom he had procured the reversion of his place;' but the son's temper rendering this no desirable situation, and Flamsteed persisting in his resolution to take orders, a royal warrant was obtained through Sir Jonas' interest, appointing him King's Astronomer, with a salary of £100 a-year, payable by the Board of Ordnance. At the Easter following he was ordained at Ely House by Bishop Gunning.[1]

From Flamsteed's account it would appear that the establishment of the Royal Observatory, at that time at least, was owing, in a great measure, to an accident. A Frenchman, calling himself the Sieur de St Pierre, proposed a method of determining the longitude at sea, and though the interest of the Duchess of Portsmouth, then a favourite at Court, procured a commission <366> from the King to Lord Brouncker and others, to examine the project, and report thereon to his Majesty. The method which he proposed was plausible and good in theory, — depending on a comparison of the moon's place with those of fixed stars, whose positions were well determined; but at that time useless, as neither the positions of the stars nor the moon's path were known with sufficient accuracy for such a determination. Flamsteed, who was much better acquainted with the actual state of astronomy, immediately perceived what was wanting, and addressed a letter to the Commissioners, representing that the catalogue of Tycho (the only one then in the hands of astronomers) was uncertain to three or four minutes, and often in error to the extent of ten minutes; and that, so far from the moon's path being sufficiently well known for the determination of the longitude, the best lunar tables then existing differed a quarter, if not a third, of a degree from the heavens. This letter was shown to the King, who, 'startled at the assertion of the fixed stars' places being false in the catalogue, said, with some vehemence, "he must have them anew observed, examined, and corrected, for the use of his seamen;" and further (when it was urged to him how necessary it was to have a good stock of observations taken for correcting the motions of the moon and planets), with the same earnestness "he must have it done." And when it was asked who could, or who should do it? "The person," says he, "who informs you of them." Whereupon I was appointed with the incompetent allowance aforementioned, but with the assurances, at the same time, of such farther additions as thereafter should be found requisite for carrying on the work.' — P. 38.

These assurances were never fulfilled during the life of Flamsteed. Whatever were the views of Sir Jonas Moore and the other promoters of the Observatory respecting the requisites for an astronomical establishment, the government contented itself with paying the astronomer the miserable allowance of £100 a-year, and providing him with a residence in Greenwich Park. Flamsteed demanded the instruments and assistance necessary for carrying on a complete series of observations — they were promised, but never granted. All the instruments which he ever used were made by his own hands, or erected at his own expense, or given to him by Sir Jonas Moore; the public did not even defray the expense of repairing them. The only assistance afforded him was a labourer in ordinary from the Tower; and he esteemed it a favour when, twenty years after his appointment, the officers of the Ordnance allowed him to name his own assistant. 'I valued it the more,' he says, 'because it made me <367> easy, and furnished me with an ingenious and tractable youth, instead of a surly labourer.' For some years after his appointment, he appears to have entertained an apprehension that the allowance to the Observatory, inadequate as it was, would be withdrawn. In a letter, written to Sir Jonas Moore in 1678, he says, 'I cannot conceive you have any real design to stop my salary, which I have earned by labour harder than thrashing.' Some months after he writes to Dr Seth Ward, Bishop of Salisbury, that his salary had been in great danger of total retrenchment; that he had been introduced to the King at Whitehall for the purpose of soliciting its continuance, and that his Majesty had said he 'would take care of it;' and he adds, that on this account he was more intent on his observations than ever, 'that I may lay in a stock, and have the more to work upon in a country retirement, in case such a thing as a retrenchment should force me from my instruments, and interrupt the series of my observations.' — P. 119. Such was the support given in its infancy to an establishment of great national importance, and which, directed by a succession of eminent men, has been productive, as has been well remarked, of more real service to astronomy and navigation than all the other establishments of a similar kind in Europe put together. Under the circumstances, it may be regarded as a fortunate event that a person of Flamsteed's enthusiastic temperament was appointed to the office. Had the choice fallen on a man less ardently devoted to astronomy, less disinterested in pecuniary matters, or even less fortunate in being provided with the means of procuring, at his own expense, the apparatus and assistance which the government parsimoniously withheld from him, it is probable that the Observatory would have been abandoned, and the office of Astronomer Royal, for many years after, been attended with as little honour or advantage to the country as that of Poet Laureat, or any other pageant of royalty.

Flamsteed received his appointment in March 1675; the Observatory was begun in August the same year; he removed to it in July 1676; and continued there, in active discharge of the duties of the office, till his death in December 1719. The instruments with which he commenced his labours were, an iron sextant of seven feet radius, two clocks given him by Sir Jonas Moore, and a quadrant of three feet radius, with two telescopes, which he brought with him from Derby. With such an apparatus, all he could attempt was to measure the intermutual distances, or relative positions of the stars; he had no means of determining their absolute places. Finding all his complaints 'insignificant in these ticklish times,' and all his endeavours to obtain fixed meridional instruments fruitless, he at length resolved to make a <368> mural arc at his own expense. Accordingly, an arc was erected and divided by himself in 1683; but it proved a failure, and he was consequently obliged to confine himself to the sextant for some years longer. Having in the mean time been preferred to the living of Burstow, in Surrey, and having inherited some property from his father, he determined on making another attempt to provide such an instrument as was now become absolutely necessary for his farther progress. When about to put this design into execution, he had the good fortune to engage the assistance of Mr Abraham Sharp, one of the best calculators, perhaps, that ever lived, and (what to Flamsteed was at that time a still more valuable talent) also a most expert and skilful mechanic. After fourteen months' labour, an arc was set up and divided with great care by Sharp, which was found on trial to answer all their expectations. It was finished in October 1689; and it is to this epoch that we may properly refer the commencement of astronomy in the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. 'From this moment,' says Mr Baily, 'every thing which Flamsteed did, every observation that he made, assumed a tangible and permanent form, and was available to some useful purpose; his preceding observations being only subsidiary, and dependent on results to be afterwards deduced from some fixed instrument of this kind, which he had long sought for. It was at this point only that the observatory could be considered as complete; and from this period we must date the commencement of his valuable and fundamental observations.' — P. xxix.

In order to form a just estimate of the value of Flamsteed's astronomical labours, it is necessary to have regard, not only to the state of the science at that time, but also to the means at his command, and the adverse circumstances against which he had to struggle. His health, during his whole life, continued feeble, and he was frequently on that account obliged to discontinue his observations for months together. For the first fifteen years after his appointment to the observatory, a great portion of his time was consumed in the tedious computations required for reducing his observations made with the sextant. He was, besides, distracted with the business of teaching, both, it would appear, as a part of his official duty, and as a means of increasing his inadequate salary. To all this was added the unfortunate quarrel with Newton and Halley about the publication of the catalogue and observations, which for many years withdrew his attention from his proper business, and harassed and exhausted his mind. With so many impediments to overcome, the formation of a catalogue of 3000 stars, and the vast collection of observations which he left of the moon and planets, may be regarded as one of the noblest <369> examples of energy and perseverance. 'It is a matter of astonishment,' says Mr Baily, 'that he accomplished so much, considering his slender means, and the vexations which he continually experienced.' Nevertheless, his reputation, and claims on the gratitude of posterity, rest solely on his industry and perseverance in well-directed exertions. If we consider the vast progress that was made in astronomy from the time of Tycho, or rather Hevelius, to Bradley, and the numerous inventions and discoveries by which every branch of it was enriched, we can scarcely find one either in respect of theory, or of instruments, or of methods of observation or computation, to which he can justly lay claim. Delambre, indeed, allows him the merit of having been the first who practised the method of determining the place of the equinoxes from observed equal declinations of the sun; but if we except this, which, moreover, was an easy corollary from Picard's then well-known method of determining the time from observations of equal altitudes, it would be difficult to show that he made a single step in advance of his age. The character of his mind is more remarkable for activity, and that sort of sagacity which leads to practical skill, than for any of the higher endowments. In point of genius, his name is not to be mentioned with that of Newton; he was immeasurably inferior even to his rival, Halley. His mathematical knowledge, even for the time, appears to have been extremely limited. He set no value on the physical speculations of Newton, and evidently never understood them. He sneers at his 'conceptions' about gravity, calls him our great pretender,' carps at the lunar theory, does not 'relish the small equations,' and determines 'to lay these crotchets of Newton aside.' On no occasion does he attempt to establish a principle, or refer a phenomenon to gravitation; and he left to one of his successors the two most brilliant discoveries of modern astronomy, the aberration and nutation, though both were within his reach. In fact, he himself clearly pointed out the effect of the former, and even defined its amount; but he mistook (in common, however, with others) the phenomenon for the effect of parallax, although the simplest mathematical considerations might have shown him that parallax would be manifested in quite a different manner. Newton suggested to him the importance of noticing the state of the barometer and thermometer at the time of the observations, but he neglected the good advice. Even in respect of instrumental accuracy, he perhaps came rather behind than preceded the attainments of his day. But if Flamsteed took no part in the great discoveries which in the course of a single century so completely changed the state of astronomy, he was at least one of the most ardent and diligent <370> observers that ever lived. He had the sagacity to perceive distinctly the path, then almost untrodden, in which his labours could be most usefully exerted; and he deserves the praise of having followed it with steadfastness, and even pertinacity, during a long life, in the face of difficulties and discouragements which would have repelled with disgust a man of less resolute purpose. His title to be enrolled among the great benefactors of astronomy is founded on the multitude of his observations, and the noble efforts he made to reduce and publish them. 'His name,' says Delambre, 'will be eternally cited like those of Hipparchus and Tycho, both of whom as an observer he surpassed, without, however, in many respects equalling the first, who preceded him by nineteen centuries.'

Flamsteed was scarcely established in the Observatory when he began to be importuned with demands to publish his observations. In l684, before his mural arc was erected, and consequently before he possessed an instrument by which the absolute position of a star could be determined, we find him complaining that 'some people, to make him uneasy, others out of a sincere desire, to see the happy progress of his studies, not understanding amid what hard circumstances he lived, called hard upon him to print his observations.' It was in vain that he answered his work was imperfect so long as he could merely observe relative positions; and that it was necessary, in order to produce a useful catalogue, to be first provided with an instrument capable of measuring directly the right ascensions and zenith distances of his determining stars. His reasons did not give satisfaction, — probably because they were not understood; and in the mean time, the impatience of those persons who took an interest in the progress of astronomy, to see some results from the Observatory, was increased by his giving out that he was engaged in the preparation of a catalogue of stars. He appears to have been much disturbed by the remarks to which he was exposed in reference to this subject; for, in a letter to Sir Isaac Newton, dated 24th February, 1691-2, after giving a detailed account of his occupations, and describing the progress he had made in preparing the catalogue, he says —

'Tell me now sincerely (for I know you will do it), if you think it would be prudently done of me to leave off where I am, whilst I have strength and vigour (God be praised) to prosecute them? Would it, I say, be wisely done of me, to cease my designed observations of the constellations that yet remain to be taken or completed, to transcribe what I have done for the press, and to attend to it for twelve months, to gain a little present reputation? Would not even those men, who ask so peevishly why I do not print them? would not they tell me I might <371> have staid another year or two, for all their idle talk, and have given them the whole complete?' — P. 131.

A subsequent passage in the same letter shows that Flamsteed attributed the annoyance he received on this subject to the instigations of Halley; and the strong censure he passes on Halley's character, proves that the feelings of jealousy and hatred which are so remarkably exhibited in all the subsequent proceedings had already taken deep hold of his mind.

'It only remains that I give you the answer I would make to our suggesting friend, when he asks me why I do not print my observations? 'Tis first, I do not find myself under any obligations to receive instructions what to do or be governed by him and his associates the Muss's' — (A term probably meant for those who use the word must, in a dictatorial sense). 'Secondly, I would not thrust such an incomplete catalogue on the world as he has done from St Helena: nor be obliged to compliment the best reputed astronomers of our time (as he has done all of them), by telling them that, had their catalogues been extant, he would have called his a supplement to theirs, as he has done (for want of them) of Tycho's. Nor will I give any one occasion to tell the world I have erred a 60th part of what La Hire has published he does in a star of the Crosiers and one of the Centaur: that I understand what I have to do much better than he; and when, and how, it will be best for me to publish my own labours: that I will not be beholden to him for his assistance or advice: that if he wants employment for his time, he may go on with his sea projects, or square the superfices of cylindric ungulas: find reasons for the change of the variation, or give us a true account of all his St Helena exploits; and that he had better do it, than buffoon those to the Society to whom he has been more obliged than he dares acknowledge: that he has more of mine in his hands already, than he will either own or restore; and that I have no esteem of a man who has lost his reputation, both for skill, candour, and ingenuity, by silly tricks, ingratitude, and foolish prate: and that I value not all, or any of the shame of him and his infidel companions; being very well satisfied that if Christ and his apostles were to walk again upon earth, they should not escape free from the calumnies of their venomous tongues. But I hate his ill manners, not the man: were he either honest, or but civil, there is none in whose company I could rather desire to be.' — Pp. 132-133.

For some years after the date of this letter we hear nothing more of his 'being asked to print,' and in the mean time the observations were carried on vigorously, and the preparation of the catalogue advanced steadily, and as rapidly as his health and means would permit. But Flamsteed was one of those unhappy individuals who, from an unfortunate idiosyncrasy, are never for any length of time free from some cause or other of annoyance and molestation. In 1694, Newton applied to him to be furnished with observations of the moon for the purpose of <372> rectifying the lunar theory; and a correspondence ensued, which, though it began with apparently good feelings on both sides, terminated in a complete breach of their friendship. The origin of this affair, and Newton's conduct in it, is described by him as follows: —

'1694. Saturday, September 1st. Mr Newton came to visit me. Esteeming him an obliged friend, I showed him about 150 places of the moon, derived from my observations and tables by myself, and servants hired at my own expense, with the differences or errors, in three synopses written on large sheets of paper, in order to correct the theory of her motions. On his earnest request I lent them to him to take copies of them (as I did not doubt but that by their help he would be able to correct the lunar theory), upon these two conditions, however: 1st, That he should not impart or communicate them to any body without my consent: for the places of the moon deduced from the observations (I told him) were got with the help of a small catalogue of fixed stars made from observations taken with the sextant only, and rectified to the beginning of the year 1686; whereby I found their places were not so correct as they ought to be; and that when the stars were rectified by the new instrument, I would calculate the moon's places anew, and then should be ready to impart them both to him and to the public. 2d, That he should not in the first instance impart the result of what he derived from them to any body but myself; for, since I saved him all the labour of calculating the moon's place both from the observations and tables, it was not just that he should give the result of my pains (the correction of the theory I had furnished with numbers) to any other but myself. All this he approved; and by a letter of his, confessed. Nevertheless, he imparted what he derived from them, both to Dr Gregory and Mr Halley, contra datam fidem. The first of these conditions I was not much concerned whether he kept or not; but he has, I believe, kept it. The latter (which was the most material) he has forgot or broke, through the insinuation, I fear, of some persons that were little his friends till they saw what friends he had in the government; and I presume will be less so, when they see them laid aside.' — Pp. 61-62.

In the course of the correspondence which followed this occurrence, the alteration in the mutual feelings of the two parties is gradually developed. Newton's letters, at the commencement, are written in a spirit of kindly feeling; though it is evident, from many expressions, that he was displeased with the tone Flamsteed thought fit to adopt with regard to Halley. In a letter, dated October, 1694, after informing Flamsteed that Halley had desired to see his lunar observations, Newton continues, — 'I told him he must not take it ill if I refused him that, because I stood engaged to communicate them to nobody without your consent. I am very glad there is like to be a new correspondence between you, and hope it will end in friendship.' — (P. 137.) <373> In a like spirit he writes, in the following January, 'I forbore to answer your first enquiry about it' (a work of Viviani's), 'because I feared it might tend to widen the breach between you and Mr Halley, which I would rather reconcile if it were in my power. And now I hope that what I have told you will not be made use of to that purpose, lest it should also do me an injury.' — P. 149. The following extract from a letter of Newton's, in reply to an insinuation made by Flamsteed, that the result of the observations had been imparted to Halley, exhibits an evident desire to soothe and conciliate Flamsteed: —

'As for your observations, you know I cannot communicate them to any body, and much less publish them, without your consent. But if I should perfect the moon's theory, and you should think fit to give me leave to publish your observations with it, you may rest assured that I should make a faithful and honourable acknowledgment of their author, with a just character of their exactness above any others yet extant. In the former edition of my book, you may remember that you communicated some things to me, and I hope the acknowledgments I made of your communications were to your satisfaction; and you may be assured I shall not be less just to you for the future. For all the world knows that I make no observations myself, and therefore I must of necessity acknowledge their author: and if I do not make a handsome acknowledgment, they will reckon me an ungrateful clown.' — P. 151.

The spirit in which Flamsteed met these advances, will be best explained by his own account of what took place.

'This request of Mr Newton for more observations, caused an intercourse of letters between us, wherein I imparted to him about 100 more of the moon's places; which was more than he could reasonably expect from one in my circumstances of constant business and ill health. The year following (1695), I was ill all the year with a periodical headache; which was carried off in September by a violent fit of my dreadful distemper, the stone. In the mean time, frequent letters passed between me and Mr Newton, who ceased not to importune me (though he was informed of my illness), for more observations; and with that earnestness that looked as if he thought he had a right to command them; and had about fifty more imparted to him. But I did not think myself obliged to employ my pains to serve a person that was so inconsiderate as to presume he had a right to that which was only a courtesy.' — Pp. 62-3.

From this it is abundantly evident that Flamsteed considered the communication of the observations to Newton merely in the light of a personal favour. The following extract illustrates in a curious manner the value which he set on Newton's theoretical researches; and shows that the opinion which he entertained was, that Newton's object in requesting these lunar observations, was to rob him of the honour of his labours: —


''Tis given out at Oxford, that Mr Newton has improved his doctrine of gravity so far, that he can answer all my lunar observations exceeding nearly; and that now there is little need of them, since all the inequalities of the moon's motions may be discovered by the sole laws of gravitation without them. I said nothing of this, because I had moved him enough with what I have said about the comets: but to the honest man that told me of it, with some indignation I answered that he had been as many years upon this thing as I had been on the constellations and planets altogether; that he had made lunar tables once to answer his conceived laws, — but when he came to compare them with the heavens (that is, the moon's observed places), he found he had mistook, and was forced to throw them all aside; that I had imparted above 200 of her observed places to him, which one would think should be sufficient to limit any theory by; and since he has altered and suited his theory till it fitted these observations, 'tis no wonder that it represents them: but still he is more beholden to them for it than he is to his speculations about gravity, which had misled him. Mr Hobbs boasted that his laws were agreeable to those of Moses. Dr Eachards tells him he doubted not of it; for being drawn from Moses' works, and copied into his, he might be sure they would agree, except the laws of Moses were flown, which he was sure they were not.' — Letter to Lowthorp (May 10, 1700), p. 176.

This disposition on the part of Flamsteed to withhold the observations, and the motive from which it arose, could not fail to be perceived by Newton, who thus expresses his indignation in a letter, dated Cambridge, July 9, 1695: —

'After I had helped you where you had stuck in your three great works — that of the Theory of Jupiter's Satellites, that of your Catalogue of the Fixed Stars, and that of calculating the moon's places from observations, and in all these things freely communicated to you what was perfect in its kinds (so far as I could make it), and of more value than many observations, and what (in one of them) cost me above two months' hard labour, which I should never have undertaken but on your account, and which I told you I undertook, that I might have something to return you for the observations you then gave me hopes of; and yet, when I had done, saw no prospect of obtaining them, or of getting your synopses verified, I despaired of compassing the moon's theory, and had thoughts of giving it over as a thing impracticable, and occasionally told a friend so, who then made me a visit. But now you offer me those observations, which were made before the year 1690, I thankfully accept of your offer,' &c. — Pp. 157-8.

Notwithstanding this ebullition, occasioned probably by a momentary feeling of disappointment at not being able to obtain the observations he required, Newton continued for some time longer to write to Flamsteed in the same friendly terms as formerly; but his prejudices were now completely roused, and an incident, trifling in itself, which occurred soon afterwards, called <375> forth a still more decided display of resentment and hostile feeling. Dr Wallis, being about to publish the third volume of his Tracts, requested Flamsteed to furnish him with a paper he had written on the parallax of the earth's orbit, and to allow it to be printed in the volume. Flamsteed acceded to the request; and among the remarks which he introduced, he mentioned the fact of his having formerly supplied Newton with 150 computed places of the moon, to enable him to correct his lunar theory. This was communicated by Dr Gregory to Newton, who took great offence at the unauthorized mention of his name, and wrote to Flamsteed the letter which follows: —

'Jermyn Street, Jan. 6, 1698-9.

'Sir, — Upon hearing occasionally that you had sent a letter to Dr Wallis about the parallax of the fixed stars to be printed, and that you had mentioned me therein with respect to the theory of the moon, I was concerned to be publicly brought upon the stage about what, perhaps, will never be fitted for the public, and thereby the world put into an expectation of what, perhaps, they are never like to have. I do not love to be printed upon every occasion, much less to be dunned and teased by foreigners about mathematical things, or to be thought by our own people to be trifling away my time about them, when I should be about the King's business; and, therefore, I desired Dr Gregory to write to Dr Wallis against printing that clause, which related to that theory, and mentioned me about it. You may let the world know, if you please, how well you are stored with observations of all sorts, and what calculations you have made towards rectifying the theories of the heavenly motions. But there may be cases wherein your friends should not be published without their leave; and therefore I hope you will so order the matter, that I may not, on this occasion, be brought upon the stage. — I am your humble servant,


We must here notice an error, pointed out by Mr Baily, into which Sir David Brewster has fallen respecting this letter, in his able Life of Sir Isaac Newton. In a note at page 243 of that work an extract from it is given; and 'through some, singular error or confusion' (as Mr Baily expresses it) it is there quoted, not as a letter written by Newton, but as a letter of Flamsteed's to Newton, and moreover described as being characteristic of Flamsteed's manner. Flamsteed was indeed sufficiently prompt to express himself strongly regarding conduct that gave him offence; and sufficiently prone to entertain exaggerated ideas of the importance of his own labours; but in the present instance, the advantages of manner, as well as of sound notions of the importance of astronomical observations, were all on his own side.


'I wonder,' he says in his reply to Newton, 'that hints should drop from your pen, as if you looked on my business as trifling. You thought it not so, surely, when you resided at Cambridge. Its property is not altered: I think it has produced something considerable already, and may do more, if I can but procure help to work up the observations I have under my hands, which it was one of the designs of my letter to Dr Wallis to move for. I doubt not but it will be of some use to our ingenious travellers and sailors, and other persons that come after me will think their time as little misspent in these studies as those did that have gone before me. The works of the Eternal Providence, I hope, will be a little better understood through your labours and mine, than they were formerly. Think me not proud for this expression: I look on pride as the worst of sins — humility as the greatest virtue. This makes me excuse small faults in all mankind, bear great injuries without resentment, and resolve to maintain a real friendship with ingenious men — to assist them what lies in my power, without the regard of any interest but that of doing good by obliging them.' — P.169.

He was evidently hurt by Newton's remarks, and ascribes the cause to the officious interference of Gregory, whose motives for carrying the information to Newton he thus describes in a letter to Dr Wallis (Jan. 7, 1698-9), in which he requests him to alter the 'offensive, innocent paragraph:' —

'The truth is, the Doctor is suing for the mathematical tutorship to the young Duke of Gloucester, who will not have occasion for a tutor in mathematics this four or five years. He knows I was named for that employ when the settling of his household was first discoursed of, and that I have an interest, though I do not look after it, for reasons not to be recited in this letter. He hopes to gain it by his interest with the Bishop of Salisbury, and that Mr Newton may be of good use to him by procuring him the favour of Mr Montague. For this reason he has taken the occasion to ingratiate with Mr Newton, by suggesting I have wrote something that may derogate from him; but I am apt to believe that he will rather injure than help himself by this piece of flattery.' — P.167.

Though it is evident from these repeated outbreakings, that all sincere friendship, and even respect, for each other, was now at an end, the appearances of civility were not yet entirely thrown aside. Up to this time, Flamsteed appears to have entertained some sentiments of respect for Newton, and to have attributed Newton's conduct towards him to the instigation of others, and particularly Halley; for in May, 1700, he says in a letter to Mr Lowthorp, 'He is so possessed with prejudices against me by some people's suggestions whom you know well, that I can have no free discourse with him.' And again — 'I believe him to be a good man at the bottom, but, through his natural temper, suspicious, and too easy to be possessed with calumnies, es <377> pecially such as are impressed with raillery.' — P. 175. But the part which Newton took in the publication of the observations soon after this, and of which we shall now proceed to give an account, destroyed every remaining favourable sentiment.

'Whilst Mr Flamsteed was busied in the laborious work of the catalogue of the fixed stars, and forced often to watch and labour by night, to fetch the materials for it from the heavens, that were to be employed by day, he often, on Sir Isaac Newton's instances, furnished him with observations of the moon's places, in order to carry on his correction of the lunar theory. A civil correspondence was carried on between them; only Mr Flamsteed could not but take notice, that as Sir Isaac was advanced in place, so he raised himself in his conversation, and became more magisterial. At last, finding that Mr Flamsteed had advanced far in his designed catalogue by the help of his country calculators, that he had made new lunar tables, and was daily advancing in the other planets, Sir Isaac Newton came to see him (Tuesday, April 11, 1704); and desiring, after dinner, to be shown in what forwardness his work was, had so much of the catalogue of the fixed stars laid open before him as was then finished; together with the maps of the constellations, with those drawn by T. Weston and P. Van Somer; as also his collection of the observed places of Saturn and Jupiter with the Rodolphine numbers. Having viewed them well, he told Mr Flamsteed he would (i e. he was desirous to) recommend them to the Prince [Prince George of Denmark] privately. Mr Flamsteed (who had long been sensible of his partiality, and heard how his two flatterers cried Sir Isaac's performances up, was sensible of the snare in the word privately) answered that would not do; and (upon Sir Isaac's demanding "Why not?") that then the Prince's attendants would tell him these were but curiosities of no great use, and persuade him to save that expense, that there might be the more for them to beg of him; and that the recommendation must he made publicly to prevent any such suggestions. Sir Isaac apprehended right, that he was understood, and his designs defeated, and so took his leave, not well satisfied with the refusal.' — P. 69.

In another place, where he gives a more circumstantial account of this visit of Newton's to the Observatory, he adds —

'I was surprised at this proposition. I had formerly tried his temper, and always found him insidious, ambitious, and excessively covetous of praise, and impatient of contradiction. I had taken notice of some faults in the fourth book of his Principia: which, instead of thanking me for, he resented ill. Yet was [so] presumptuous, that he sometimes dared to ask, "why I did not hold my tongue." I considered that if I granted what he desired, I should put myself wholly into his power, or he at his mercy, who might spoil all that came into his hands, or put me to unnecessary trouble and vexation about my own labours; and all the while pretend that he did it to amend faults, where none were but what were unavoidable, or easy to be corrected, and therefore excusable. I had further irritated him by not concealing some truths that are since published in print, and notoriously known; and therefore civilly refused <378> what he desired. But still he told me he would recommend them to the Prince, and parted with me in the evening with a short expression of very good advice, "Do all the good in your power;" which it would have been very happy for him if he had followed himself, and has been he rule of my life from my infancy; though I do not know that it ever has been of his.' — Pp. 73, 74.

After this refusal to avail himself of Newton's interest with the Prince, Flamsteed says, 'I heard no more of his recommendations. On the contrary, his flatterers, and such small mathematicians about London as hoped to get themselves esteemed very skilful by crying up his book, began to ask "why I did not print?" as if I were obliged to publish my works just when they pleased, though they understood no more of my works than they did of his book which they so much cried up.' — P. 74. But the subject now began to excite a more general interest, and Flamsteed, finding that some of his acquaintances 'had fallen into a suspicion that his labours were not what might reasonably be expected of him,' prepared an estimate of the number of printed pages the work would fill, and sent it to a friend, who showed it at a meeting of the Royal Society. The society resolved to recommend the publication of the work to the Prince, who had recently been elected a Fellow, and a committee was accordingly appointed for that purpose. The Prince agreed to the request, and directed Mr Roberts, Sir C. Wren, Dr Gregory, and Dr Arbuthnot, with Mr Newton, to inspect the manuscripts and make the necessary arrangements for printing them. Flamsteed, however, did not expect the management of the publication would have been taken out of his own hands; and the very first act of the referees gave him the highest dissatisfaction. After examining the papers, they proceeded to draw up an estimate of the probable expense, in which they made no allowance for designing and engraving about fifty plates of the constellations, on which Flamsteed had bestowed great care, and which he considered a very important part of the work: — 'I have caused some of my maps to be anew designed by an able workman; these I also showed him (Newton); they are very masterly done. . . These he seemed not to take much notice of; whether, because he is no great judge of those things, or out of discretion, I dare not pretend to judge; though I tell you they will be the glory of the work, and, next the catalogue, the usefullest part of it.' — P. 217. (Letter to Sharp, May 4, 1704.) The inference which he draws from this omission is deserving of remark: — 'Hereby I was convinced that Sir Isaac Newton was no friend to my work, and every step he took afterwards plainly proved, that whatever he pretended, his design was either to gain the honour of all my <379> pains to himself, to make me come under to him (as Dr Gregory some time after expressed), or to spoil or sink it; which it was my chief concern and business, if possible, to prevent.' — P. 76. With such feelings it was not likely that Flamsteed would render the committee much willing assistance. We shall have occasion to remark still more extraordinary charges, founded on still weaker presumptions, in the course of the subsequent transactions. The following is the character he gives of Newton's coadjutors: —

'To screen himself from the just imputation and blame that would probably follow such disingenuous and ungrateful practice, he made use of these gentlemen, to whom he had got the inspection of my books of observations, ordered by the Prince, and called them the Prince's referees. Of these, Sir C, Wren was then about seventy years of age; and though he was a skilful person, yet being full of other business, he was sure to have him, who lived in his neighbourhood, to consent to all his orders, and subscribe them. Mr Roberts was an easy, good-natured man, but knew little of the business. Mr Aston had been fellow of the same (Trinity) college in Cambridge, at the same time with him, knew nothing of the business, lived in the Court, had been my friend and guest at the Observatory, was too much a courtier to withstand any one that had a noble patron in the Ministry, and therefore was taken into the number of referees, sometimes for special purposes. Dr Gregory, though he published a piece of astronomy, knew but very little of that part of it that was cultivated here. Nor was Dr Arbuthnot skilled in it: but being one of the Prince's physicians, he was taken in to serve Sir Isaac Newton's purposes. He saw what was designed, and testified to me by some expressions, that he approved not such proceedings; promised once to assist me in a particular affair; and, though he met with obstructions, performed it handsomely.

'With these persons Sir Isaac Newton began to act his part, and carry on his designs. I dealt honestly and openly with him, as will appear by the copies of some letters I wrote to him upon several occasions; having no other design but to have my work handsomely printed, and as soon as possible; for the Prince was very infirm. But I soon perceived that he designed only to hinder the work by delays, or spoil or sink it, or force me to comply with his humour, and flatter him, and cry him up as Dr Gregory and Dr Halley did.' — Pp. 77, 78.

No sooner was the resolution taken to print the observations, than Flamsteed began to manifest great impatience at the delay, perhaps inevitable, which took, place in completing the arrangements that were necessary for commencing a work of such magnitude and difficulty. Having at length agreed on the manner in which the printing was to be executed, the referees or rather Sir Isaac Newton, who appears to have taken on himself the whole management of the affair, determined to employ a contractor (or undertaker, as Flamsteed calls him), and Mr Churchill, an eminent bookseller, was selected. Flamsteed objected <380> to this course; 'but Sir Isaac Newton was resolved to make friends at my cost. For as he ordered the matter, the undertaker was here to reap the sole advantage of all my labours and great expenses.' It was in January, 1705, that the referees made their report to the Prince on the estimate for printing: —

'June the 11th following, Dr Gregory and myself, with Mr Churchill, dined at Sir Isaac Newton's, where they agreed to give Mr Churchill L.l, 14s. per sheet. They signed the agreement, but I would not, although they urged me much. I desired to be excused, for it was now plain to me that he designed not the good of the impression as my advantage, but to make a friend of a great name, by obliging a person I never had any acquaintance with, and enrich him at my cost.' — P. 79.

'Another reason for delay was, that Newton thought to work me to his ends by putting me to extraordinary charges in maintaining and paying an amanuensis and calculators myself at my own charges. But I resolved to bear this expense patiently, and defeat his designs.' — Id.

Still the work was not proceeded in: —

'Sir Isaac Newton became daily more perverse, and sought by several vexatious pretences to discourage me, and weary me if possible. I paid my calculators and amanuensis three quarters, without any present prospect of being any way reimbursed. But yet I had hopes, if once the press began to work, they would not find any new tricks or pretences to delay repaying me. But herein, too, I found myself mistaken: those that have begun to do ill things, never blush to do worse and worse to screen themselves. Sir Isaac Newton had still more to do, and was ready at coining new excuses and pretexts to cover his disingenuous and malicious practices. I had none but very honest and honourable designs in my mind. I met his cunning forecasts with sincere and honest answers, and thereby frustrated not a few of his malicious designs.' — Pp. 79-80.

It was next pretended that some errors had been discovered in the copy given in to the referees. Newton accordingly demanded that the First Night Notes, or original entries of the observations, should be put into his hands for the purpose of comparison. His demand was for once complied with by Flamsteed without hesitation; 'because,' says he, 'I knew that he would be mistaken, and that they would not answer his design.' After this it was thought necessary to draw up articles of agreement between the referees, Flamsteed, and the undertaker; and, as further security, Newton insisted on Flamsteed putting into his hands such part of the catalogue as was already finished. But as these transactions are of importance in the sequel of the history, we will give them in Flamsteed's own words: —

'Though I had refused to handle any of the Prince's money but what was to repay my proper disbursements, and Sir Isaac Newton had granted that then it was not necessary I should sign any agreement with the <381> referees, yet now he became very positive for articles. He had said to some of his confidants, "that he would hamper me with articles." It had come to my ears: and therefore, on his urging me, I drew up some for the undertaker to sign; as, that he should print only 400 copies; that he should have no interest in the original, &c. But these were not to his purpose; I would not court him. To bring about his low designs he makes articles himself, in which some things of mine were inserted; and in them he covenants the undertaker should print five sheets per week; and for reprinting of faulty sheets; and that I should have L.l25 paid me when ten sheets were printed off. These were read to me once; and I was required to sign them immediately, else the work was at a stand; no time would be allowed to consider of them, or mend any thing I thought amiss in them. I was then near L.140 out of pocket; all my copy was ready for the press, or soon would be. If I refused, the work would be broken off immediately, and the fault would be thrown upon me. For Sir Isaac Newton lived in the neighbourhood of the court, I at six miles distance. He had his close friend, the Lord Halifax, to support him there, with the Prince's physician: I had nothing but my sincerity and God's blessing to depend upon. Trusting on these alone, I signed them; not doubting but now the press would begin. The articles are dated November the 10th, in the fourth year of Queen Anne, or 1705.'

'But herein I soon found myself deceived. This would not satisfy; I would not yet cry up Sir Isaac as others did. To bring me to that baseness, now he has got my book of Night Notes, he wants a copy of so much of the catalogue as I bad gone through with, to be trusted into his hands. He therefore demanded it. I answered that it was not then perfected; that I believed it would contain a good number more than I had yet observed and rectified; that the stars already in it were about 1500, but probably I should make them 2500; that these were the result of all my labours, in which having spent above L.2000 of my own money above my allowances, it would neither be prudent nor safe to trust a copy of them out of my own keeping. He answered that I might then put them into his hands sealed up, whereby I understood they were to be so kept by him till I had finished the whole, and was ready to print it. I considered, also, that this half of my catalogue would be of no advantage to him, and consented. I therefore delivered the copy of so much of the catalogue as was finished into Mr Hodgson's hands, with orders to seal it up in Sir Christopher Wren's presence, and deliver it to Sir Isaac Newton when ten sheets were printed, and L.125 (which would then be payable by the Articles) should be paid me. This was March 8, 1706; but this direction I waived afterwards, and it was put into his hands the week after, without receiving a farthing for the board or pay of my amanuensis or calculators. For honest Sir Isaac Newton (to use his own words) would have "all things in his own power," to spoil or sink them, that he might force me to second his designs, and applaud him — which no honest man would nor could; and, God be thanked, I lay under no necessity of doing.' — Pp. 80-82.


Notwithstanding these squabbles, the printing proceeded, though slowly; and at length, in December, 1707, nearly three years after the Prince's consent had been obtained, the first volume of the Historia Cœlestis, containing the sextant observations, was completed. Flamsteed now expected that the next and more important volume, which was to contain the observations with the mural arc, and for which the materials were ready, would be undertaken immediately; but fresh difficulties arose, and the press stood still 'through Sir Isaac Newton's only procurement. 'For, to keep all things wholly in his own power, he had brought in an undertaker who was useless to the business, and a printer whom I believe he paid.' A new contract was to be entered into; and Newton, at a meeting of the referees in London, produced an agreement, ready signed, which, says Flamsteed, 'he would not deliver to me, but graciously permitted me to take a copy of it.' The substance of the agreement was, that Flamsteed should deliver to Newton the second volume of the Observations, with the figures of the first volume, and the Catalogue of the Fixed Stars; and that upon the delivery of the Catalogue, Newton should pay him L.125 on the Prince's account. Flamsteed had expended L.l73 in preparing the copy, and making the calculations requisite for the first volume, and it is therefore not without reason, that he complains of the hardship of the terms: — 3

'The conditions on which I was to deliver this second volume, were very hard and unjust; for the observations contained therein were most of them made with the new mural arch, which I had built at my own cost, lay me in above L.120 out of my own pocket. My other instruments were all my own too, and my assistants were paid at my own charge. I had laid out, moreover, above L.173 in carrying on the work, of which I had given a bill both to Sir Isaac Newton, and several of the referees. I considered that, if I should not consent to this order, Sir Isaac Newton would say that I had hindered the printing of my own works myself, which would serve to justify a report, spread by his partisans very industriously, that I was averse to the publication of them. Whereas I had always endeavoured to carry them on as advantageously as I could, and he had done all he could to hinder me, in order to make me comply with them, and cry him up at the same rate they did. Further, I saw that if I did not lay hold of this opportunity, I could not hope to be reimbursed any part of the L.173 I had spent in preparing the copy for the press, and performed my part of the agreement in the time agreed. But the L.125 was not paid me till above two months after; and then I was still above L.48 out of purse, for which I had nothing but three copies, — one that I gave Mr Sharp, and another in which I have corrected the faults of the press with my own hand, and a third not complete.' — P. 86.


A further delay was occasioned by a difference of opinion which now arose between Flamsteed and the referees, as to the order in which the remainder of the work should be printed. Newton insisted on proceeding; to print the Catalogue immediately, before the Observations; Flamsteed, for good astronomical reasons, would not consent to this arrangement; and, while the point was at issue between them, the authority of the referees was suddenly terminated by the death of Prince George, which took place in October, 1708. Flamsteed was now relieved for the present from further annoyance, and took advantage of the interval of tranquillity to carryon his observations for the purpose of extending and improving his Catalogue. And he tells us he was making good progress in the work, 'when he was afresh disturbed by another piece of Sir Isaac Newton's ingenuity.' On the recommendation of Newton and Arbuthnot, a royal warrant was obtained from the Queen, in December, 1710, constituting the President (Newton) of the Royal Society, and whoever else the Council should think fit, Visitors of the Observatory; authorizing them to demand of the Astronomer, 'within six months after the year shall have expired,' a copy of the annual observations, to direct such observations to be made as they should think fit, mid to inspect the instruments, and report on their state to the Board of Ordnance. Flamsteed, who saw clearly that he would now be placed more at the mercy of Newton's party than ever, complains loudly of this measure — insinuates that nobody knew his business but himself — and tells us he was worse used than the 'noble Tycho, who had no visitors of his observatory appointed over him.' He also remonstrated against the appointment to the Secretary of State (St John), but was 'answered haughtily, the Queen would be obeyed.' He even drew up a petition to the Queen, in one of the clauses of which he prays, —

'That I may not have the President of the Royal Society, nor any of their council set over me as visitors, nor suffered to prescribe to me what observations to make, since they know little of my business, and will but incommode me in my progress, and obstruct me, as some of them have done formerly; but that such of the nobility or gentry that are skilful in mathematics, together with the principal officers of your Majesty's Ordnance, that have been founders of my studies, may have the inspection and care of the Observatory.' — P. 279.

The idea of seeking among the nobility and gentry for visitors who should know more of his business than Newton and Halley, with the Council of the Royal Society, may be allowed to be original; but we suspect the qualification on which Flamsteed would have set most value, would have been a disposition to allow him to manage his business in his own way, At all events he seems <384> to have had no very high opinion of the Royal Society, of which he thus writes, in a letter to Sharp: — 'Our Society decays, and , produces nothing remarkable, nor is like to do it, I fear, while 'tis governed by persons that either value nothing but their own interests, or understand little but vegetables, and how, by making a bouncing noise, to cover their own ignorance.' — P. 218.

The visitors lost no time in entering on their new functions; and their first act was the very extraordinary one of proceeding to publish Flamsteed's Catalogue, which had been placed in Sir Isaac Newton's hands, sealed up, some years previously, as related in a preceding extract; not only without his consent, but even without consulting with him on tile subject. Flamsteed's indignation at hearing of their intention may be imagined. It was first communicated to him privately, and a few days after, he tells us, he was surprised by receiving a letter from Dr Arbuthnot, confidently requiring tile copy of the stars' places of six constellations, 'that had not been delivered into Sir Isaac Newton's hands, when he got the rest into his possession by tricks and pretences.' A short time after, he had an interview with Dr. Arbuthnot in London. 'I enquired of him,' says he, 'whether the Catalogue was printed or no. He assured me "not a sheet of it was printed." I answered him not, for I was sure it was; because he then offered (in the hearing of Mr Hodgson, and another gentleman I had taken with me to be a witness of our conversation and discourse) to pay me £10 for every press fault I should find in it; and, within four days after, a friend sent me the constellations of Aries and Taurus fairly printed, and a day or two after, that of Virgo. So that I was now convinced the press was at work, and that the doctor had told me what he knew was not true.' — P. 95.

The following characteristic account of this meeting with Arbuthnot is given by Flamsteed in his Diary of Events, a document in which he has minutely recorded the occurrences connected with tile publication of the Observations: —

'I presented him with my printed estimate, and written copy of my letter to Sir C. Wren, occasioned by Sir I. Newton's cunning order or agreement: he said I had spoken ill of Sir I. Newton, and particularly in a paper he had seen in Mr Harley's hand, that I had charged him with having embezzled L.500 of the Prince's money: I know of no paper put into Mr Harley's hands, but the aforementioned copy of my letter to Sir C. Wren (in which I am sure there is no such thing), and my estimate that was wrote before the Prince designed to print my works; I had said to Dr Gastell, indeed, that I had heard the Prince had assigned L.1200 for it, but that only about L.300 had been bestowed: what was become of the rest, I knew not; and I told Dr Arbuthnot that I do not <385> remember that I said he ought to account for the remaining L.900: the Doctor returned, that it was the same thing as if I had said he had embezzled it; Mr Hudson and Clark, laughing, said, "No, surely;" the Doctor held his tongue; the Doctor then said the Prince had assigned L.1100; that it had cost Sir I. Newton L.100 in feasts; I smiled at this: he ceased: after this, I told him I was very desirous to proceed, provided that I might have just, honourable, equitable, and civil usage: which he assured me I should, and added, he would recommend the remaining work to the Queen, and doubted not of a reward: I returned, I would not have him throw such chaff before me: Mr Clark said that I was no covetous person: I desired to know (if I should let them have the Catalogue) whether they would demand or desire any more of me; he answered "No, they would be fully satisfied:" I told him this was well, for I had by me 1000 observed places of the moon, and as many of the other planets, which I was glad I could now dispose of as I pleased, or to that purpose; and that I now saw they understood not my business; I added that the neglect of me, and the ill usage I had met with, was a dishonour to the Queen and the nation, and would cause just reflections on the authors of it in future times: which he seemed not to regard: I insisted much upon it: he answered with some suggestions of fair reward: I called them chaff, and desired him to spare them.' — Pp. 226-7.

The visitors having now resolved to put Flamsteed aside, and proceed with the printing of the Catalogue without his assistance, the superintendence of the press was undertaken by Halley. While the work was in progress, a correspondence was carried out between Flamsteed and Arbuthnot, in which the former strongly remonstrated against some alterations which Halley had made in the Catalogue, on pretence of improving and correcting it. He accuses Halley, first, of introducing confusion and rendering it useless by altering the descriptions of the stars; and secondly, of corrupting the numbers. The first of these charges is thus explained by him in a letter to Sharp: — 'April the 2d. I got the first printed sheet, and, soon after, the third, wherein I found that many of the names I used, which were translated from Ptolemy, and the same in sense with the Arab translations of Gauricus, Copernicus, Clavius, Tycho, Kepler, Bullialdus, and Hevelius, were altered: instead of dexter and sinister, were put antecedens and consequens; for Bor. and Aust. superior and inferior; some names made nonsense; some stars omitted; others inserted in improper places; and I learnt further, that Dr Halley looked after the press, and was the author of all this confusion. Till I knew this, I was willing to have filled up the copy of the Catalogue, but perceiving hereby that Halley was minding to spoil the work, and with more views than one or two, I sent Dr Arbuthnot an account of his villanous <386> outrage, and desired he would permit me to print my own Catalogue at my own charge.' — P. 291. Such interference with a work on which he had bestowed great pains could not fail to be exceedingly offensive to Flamsteed. As it could not even be pretended that the alterations were essential or necessary, the conduct of Halley in making them has so much the appearance of gratuitous insult to Flamsteed, that we cannot be surprised at his resolution to withhold the remainder of the Catalogue, and decline all further intercourse with the visitors.

The other charge against Halley is of a still more serious kind. In that remarkable document, which Flamsteed intended as the preface to the Historia Cœlestis, he says, 'I had told Dr Arbuthnot in one of my letters (April 18, 1711), that one of Dr Halley's best friends, and the wisest of them, had said of him, "that the only way to have my business spoiled effectually, was to trust it to his management." Now the truth of this expression was proved: for I found not only the names of the stars in my Catalogue altered, but the numbers also in many places changed, and others put in their room, that were sometimes 15 minutes false; and therefore it was very effectually spoiled.' Again — 'On June 23, 1711, he delivered to my niece, Mrs Hodgson, a fair copy of all the sheets of the Catalogue, but without any preface to it. When I examined it, I found more faults in it, and greater, than I imagined the impudent editor either could or durst have committed. He had taken no care to put those into their proper places which I had left digested to his hands; because I had not yet got occasion to complete the constellations to which they belonged, particularly the stars of Hevelius's new constellations, with Hercules, Cassiopea, and the two Bears. In some places he had altered the stars' right ascension and distance from the pole, and made them false which were true before; and in the constellation Draco, there were not above 6 or 8 stars which he had not corrupted.' — Pp. 95-96.

That Dr Halley, as is here and in other passages represented, altered the correct numbers purposely, and with the intention of spoiling the Catalogue, for no other motive or reason than the paltry one of injuring Flamsteed, is a proposition to which no one, we think, will subscribe. The errors can be accounted for in a much more probable manner. It is particularly deserving of remark, that the constellations specified in the above extract are those which were not delivered with the rest of the Catalogue to Newton, and which Dr Arbuthnot repeatedly requested Flamsteed to give up to the Royal Society, but which he persisted in refusing to do. The visitors were therefore reduced to the necessity of employing computers to reduce the <387> stars from the observations in their hands: and it is probable that the reductions were not made so correctly as Flamsteed's, who took care to have them all made in duplicate. That the visitors really wished and endeavoured to make the work as accurate as possible, and also as useful according to their view of the case, is, we think, clearly proved in the following passage from one of Dr Arbuthnot's letters to Flamsteed, while the Catalogue was in the press: —

'Indeed, if it be true that the alterations Dr Halley has made in your numbers are erroneous, that is a fault, to remedy which I told you, if you would consent that the Catalogue should be once completed, if you would not stand to those corrections, yours should be printed entirely according to your own copy. But I own I am much mistaken if, when the numbers differ from yours, they are erroneous; and I do declare, if it were my own case, I should be glad the greatest enemy I had should correct my numbers or my writings in any thing before they appeared in public, and I should think it still better than the correction of the most complaisant friend. I can answer for myself that I have no design to rob you of the fruits of your labour, but to make the Catalogue correct, so as it may be fit to appear in public; and if you would have given in a complete one, it should have been done long ago: but since you are not pleased to do so, I will not delay any longer, but take the same method to make out the rest of the Catalogue that you have done, which is, to employ people to calculate from the observations what is wanting. And why we should not succeed as well in this piece of journey-work, I cannot imagine; and if, after all is ended, you do not like the performance, you shall be free to print your own. I promised to send you a copy of the sheets before the Catalogue is published, and so I will; and whether you send me the remaining part of the Catalogue or not, I will keep my promise. But I cannot but say it is a little hard that, when you can so easily supply what is wanting, you will not so far gratify those concerned as to let it be printed first in this manner; and then it shall be reprinted, changed, or altered which way you please.' — P. 285.

On the concluding sentence of this extract we must take leave to remark, that, if the visitors were so well prepared to reprint, change, or alter the Catalogue in any way Flamsteed pleased, they would have acted more honourably, and less unjustly, if they had printed it in the form in which he surrendered it to them, in the first instance, and given their own edition of it afterwards. Surely Flamsteed's great exertions in preparing the Catalogue (putting right and wrong out of the question), entitled him to this courtesy.

The breach between Flamsteed and his visitors was now complete. At a meeting which took place relative to the state of the Observatory, soon after the publication of the, Catalogue, the fol <388> lowing scene occurred, which he has described several times in various parts of the work, and nearly in the same terms. We extract the description which he gives of it in a letter to Sharpe, dated Dec. 22, 1711. The reader will bear in mind that Newton was now sixty-nine years of age, and Flamsteed upwards of sixty-five, and, moreover, so feeble, that he was obliged to be assisted up and down stairs: —

'I have had another contest with the President of the Royal Society, who had formed a plot to make my instruments theirs, and sent for me to a Committee, where only himself and two physicians (Dr Sloane, and another as little skilful as himself) were present. The President ran himself into a great heat, and very indecent passion. I had resolved aforehand his kn — — sh talk should not move me; showed him that all the instruments in the observatory were my own — the mural arc and voluble quadrant having been made at my own charge, the rest purchased with my own money, except the sextant and two clocks, which were given me by Sir Jonas Moore, with Mr Townley's micrometer, his gift some years before I came to Greenwich. This nettled him, for he has got a letter from the Secretary of State for the Royal Society to be visiters of the Observatory; and he said, " as good have no observatory as no instruments." I complained then of my Catalogue being printed by Raymer [Dr Halley] without my knowledge, and that I was robbed of the fruits of my labours. At this he fired, and called me all the ill names, puppy, &c. that he could think of.[2] All I returned was, I put him in mind of his passion, desired him to govern it, and keep his temper. This made him rage worse: and he told me how much I had received from the Government in 36 years I had served. I asked what he had done for the L.500 per annum that he had received ever since he settled in London. This made him calmer: but finding him going to burst out again, I only told him my Catalogue, half finished, was delivered into his hands, on his own request, sealed up. He could not deny it, but said Dr Arbuthnot had procured the Queen's order for opening it. This, I am persuaded, was false; or it was got after it had been opened. I said nothing to him in return; but, with a little more spirit than I had hitherto showed, told them that God (who was seldom spoke of with due reverence in that meeting) had hitherto prospered all my labours, and I doubted not would do so to a happy conclusion; took my leave and left them. Dr Sloane had said nothing all this while; the other Doctor told me I was proud, and insulted the President, and ran into <389> the same passion with the President. At my going out, I called to Dr Sloane, told him he had behaved himself civilly, and thanked him for it. I saw Raymer after, drank a dish of coffee with him, and told him, still calmly, of the villany of his conduct, and called it blockish. Since then they let me be quiet; but how long they will do so I know not, nor am I solicitous; but I trouble you with a tedious relation.' — Pp. 294-295.

Great as was Flamsteed's mortification at this surreptitious publication of his Catalogue, the cup of his affliction was not yet full. He had formerly placed in the hands of the referees 175 sheets of his observations with the mural arc. From these the visitors made a selection of those stars which passed the meridian at the same time with the moon; and sent them, thus curtailed, to the press, with some places of the moon which he had given to Newton several years before, 'under the express stipulation that they should not be made public, because they were deduced from an approximate Catalogue,' and not from those observations with which they were now joined. This was a proceeding which directly tended to injure his character as an astronomer, and which neither his impracticable temper, nor violent language, could in the least degree justify.

The following extract from a letter to Sharp shows what his feelings on this subject were: —

'On Wednesday last, in the evening, my man delivered to Mr Hall, a Bradford carrier, my Catalogue of the fixed stars, as it is corrupted and spoiled by Dr Halley. . . . With it, in the same cover, are bound up his sorry abstracts of the planetary observations taken with my mural arc; wherein he numbers the stars according to his own account, but no ways conformable to my own Catalogue. He is as lazy and slothful as he is corrupt. With my lunar observations he gives her true places and latitudes, which are copied from the three large synopses that I imparted to Sir Isaac Newton — under this condition, that he should not impart them to any body without my leave. Yet so true to his word find so candid is the knight, that he immediately imparted it to Halley, who has printed them as far as they reach, and afterwards thrust in the moon's places from the ephemerides, or rather, I believe, from the margin of my book of observations, which is now in his hands; for the lazy and malicious thief would scarce be at the pains to gather them himself from the almanacs.' — Pp. 322-3.

The spirit which Flamsteed displayed under these accumulated provocations is admirable. Immediately after Halley's spurious edition of the Catalogue was published, 'finding there was no longer any remedy,' he engaged the assistance of two computers, had the whole recopied, the errors corrected, the omissions or alterations restored, and the places of the stars which be had recently observed also computed, in order to print it at his own ex <390> pense. And this it appears he actually did; though, from the great care which he took to prevent copies of this impression from getting abroad, it would seem he was not yet altogether satisfied with the work. On this subject he thus writes to Sharp: —

'Pray take care to keep up my printed Catalogue; you are the only person that has a copy of it. I have not trusted James Hodgson with one, for fear that Raymer should wheedle him out of it, I know he would part with one of his ears to get one. Pray, therefore, be very cautious how you let it be seen; and whenever you find yourself ill, commit it, sealed up, into the hands of some trusty friend, who, if the worst should happen, may immediately send it back with a letter directing me where to meet with it.' — P. 310.

But Flamsteed's persecutions were now approaching their termination. In 1714, the Queen died, and shortly after, Lord Halifax, Newton's great supporter at court. Another Ministry came into office; and the new Lord Chamberlain, who was acquainted with Flamsteed's merits, soon after caused it to be intimated to him that he might get the remaining copies of the volume of his observations, which had been printed at the expense of the Prince of Denmark, into his own possession. On this hint, he prepared a memorial and petition to the Treasury, which was answered by an order for the 300 copies remaining in the hands of the printer to be given up to him.

'"I brought them," says he, with some exultation, "down to Greenwich with me, and finding both Halley's corrupted edition of my Catalogue, and abridgement of my observations no less spoiled by him, I separated them from my observations, and some few days after, I made a sacrifice of them to Heavenly Truth; as I should do of all the rest of my editor's pains of the like nature, if the author of Truth should hereafter put them into my power; that none of them but what he has given away and sent into foreign countries may remain to show the ingratitude of two of my countrymen, who had been obliged by me more on particular occasions, than any other mathematical acquaintance; and who had used me worse than ever the noble Tycho was used in Denmark.' — Pp. 101-2.

It is hardly possible, we think, to reflect on the statements made in this extraordinary narrative, without coming to the conclusion, that the treatment of which Flamsteed complains, was, in a considerable degree, the natural consequence of his own jealous and impracticable temper. That that treatment was harsh and illiberal, is but too apparent, even through the dense cloud of abuse which he has raised; yet, the charges which he prefers are, in general, of so indefinite a kind, or made in so vague a manner, that it is very difficult to judge of the exact amount of blame that attaches to Newton. To the <391> often repeated accusation of endeavouring to subdue Flamsteed's independence by oppression, 'to force him to comply with his humour and cry him up;' or 'of doing all he could to spoil or sink the work,' it is not worth while to attempt to reply. There is, however, one part of Newton's conduct, of which Flamsteed had, unquestionably, great and just reason to complain, — we mean, the delivery of the sealed Catalogue to Halley. For this we confess we can see no excuse or ground of justification whatever. Could it be pretended that, as Flamsteed was a public servant, the Catalogue ought to be considered as public property? The idea is preposterous. Flamsteed received a salary of L.100 a-year, but the instruments were all his own; and in the preparation of this Catalogue he had expended upwards of L.2000 of his private fortune, over and above his allowances. To have claimed it as public property, under such circumstances, would have been an act of tyranny, which the worst government, in the worst times, would scarcely have attempted. The parties themselves never hinted at such a claim. It was given up to Newton as a pledge or security for the performance of certain conditions on the part of Flamsteed; and at that time it was evidently not contemplated on either side, that it was to be parted with, or published without Flamsteed's consent. This, however, was done; and when Newton was directly accused by Flamsteed of having broken the seal, he had recourse to the subterfuge, which we must call pitiful, of pleading that it was done by the Queen's order.

The observations which Flamsteed gave Newton for the second volume of the Historia Cœlestis shared the same fate as the Catalogue; for after Flamsteed had commenced legal proceedings against him for the recovery, it was found they also had been delivered up to Halley. It is just possible, however, that in this case Newton might be of opinion the observations ought to be regarded as public property. Flamsteed thought otherwise. In a letter to Sharp he says, 'Newton has put my 175 sheets into Halley's keeping: this is the height of trick, ingratitude, and baseness. But I never expected any better of him since he gave my Catalogue into Halley's hands. I can bear it; God forgive him all his falseness.' — P. 325.

There is nothing which strikes us as more remarkable throughout these lamentable proceedings, than the extraordinary contrast which Flamsteed's account of Newton's intemperate conduct presents to all we have been accustomed to read or hear, respecting the meekness of character of our great philosopher. Newton, till the present time, has been almost uniformly represented as possessing in a more than ordinary degree a calm and equable temper — less influenced by the love of distinction and vulgar <392> applause than almost any other man; and as exhibiting on all occasions a conduct influenced by high moral and religious feelings. 'In his life,' says Sir David Brewster, 'the moralist will trace the lineaments of a character adjusted to all the symmetry of which our imperfect nature is susceptible.' Yet if we may give credit to Flamsteed, who knew him intimately, and whose statements are fortified in many points by facts and details which leave no doubt as to their being substantially correct, Newton's temper was directly the reverse of what has been usually represented. Now, admitting Flamsteed's representation to be on the whole true, though exaggerated — and his character places him far beyond the suspicion of being capable of a wilful mistatement — how are we to account for the previous flattering picture? On considering the circumstances, the explanation will perhaps not appear very difficult. Most of the biographical sketches of Newton's life, and accounts of his character, have been taken directly, or at second hand, from Fontenelle's celebrated Eloge, the materials for which were furnished by Conduit, Newton's nephew, and the inheritor of his wealth. Conduit appears to have been a simple goodnatured person, who troubled himself as little with the quarrels as with the discoveries of philosophers; and who probably thought it in no way incumbent on him to dwell on the weak points of character of the man to whom he was indebted for his fortune. Succeeding writers viewed him at a distance, and the admiration universally bestowed on his discoveries in mathematics and philosophy was easily transferred to his private character. In the splendour of his intellectual greatness, the ordinary infirmities incident to humanity were unnoticed; and even the defective orthodoxy of his religious creed was pardoned for the sake of his Scholium in the Principia, and his writings on Theology.

Various allusions appear in Flamsteed's letters, which, though the incidents to which they refer are entirely unknown, prove clearly that Newton's conduct did not always escape opposition and censure from his contemporaries. For example, he tells Sharp (May 29, 1707), 'Worthy Sir I. Newton has twice or thrice been stopping the press; he does all he can to hinder it, or break off and to perplex me; but an accident has lately happened that has discovered his proud and insolent temper, and exposes him sufficiently. He has been told calmly of his faults, and could not contain himself when he heard of them. My affair was not forgot. I hope God will turn it all to good. This accident was unexpected, and seems to be sent'. — P. 264.

There is also evidence of a different kind, which admits of no misconstruction, to prove that Newton allowed his conduct to be influenced by vindictive feelings. Several passages in the first <393> edition of the Principia, acknowledging the assistance he had received from Flamsteed, were, as Mr Baily remarks, carefully suppressed in the second; and in the Theoriæ Lunæ, 'there is not a single allusion to Flamsteed, though it is evident, from the preceding narrative, that Newton was indebted to him for most of the facts therein stated.' — P. 370.

But it was against Halley that Flamsteed's wrath blazed with fiercest indignation. Of the origin of this unfortunate quarrel, which began at an early period, and endured the whole of Flamsteed's life, we are not informed. Some aggressions on the part of Halley, in the first instance, the extreme jealousy of Flamsteed's disposition and the frequent collision of two tempers of a totally opposite nature, afford sufficient explanation. Flamsteed, as our extracts have made evident, entertained a most exalted opinion of his own importance, and the superiority of his knowledge of astronomy. Halley commenced his scientific career as an astronomer, and by making a catalogue of stars; and therefore from the first was placed in a situation of direct rivalry with him. He had likewise acquired, by the versatility of his pursuits and employments, a large share of popular fame, of which Flamsteed appears to have been not a little envious. He had undertaken a voyage to St Helena to observe the southern stars — commanded a ship of war — descended in a diving bell, — and was frequently bringing forward new theories and discoveries in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Besides, he was better acquainted with Flamsteed's business, that is, with practical astronomy, than any other individual; and hence Flamsteed's anxiety, of which some amusing instances occur, to keep him in ignorance of what he was doing. In addition to all this, Halley was of a jovial and convivial disposition, fond of society and enjoyment,[3] and from Flamsteed's remarks on his disposition to raillery and banter, we may suppose that he sometimes exercised those talents at the expense of the astronomer; for which, indeed, the numerous salient points of his character afforded abundant temptation. Yet these companionable qualities would seem to have produced their usual effect even on the reserved and precise character of Flamsteed. 'I hate his ill manners, not the man; were he either honest, or but civil, there is none in whose company I would rather desire to be.'

It has been surmised that Flamsteed's aversion to Halley arose from the libertine conduct and infidel opinions which the latter <394> entertained, and took no pains to conceal. We have no evidence of this. At all events, if Halley's acquaintance was so disreputable, what is to be said for Newton and others, with whom Halley remained so many years in terms of intimate friendship?

The following is one of the few letters of Halley that appear in the present collection, and contrasts strongly with the violent language of Flamsteed: —

'London, June 23, 1711.

'REVEREND SIR, — Though I am credibly informed that these sheets have been from time to time sent you from the press, yet, lest it should be otherwise, I have now sent you the catalogue of the fixed stars intended to be prefixed to your book, having spared no pains to make it as complete and correct as I could, by help of the observations you have given us, made before the year 1706. I desire you to find all the real faults you can, not as believing there are none, but being willing to have a work of this kind as perfect as possible, and if you signify what's amiss, the errors shall be noted, or the sheet reprinted, if the case require it. Pray govern your passion, and, when you have seen and considered what I have done for you, you may perhaps think I deserve at your hands a much better treatment than you for a long time have been pleased to bestow on your quondam friend, and not yet profligate enemy (as you call me.)


Nevertheless, after every allowance is made for Flamsteed's exaggerations, sufficient proof remains that Halley's conduct towards him was not only extremely irritating, but altogether inexcusable. His alteration of Flamsteed's descriptions in publishing the Catalogue was an offence that could not be forgiven; and in the unfair and illiberal preface which he prefixed to the work, Flamsteed's reasons for withholding the six constellations were misrepresented, and his own services extravagantly magnified. He had the meanness even to harass Flamsteed's widow, as appears from the following extract of a letter written by Crosthwait to Sharp: —

'Yours of the 9th ultimo received, and hope you will pardon my long silence, which has been occasioned by the trouble we have met with from Dr Halley, who has been perpetually calling upon Mrs Flamsteed to remove. He gave us but a few days' time to do it in, which occasioned such confusion amongst Mr Flamsteed's papers, that I could not find a perfect copy of the last impression of his Catalogue, which, I presume, you have not seen. I left the Observatory the 7th instant, and he at the same time took possession.' — P. 334.

Flamsteed died in 1719. Halley was appointed his successor, and presided over the Observatory for twenty-two years. The observations which he himself made during that time have not yet been given to the public.

We have anxiously searched through the present volume for <395> some incident or passage tending to throw light on a subject which has recently excited much interest — we mean that illness in which the mind of Newton has been stated to have suffered a temporary derangement. But on this subject the volume affords no information whatever. Satisfactory evidence has been produced to prove, that if the calamity occurred at all, it must have occurred in the years 1692 and 1693.[4] Now it happens that there is no letter written by Newton in the present volume in either of those years. On the 10th of August, 1691, he wrote to Flamsteed, introducing Dr Gregory to him, and putting some questions respecting his observations. Flamsteed's answer is dated February 24, 1692; and from this date there is a total blank in their correspondence till the 7th of October, 1794, when Newton writes again, requesting to be furnished with observations for his theory of the moon. Thus the important period is passed over; and the question of Newton's illness if left without a word of direct testimony on the one side or the other. But the correspondence here brought to light afford a strong, and to our minds convincing evidence, that Newton's illness, whatever its nature may have been, was neither regarded nor even suspected by his friends to be accompanied with insanity. Even before the period in question, Flamsteed betrayed symptoms of jealousy of Newton; and in the quarrel which broke out after, he imputed to him every base motive which an active fancy, stimulated by a sense of real or supposed injuries, could suggest; but he no where insinuates, in the remotest manner, that his reason had ever been unseated. Had the slightest suspicion of such an infliction been entertained by their contemporaries, it would certainly not have escaped the ear of Flamsteed; and if a rumour to that effect had ever reached him, it is not supposable that he would have abstained from mentioning it to some of his correspondents; particularly to Sharp, whom he seems to have made the depositary of all his grievances. Instead of being silent on a subject of this kind, would he not rather, in some of his frequent fits of excitement, have taken occasion to prove, from the treatment he received, that Newton's recovery had not been complete? All this to be sure, would not invalidate the direct testimony of a credible witness. But such testimony does not exist in the present case. The whole turns on an anecdote mentioned to Huygens, a foreigner, by a person of whose character and opportunities of becoming accurately acquainted with the facts of the case, no <396> body knows any thing whatever.[5] As to the inferences which have been drawn from the circumstance that, after the publication of the Principia, he engaged in no work of importance, — they are evidently of no value in the argument. Newton became a courtier, and Flamsteed 'could not but take notice that as he was advanced in place, so he raised himself in his conversation, and became more magisterial.' The letters to Locke and others, which seem to imply a disturbed state of mind, may easily be supposed to have escaped from him at a time when his temper, always misgiving and suspicious, was rendered more gloomy than usual by bodily ill health.

One point only remains on which we wish to say a few words. It was mentioned, near the commencement of this article, that Mr Baily had been favoured with an inspection of the Newton MSS. belonging to the Earl of Portsmouth, and which, as is well known, became the property of the present possessors, through the daughter of Mr Conduit, who married into the Lymington family. These manuscripts are by far the most voluminous (and indeed almost the only) mass of authentic documents existing that bear on the life and history of Newton; for those which are deposited in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, and which are next in importance, relate almost wholly to one subject, — namely, the alterations to be made in the second edition of the Principia. Mr Baily informs us that he 'can state most decidedly that there are amongst these MSS., many documents and much information connected with Newton's life and pursuits that are now highly interesting and not generally known.' In the hope which he expresses that such portions of these very interesting papers (for they are by far too numerous and extensive to be published at large) as may tend to illustrate the life and labours of our immortal countryman, will, at no distant period, be selected and given to the public, we most cordially join; and we rejoice to think that there is a prospect of its being realized. We have <397> good reason to believe that the government would be disposed to print them at the public expense; and indeed we have been informed that an offer of this nature has been actually made to the Porstmouth family; some members of which have signified their assent, whilst other have objections which cannot for the present be removed. Surely if ever such a publication could be made with the most perfect propriety, it is at the present moment, when, indeed, it is not only required, but we may say demanded, as an antidote to any unfavourable impressions that may have been excited by the volume before us. The character of Newton may be considered a species of national property — it is in fact the nation's glory — we therefore trust that what we may call this national appeal to the Portsmouth family, will not be made in vain. At all events, if the proposal be not acceded to now, we hope that the papers will be put into a better state of order and arrangement than they are reported to be at present, and preserved with religious care in the anticipation of a more auspicious period.


An anecdote has been told of Flamsteed's early life, which, though demonstrated by Mr Baily to be an entire fabrication, we cannot properly avoid mentioning. It is related by Mr Hutton, in his History of Derby (London, 1791), that Flamsteed, with some degenerate companions, was accused of being concerned in a highway robbery, for which he was tried, and condemned to be hanged; but that circumstances and friends being in his favour, he received a pardon from King Charles II. Mr Hutton farther says, that he received the anecdote from John Webb, who was an intimate acquaintance of Flamsteed's. Mr Baily has carefully sifted the particulars of this relation, and produced conclusive arguments to prove that the alleged fact could never have taken place. Without dwelling on the improbability of Mr Webb's statement, from the universal silence in every quarter of all Flamsteed's contemporaries on the subject, it will be enough to state, that, as King Charles II, was restored in 1660, the circumstance could not have happened before that year (and Flamsteed was then only fourteen years old); and that as he had become a public character before 1770, it would not have happened after without being generally known. Mr Baily therefore applied at the State Paper Office to be informed whether any trace of a pardon granted by King Charles, between those years, existed among the public records, The Deputy Keeper, the late Mr Lemon, readily entered into his views, and undertook the search himself. The result was communicated to Mr Baily in the following words: —

'I have myself (Mr Lemon) made a careful search through the whole of our warrant books, petitions, references, reports, and domestic correspondence, from 1660 to 1670 inclusive, and can state in the most explicit manner, that there is no trace of any grant of pardon to the celebrated John Flamsteed to be found in them; nor do I believe that any such ever existed; for if it had, it must have been entered amongst our warrants or petitions, the series of which, at that period, in my custody, is particularly perfect.'


In another account of this scene, Flamsteed says, 'he called me many I hard names; puppy was the most innocent of them. I desired him (as I had often done), to restrain his passion, keep his temper, &c. He said I called him Atheist. I never did; but I know what other people have said of a paragraph in his Optics, which probably occasioned this suggestion. I thought it not worth while to say any thing in answer to this reproach. I hope he is none.' — Pp. 228-229.


'Dr Wallis is dead — Mr Halley expects his place — who now talks, swears, and drinks brandy like a sea captain.' — Letter to Sharp, p. 215.


Brewster's Life of Newton, and No. CXI of this Journal.


In the statement originally published by M. Biot, the name of the Scotchman who conveyed the information to Huygens, is said to have been Colin; and Sir David Brewster (Life of Newton, p. 223) supposes he was a person employed by Newton in making calculations, and who, therefore, must have had opportunities of being acquainted with the state of Newton's health. But it appears that in the original statement, an error was made respecting the name. In the Exercitationes Mathematicæ of Huygens, printed at the Hague in 1833 (from manuscripts preserved in the library of the University of Leyden) it is stated, vol. ii. p. 171, that the name of the informant was not Colin but Colm. 'Ita nomen in MS. delineatum est, non COLIN, ut alii legisse videntur.'

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC