Yesterday I visited the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, for the first time in many years. The reason for the trip was to listen to a talk by historical writer Adrian Tinniswood on Sir Christopher Wren and his role in designing the observatory for the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed in 1675. Adrian is the author of the most recent authoritative biography of Wren, which has been widely praised. I bought two copies which Adrian signed: one for myself and one to use as January’s prize in our members’ newsletter. The talk itself most fittingly took place in the octagonal observatory part of Flamsteed House and I have yet to enjoy a more enthusiastic presentation. Of course, St Paul’s and Wren’s restoration City churches were covered, but the real value was discovering the astonishing range of Wren’s other interests and contributions in the fields of medicine and astronomy (in particular), and his formative years during the Commonwealth. He really could – and did – turn his hand to just about anything.
We were very fortunate with the weather, as you can see from the top picture: gorgeous. Many more photos were taken, here are just a few of them. I’ve always loved the idea of the Time Ball, which one can use to set one’s watch. The bright red ball creeps up the weather vane pole at the top of the observatory a few minutes before the hour and then drops promptly at 1pm. This service was actually for the benefit of sea captains on the Thames, who could set their ship’s clock before setting sail to far flung regions.
It’s always a pleasure to marvel at John Harrison’s sea clocks and to re-acquaint oneself with the story of the race to solve the “longitude problem”. Of course, the observatory is crammed with clocks, telescopes and navigational instruments of all descriptions, sheer heaven for the old instruments fetishist. Do treat yourself and visit the Royal Observatory soon.