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1.4 The Stolen Stars: A Dramatization of the Flamsteed/Newton Controversy

This week’s episode is a 10 minute original play based on the Flamsteed/Newton controversy surrounding the 1712 version of Historia Coelestis Britannica, based on the work of the royal astronomer John Flamsteed.

John Flamsteed spent the majority of his life as the royal astronomer carefully documenting all the celestial bodies. He invented a way to catalog stars based on constellations that is still used today.

Isaac Newton used his political connections to secure funding and force Flamsteed to put together a published catalog in a way that Flamsteed thought was rushed, hasty, and improper. Flamsteed’s goal was a very accurate catalog in the spirit of his idol, Brahe Tycho. His star catalog would be 10 times larger and he wanted to carefully document the mechanisms and processes he used to get to the measurements so people could replicate and scrutinize his methodology.

Newton’s goal appears to have been to get corroborating evidence to validate his theories published in the first edition of Principa and help him solve some loose ends. He intended to and did use Flamsteed’s lunar observations as a centerpiece in his second edition of Principa.

A Mural Arc similar to the one Flamsteed used after 1690
A Mural Arc similar to the one Flamsteed used after 1690

Most historical accounts side heavily in Newton’s favor and have inventive theories as to why Flamsteed was apparently so uncooperative. Some have cited he was covetous or viewed the observations as his private property.

However, there’s scant evidence to support such claims.

Astronomical observation can take a long time to verify since you have to wait for the sky to be in the right position. It appears that Newton, who had been waiting for Flamsteed to publish a set of observations for years, became impatient and essentially used his political power to bring in “outside management” to get a version published.

At first things seemed to be going ok but their priorities weren’t aligned and Newton withheld money to pay Flamsteed’s staff he had hired to assemble the material because they weren’t focusing on what Newton wanted. It was a bunch of power plays. Eventually Flamsteed threw in the towel and Newton proceeded without him.

Newton and Halley ended up publishing the 1712 version of the catalog without Flamsteed’s approval and used the introduction to say libelous things about him. Apparently Edmond Halley took a number of liberties with Flamsteed’s measurements in his catalog accusing him of being a simpleton making observations that he doesn’t understand the mechanics of. Flamsteed’s position was that one shouldn’t assume a set of mechanics while making an observation and his job was to be as accurate as possible in his measurements.

A few years after publishing, Flamsteed was able to attain a warrant to seize all the copies and destroy them. He was able to get 300/400 and they were burned. I saw one of the remaining original 1712 version for sale while doing research (although I can’t seem to find it now). So apparently they’re still floating around.

Flamsteed died in 1719 without his version of Historia Coelestis Britannica published. His widow spent the next 6 years tying up all the loose ends to get a version that was faithful to his wishes. Flamsteed’s version, the one that is now recognized as the authoritative version, was published in 1725. You can view a copy online and practice your Latin over at Google Books.

Now that you know the real story, enjoy the fictionalized version.

As far as the play goes, the PDF is available here and the text version using the fountain markup language is available at the GitHub project’s site.

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