After visiting the National Maritime Museum we trudged up the hill to The Royal Observatory, one of four institutions that make up the Royal Museums Greenwich (the other three are Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House).
There are several buildings that make up the Observatory complex. The Astronomy Center, Altazimuth Pavilion and Telescope Dome are free to all but there is a charge to visit The Peter Harrison Planetarium, the Meridian Building and Courtyard and the Flamsteed House, the main observatory building which is named after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed.
The Planetarium is renowned for the shows it puts on that cover both science and science fiction. The largest refracting telescope in the UK (and seventh-largest in the world) is located nearby.
Most visitors to the Observatory are drawn to the Meridian Courtyard where you can straddle the eastern and western hemispheres as you stand on the World’s Prime Meridian at Zero Degrees Longitude, the source of Greenwich Meantime (GMT) from which all time around the world is measured.*
In the Flamsteed House you can learn the history of British astronomy and how the greatest problem of navigation — determining the exact location of a ship on the high seas — was resolved in the 18th century, primarily through the efforts of a carpenter turned clockmaker named John Harrison who spent 40 years of his life inventing and perfecting a timepiece that could accurately determine one’s longitude.
After taking pictures of each other at the Prime Meridian we toured the Flamsteed House where Flamsteed and his successors did their astronomical observations. The building was designed by Christopher Wren in 1675 and is noted for its Octagonal Room as well as for the red ball on top of the building that drops every day at 1:00 pm. And one entire floor is devoted to displaying Harrison’s famous chronometers and to telling the story of how the problem of longitude was finally resolved.
Two of the most interesting works of non fiction that I have read in the last 20 years are both by the science writer Dava Sobel. Her most famous work, Gallileo’s Daughter, is a fascinating biography of the cloistered nun Sister Maria Celeste and her famous father as told through their letters back and forth to each other. Her other book, simply called Longitude, is the story of John Harrison and his quest to win the Royal prize for solving the longitude problem.
So I was already well-acquainted with Harrison and his inventions. In my research of the explorations of Captain James Cook over the years I was also familiar with the role he played in solving the longitude problem by carrying one of Harrison’s watches with him on one of his three-year trips around the world. I still enjoyed reading about Harrison’s battles with the Board of Longitude and viewing the displays of some of his chronometers but was disappointed in that the room was too dark to take good pictures.
We skipped the planetarium and astronomy center as our stomachs were telling us that it was time for lunch. So we visited a couple of famous pubs nearby and then walked back through the Old Royal Naval College to our DLR train at Cutty Sark Station. My next postings will cover the views from Trafalgar Tavern and the Naval College walk.
* Technically, the term GMT has been replaced by UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) but practically, the two terms are synonymous.