People: John Witty

Name Witty, John
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
30 Mar 1705 – 10 May 1706

Posts Calculator (to Flamsteed)

Born c.1679
Burried In the chancel of St Vedast, London
Died 1711/12

Born in Beverly, Yorkshire, John Witty, after attending Beverly School, was admitted in 1696 as a sizar to St John’s College Cambridge (aged 17). He graduated with a BA in 1700, was ordained deacon at York in 1702 and was awarded his MA in 1711.

Taken on by Flamsteed on 30 March 1705, Witty was ‘dismist’ on 10 May 1706 (RS MS798/46), though the accounts indicate he was paid in full for five quarters up until the end of June 1706. He was taken on to work on preparing Flamsteed’s Historia Coelestis for the press. Flamsteed’s Correspondence suggests that his time was largely spent carrying out computations. The accounts prepared by Flamsteed for ‘the Referees’ who were overseeing the production of the work include an amount for Witty’s board, suggesting that he resided with Flamsteed at the Observatory – a fact that seems to be confirmed by Flamsteed in a letter dated 13 February 1705/6 that he sent to William Whiston the Lucasion Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. In the same letter, Flamsteed recommended Witty as a suitable candidate for the still vacant Plumian chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy that had recently been created under the will of Thomas Plume, describing him as a person of ‘much Candour and sincerity’. As it turned out, Flamsteed’s recommendation came too late, as a candidate had already been settled on.

According to the articles of agreement relating to the production of the Historia, which were signed on 17 November 1705 (Flamsteed’s Correspondence vol 3, p.250), the Referees agreed to pay the sum of £250 for the employment of assistants and servants required to perform the necessary work. According to Flamsteed, although he eventually received £125 of the £173 he had spent on his calculators, it was not until 2 years after Newton ‘had stoped the press’ and forced him to dismiss his calculators for want of timely payment. Although Witty left Flamsteed’s service in 1706, he appears to have accompanied Flamsteed and Weston to meet Newton and the Referees at the Castle Tavern in Paternoster Row on 11 April 1707.

Writing to Abraham Sharp on 12 August 1706, Flamsteed informed him that Witty had become ‘Chaplaine. and Companion to a young gentleman in Hampshire, on better terms th[en] I could afford him’ (RS MS798/46). Witty was ordained priest in 1708, becoming curate at St Vedast, London, where he remained until his death. He was buried in the chancel of the church on 24 January 1711/12. He published three books, the first in 1705 and the second in 1707. The third, A treatise of the Sphere, (the only one of the three to be of an astronomical subject) was published posthumously in 1714. A second ‘revised and improved’ edition of it was published by Flamsteed’s former Assistant James Hodgson in 1734 (click here to read it).


Further reading

An account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, Francis Bailey, (London, 1835)

The correspondence of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, ed. E. G. Forbes and others, 3 vols. (1995–2001)

Cambridge Alumni Database

The registers of St. Vedast, Foster Lane, and of St. Michael le Quern, London (1902)