The Observatory Records at Greenwich – a brief history


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When the Observatory was founded in 1675, there was no routine mechanism for publishing the observations or clear legal framework as to who owned them. When Maskelyne became Astronomer Royal in 1765, none of the observations of his predecessors were in the possession of the Observatory. At the time of his appointment, a set of regulations was drawn up for the first time. From that time onwards, the manuscript observations accrued as a result of the work carried out by the Astronomer Royal and his staff fulfilling their duties were not permitted to leave the Observatory except by the express command of the King (RS MW372/107, copy in RGO6/21). In practice, as well as the observations, other papers related to the work of the Observatory also became part of the official record.

A few months after Maskelyne’s appointment, Halley’s manuscript observations were presented to the President of the Royal Society (in his capacity as a Commissioner of the Board of Longitude) by his daughter Catherine Price in the hope of being given a reward. They were deposited at Greenwich, apart from one volume that was returned to the Board of Longitude (RGO6/21/94, RGO14/5/89, RGO14/5/93, RGO14/5/101–2 & NMM MS-ADM-A-02572/3). The observations of Bliss were also acquired for the Observatory by the Board of Longitude in 1768, as were those of Charles Green, who as Bliss’s assistant had continued to make observations at the Observatory following the death of Bliss on 2 September 1764 and the arrival of Maskelyne on 16 March 1765 (RGO14/5/167&8). Flamsteed’s manuscript observations and correspondence were purchased for the Observatory by the Board in 1771. In 1765, three years after his death, Bradley’s observations were claimed from the executors by the Board of Longitude. This claim was abandoned in 1776, after Bradley’s son-in-law, Samuel Peach, presented them to Lord North, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who in turn presented them to the University on condition that they should be printed and published. The manuscript observations were returned to Greenwich in 1861.

In 1922/3, in order to create more space, a ‘considerable number’ of old observing books and books of reductions extending from the years 1835 to 1886 were destroyed together with a number of bound volumes dealing with internal administration of ‘purely routine character’ and some formal correspondence relating to chronometer business.