Greenwich Observatory

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

In 1649, when Charles II ascended the throne after the Civil War, he brought back stability and along with it, many innovations. One of which was the setup up of the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, constructed in 1675. This was innovative because it was the first time a purpose built scientific laboratory had been built in Britain for the stellar observation.


By the time of building the Royal Observatory, England had become a naval power. The English navy, originally built up by Henry VIII and then expanded by his daughter Elizabeth I, had become a major seafaring power by Charles II ascension to the throne. The Observatory was built to improve ocean navigation, to accurately and precisely calculate latitudes and longitudes. John Flamsteed was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal and had the job of keeping the calculations and ensuring that the latitudes and longitudes were accurate. Hence, it was also sometimes called the Flamsteed House.

After the death 2000 sailors at sea, there was a reward of £20,000 to anyone who can find a longitude at sea. The conundrum was finally solved by John Harrison, a clockmaker from Yorkshire, by the invention of the maritime chronometer.

The Building

The Royal Observatory was built by Sir Christopher Wren, with Robert Hooke as an assistant. Well known for his architecture, Sir Christopher Wren’s primary love was however, the sciences. In building this Observatory, he managed to combine both his loves, and created a masterpiece.

The building was authorised a budget of £500, but it went £20 over the budget, but yet did not please Flamsteed since the alignment was off a few degrees. Most of the building was made of recycled material, and much of it was taken from Duke Humphrey’s Tower.

There is a time ball on top of one of the rooms, aptly describing the nature of the monument in itself.

Prime Meridian

The Royal Observatory is also the home of the Prime Meridian, which is the Longitude of Longitude 0° 0′ 0″. This line divides the earth into eastern and western hemispheres and forms the basis of all kinds of calculations of the east-west distances.

The Prime Meridian was the basis of the Greenwich Mean Time, calculated in the 19th century for providing a standard unit of time across the world. With increasing globalisation and increased interaction between different countries, it became imperative that some such a method was found. The Greenwich Mean Time was the first coordinated time internationally ever, and was decided on formally in a conference of 23 countries.

Since 1999 the meridian has been marked by a laser light shining across the sky in green, which can be seen from almost 40 miles (36 Km) with the naked eye.

Interesting Aspects

On February, 1894, there was a bomb attack on the Royal Observatory, the first of its kind in England by a foreigner. A French national called Martial Bourdin set off the bomb in Greenwich Park but perished in his own attempt because the explosives went off before the specified time. The man himself died thirty minutes later, but there is no information on whether the Royal Observatory was the intended target or why such an attack was being made in the first place.

The Observatory today

Today, all the scientific and astronomical work of the Royal Observatory has been relocated to better equipped laboratories, but the Royal Observatory of Greenwich still stands as a major tourist attraction and is a monument to four centuries of astronomical innovation and world changing seafaring prowess.

There is also an Astronomy Centre, to which entry is free. Here, visitors can learn about various things related to astronomy and see the oldest meteorite in existence, almost 4.5 billion years old! As well as this, the Royal Observatory houses the Planetarium, the Harrison Timekeepers and the largest refracting telescope in the UK.

In addition to this, there are numerous other attractions in the Royal Observatory. The museum contains various different types of astronomical tools that have been collected over the years. They also had many navigational materials used in the past including the H4, a longitude chronometer, Fedchenko clock, Shepherd Clock and much more.

The Royal Observatory is still a vibrant building that helps in educating visitors about the history of astronomy, British seafaring expertise, as well as aspects of international time keeping standard. The Observatory has not lost its significance in an increasingly technological world and retains its charm for the tourist and the enthusiast alike.