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Mathematics at the Meridian

Raymond Flood, Tony Mann, and Mary Croarken, eds.
Chapman and Hall/CRC
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Duncan J. Melville
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Greenwich is situated on the south bank of the River Thames east of London and mathematics there has long been concerned with navigation. The Royal Observatory (1675—1998) was expressly founded by King Charles II to improve observational astronomy for the purposes of aiding the determination of longitude for ships at sea. Consequently, mathematics at Greenwich has been both applied and profoundly computational. The editors of this volume have assembled a collection of experts to illuminate different aspects of the mathematical history at the Observatory and the various institutions that coalesced around it.
In the introductory chapter, editors Raymond Flood and Tony Mann traces the founding of the Royal Observatory in 1675, the appointment of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, and the crucial role played by Sir Jonas Moore, Master of the King’s Ordnance, in supporting Flamsteed and the Observatory. The introduction also includes summaries of the subsequent thematic chapters. 
Allan Chapman opens the story of the Observatory covering the period from 1675 to 1764 and the careers of the Astronomers Royal from Flamsteed to Nathaniel Bliss. As the first Astronomer Royal, it was up to Flamsteed to put his stamp on the position and the role of the Observatory. Accurate navigation required accurate astronomical observation and improving the accuracy of observation required improving the equipment. Flamsteed responded with gusto. A tireless observer, Flamsteed and his successors, especially Edmond Halley and James Bradley, acquired the best instruments available and drove technological innovation as a major patron of the rapidly developing group of elite instrument makers, from George Graham to John Bird.
Taking up the narrative, Mary Croarken covers the tenure of Nevil Maskelyne (1732—1811) from his appointment in 1765 up to his death. As clearly focused as his predecessors on the problem of finding longitude at sea, Maskelyne instituted the great annual Nautical Almanac, overseeing a large network of computers reducing the calculations from observational data to lunar and planetary predictions for the
coming years that could be carried on board ship for voyages that might take a year or more.  Managing the network of human computers all working at different places at different speeds and carefully cross-checking their calculations was a daunting task, and after Maskelyne’s death one not always successfully carried out. Errors crept in. As the nineteenth century progressed, the question of automation by calculating machines was first raised. In Chapter 3, Doron Swade considers the response of George Biddell Airy (1801—1892) who was Astronomer Royal from 1835 to 1881. Swade is a biographer of Charles Babbage who was the main promoter of calculating machines at the time. Airy was dismissive of Babbage and his engines, seeing the machines as a waste of (government) money and of absolutely no use for the kinds of calculation he required. One rather suspects that on those narrow grounds he was correct, but he missed a chance to shape an emerging technology.
In Chapter 4, Tony Mann briefly surveys the last century of the Observatory from Airy’s retirement in 1881 to its closure in 1998 through the lives of the subsequent Astronomers Royal. The growth of London and changes in astronomy made continued observations at Greenwich untenable by the 1930s and the observatory moved to Herstmonceux Castle in 1957, to Cambridge in 1990, and closed in 1998.Although central to the mathematical work at Greenwich, the Observatory was not the only institution connected to the Navy there, and in Chapter 5, Bernard de Neumann considers mathematics education of the Greenwich Royal Hospital School. Greenwich Hospital was founded in 1694 to care for wounded and disabled seamen and the widows and children of sailors who died in the service, although it was not until 1712 that the educational mission began to be carried out, training pupils to become navigators and ship’s officers in both the Royal Navy and on merchant ships. De Neumann describes the evolving curriculum of the school under subsequent masters, the naval careers of some of its pupils, and the move to Suffolk in 1933.
Education at Greenwich expanded in 1873 with the move from Portsmouth of the Royal Naval College into the buildings of the former Greenwich Hospital, which had closed its doors in 1869. Under the initial direction of Thomas Archer Hirst, the Naval College aimed to improve the mathematical skills of serving naval officers. Although successful in its aim, the tension between mathematical theory and practical naval experience meant that the college acquired its share of critics. In Chapter 6, Tony Mann details the lives and careers of the mathematics professors at the College and, in particular, draws attention to their strong engagement with mathematics education reform via authoring textbooks and involvement with societies concerned with educational goals wider than that needed for naval purposes.
In Chapter 7, Robin Wilson and J. Helen Gardner detail the tenure as director of Thomas Archer Hirst from 1873 to 1883. Hirst was recruited for the position because of his stature and visibility and though he diligently pursued his managerial duties overseeing the studies of some 200 or more students, the work left little time for his own geometrical research. After ten years in the post, and in poor health, he retired.  
The most distinguished professor of mathematics at the Royal Naval College was undoubtedly William Burnside, who served there from 1885 to 1919. In Chapter 8, Peter M. Neumann gives a profile of Burnside, especially his work on group theory and the Burnside Problem. Given the non-technical nature of the book, this section is light on detail but nevertheless gives an excellent primer on introductory
group theory.
Rounding out the naval institutions at Greenwich was the Nautical Almanac Office (NAO) concerned with producing not just almanacs, but all kinds of mathematical tables required for navigational computations. The NAO moved to Greenwich from London in 1922 and is the subject of the next chapter, by Mary Croarken. Computational technology had moved on from the days of Airy and Babbage and found its champion in Leslie John Comrie (1893—1950). He installed a range of computing devices to aid in the construction of mathematical tables, displaying much ingenuity in obtaining financing for them, and was in some cases instrumental in their development, maintaining close ties with the
The last three chapters bring the story of mathematical Greenwich up to contemporary times. Richard Dunn surveys the mathematical instruments of the National Maritime Museum, housed at Greenwich since 1937; Noel-Ann Bradshaw and Tony Mann cover mathematics at the University of Greenwich, which moved into buildings of the old Royal Naval College in 1999, and Tony Mann then closes the volume with a brief guide for the mathematical tourist at Greenwich.
Greenwich is perhaps a unique location in the history of mathematics for its long devotion to observational astronomy, the resulting detailed calculations, production of mathematical and nautical tables, and naval education at both school and university level. Some of the topics covered here are quite well-known, others much less so. Together, Mathematics at the Meridian makes their history accessible, tracing the lives of the individuals and institutions involved over the span of more than three centuries.


Duncan J. Melville is a historian of mathematics and Marha E. '62 and Gree E. Peterson Professor of Mathematics at St. Lawrence University.