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The Royal Observatory was founded by Charles II in 1675 to provide the Navy with new navigation devices. The big problem of the day was the lack of reliable longitudes, and it was hoped that the Observatory might help the provide the scientists with better information.
A location was found in Greenwich atop the highest piece of ground. The design was entrusted to Christopher Wren, who was busy rebuilding the city after the Great Fire of London. He named the building Flamsteed House, after the first Astronomer Royal – John Flamsteed.
Although it has lost most of its original interior decoration, one of the few surviving rooms is one of the best – the Octagon Room – from which he trained his telescopes on the sky.
The Royal Observatory’s first success was the publication of the British Nautical Almanac – which charted star positions throughout the seasons. The importance of this book led to the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time throughout the world.
The Prime Meridian marks the point at which the earth’s eastern hemisphere meets the west – the line which splits the world in two. Anything west of the line is ahead of GMT, and anything to the left is behind. This is what gives the world its time zones.
You can straddle this line yourself, as it is marked upon the ground. A favourite photo for tourists everywhere is to snap yourself with a foot on either side.
A pleasing tradition that still remains today sees a large red ball lowered from the turret every day at noon (or 1PM in the summer) – so that passing ships might check their chronometers. Maybe you’d like to check your watches too.
This line was eventually fixed by international agreement at a conference held in Washington in 1884. (Much to France’s chagrin!)
The observatory’s second success was to provide an instrument capable of measuring longitude within an accuracy of a few seconds. A watchmaker named John Harrison came up with the goods, and his clocks and watches can still be seen in the building’s museum. He was eventually paid a reward of £20,000 for his efforts – but he had to wait half-a-century for recognition.
As the 20th-century approached, the smoke from the encroaching city meant that the observatory lost its clear skies, and its telescopes were moved to Sussex.
The building now houses a fine collection of early watches, timepieces and telescopes – including a 28-inch refractor dating back to 1857. (Still one of the largest in the world.) There is also a collection of 17th-century furniture.
The Royal Observatory also has its own planetarium with daily shows.
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