Lisa Jardine: Astronomy – the key to world power

From a speech at the Royal Society for the Arts by the Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London

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In December 1674, Charles II formed a Royal Commission to investigate a French claim to have solved the strategically vital problem of finding longitude at sea – that is, determining the precise location of a vessel on the high seas.

The initiative led to the proposal that a Royal Observatory to match the one in Paris be established in London.

The leading sponsor was Sir Jonas Moore, surveyor general in the Ordnance Office, the 17th-century equivalent of the Pentagon. His interest in an observatory was directly related to his military involvement in the Anglo-Dutch wars.

His view was that the British Navy's poor performance was due to the poor standard of astronomical data available to sea captains, which prevented them from navigating efficiently and manoeuvring strategically. Poor astronomy meant that they kept losing battles. An observatory finished with proper instruments and skilled astronomers was needed.

This is an interesting link between the military context and the encouragement of the great new science of accurate astronomical observation.

Sir Jonas used his senior Ordnance position to ensure that the project was executed with unusual speed and efficiency. Acquisition of the Greenwich site was unproblematic as it consisted of a package of land locked off from the Ordnance's gunnery practice ranges. Construction was paid for with money raised from the sale of army surplus gunpowder at Portsmouth.

James II, who succeeded Charles II, was an active scientist and understood the need to develop this kind of technology, but he was forced to abdicate. Had he not, Britain might have had the Pentagon today and still be a world power.

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