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John Flamsteed and the turn of the screw: mechanical uncertainty, the skilful astronomer and the burden of seeing correctly at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich


Centring on John Flamsteed (1646–1719), the first Astronomer Royal, this paper investigates the ways in which astronomers of the late seventeenth century worked to build and maintain their reputations by demonstrating, for their peers and for posterity, their proficiency in managing visual technologies. By looking at his correspondence and by offering a graphic and textual analysis of the preface to his posthumous Historia Coelestis Britannica (1725), I argue that Flamsteed based the legitimacy of his life's work on his capacity to serve as a skilful astronomer who could coordinate the production and proper use of astronomical sighting instruments. Technological advances in astrometry were, for Flamsteed, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the advancement of astronomy. Technological resources needed to be used by the right person. The work of the skilful astronomer was a necessary precondition for the mobilization and proper management of astronomical technologies. Flamsteed's understanding of the astronomer as a skilled actor importantly shifted the emphasis in precision astronomical work away from the individual observer's ability to see well and toward the astronomer's ability to ensure that instruments guaranteed accurate vision.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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