Mathematics at the Meridian

Historically Greenwich was a village, home to a royal palace from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, that lay to the southeast of the city of London on the banks of the river Thames, about six miles from Charing Cross. Since the beginning of the twentieth century it has been part of London. With the Cutty Sark, a late nineteenth century clipper built for the Chinese tea trade, the Queen’s House, a seventeenth-century royal residence designed and built by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I & VI, and now an art gallery, the National Maritime Museum, Christopher Wren’s Royal Observatory building and of course the Zero Meridian line Greenwich is a much visited, international tourist attraction.

Naturally, given that it is/was the home of the Royal Observatory, the Zero Meridian, the Greenwich Royal Hospital School, the Royal Naval College (of both of which more later), and most recently Greenwich University, Greenwich has been the site of a lot mathematical activity over the last four hundred plus years and now a collection of essays has been published outlining in detail that history: Mathematics at the Meridian: The History of Mathematics at Greenwich[1]

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This collection of essays gives a fairly comprehensive description of the mathematical activity that took place at the various Greenwich institutions. As a result it also function as an institutional history, an often-neglected aspect of the histories of science and mathematics with their concentration on big names and significant theories and theorems. Institutions play an important role in the histories of mathematic and science and should receive much more attention than they usually do.

The first four essays in the collection cover the history of the Royal Observatory from its foundation down to when it was finally closed down in 1998 following several moves from its original home in Greenwich. They also contain biographies of all the Astronomers Royal and how they interpreted their role as the nation’s official state astronomer.

This is followed by an essay on the mathematical education at the Greenwich Royal Hospital School. The Greenwich Royal Hospital was established at the end of the seventeenth century as an institution for aged and injured seamen. The institution included a school for the sons of deceased or disabled sailors. The teaching was centred round seamanship and so included mathematics, astronomy and navigation.

When the Greenwich Royal Hospital closed at the end of the nineteenth century the buildings were occupied by the Royal Naval College, which was moved from Portsmouth to Greenwich. The next three chapters deal with the Royal Naval College and two of the significant mathematicians, who had been employed there as teachers and their contributions to mathematics.

Greenwich002

Another institute that was originally housed at Greenwich was The Nautical Almanac office, founded in 1832. The chapter dealing with this institute concentrates on the life and work of Leslie John Comrie (1893–1950), who modernised the production of mathematical tables introducing mechanisation to the process.

Today, apart from the Observatory itself and the Meridian line, the biggest attraction in Greenwich is the National Maritime Museum, one of the world’s leading science museums and there is a chapter dedicated to the scientific instruments on display there.

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Also today, the buildings that once housed the Greenwich Royal Hospital and then the Royal Naval College now house the University of Greenwich and the last substantial chapter of the book brings the reader up to the present outlining the mathematics that has been and is being taught there.

The book closes with a two-page afterword, The Mathematical Tourist in Greenwich.

Each essay in the book is written by an expert on the topic and they are all well researched and maintain a high standard throughout the entire book. The essays covers a wide and diverse range of topics and will most probably not all appeal equally to all readers. Some might be more interested in the history of the Royal Observatory, whilst the chapters on the mathematical education at the Greenwich Royal Hospital School and on its successor the Royal Naval College should definitely be of interest to the readers of Margaret Schotte’s Sailing School, which I reviewed in an earlier post.

Being the hopelessly non-specialist that I am, I read, enjoyed and learnt something from all of the essays. If I had to select the four chapters that most stimulated me I would chose the opening chapter on the foundation and early history of the Royal Observatory, the chapter on George Biddel Airy and his dispute with Charles Babbage over the financing of the Difference Engine, which I blogged about in December, the chapter on Leslie John Comrie, as I’ve always had a bit of a thing about mathematical tables and finally, one could say of course, the chapter on the scientific instruments in the National Maritime Museum.

The book is nicely illustrated with, what appears to have become the standard for modern academic books, grey in grey prints. There are extensive endnotes for each chapter, which include all of the bibliographical references, there being no general bibliography, which I view as the books only defect. There is however a good, comprehensive general index.

I can thoroughly recommend this book for anybody interested in any of the diverse topic covered however, despite what at first glance, might appear as a somewhat specialised book, I can also recommend it for the more general reader interested in the histories of mathematics, astronomy and navigation or those perhaps interested in the cultural history of one of London’s most fascinating district. After all mathematics, astronomy and navigation are all parts of human culture.

[1] Mathematics at the Meridian: The History of Mathematics at Greenwich, eds. Raymond Flood, Tony Mann, Mary Croarken, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, Bacon Raton, London, New York, 2020.

6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation

6 responses to “Mathematics at the Meridian

  1. There is an interesting article in The Conversation from 2015 about the Greenwich meridian and why, if you use GPS to locate your position, you will find the meridian line to be about 100 metres west of 0° longitude.

    It is a consquence of the definition of 0° longitude changing between the International Meridian Conference of 1884 and the Bureau International de l’Heure terrestrial system of 1984. For anyone interested in the details, this Article from the Journal of Geodesy is Open Access:

    • Sorry, got caught up in the spam filter

      • Laurence Cox

        Having bought the book, I would largely concur with Thony’s review. One reservation I would have is that I don’t think that the quality of some of the figures is up to the standard of the corresponding figures in books like “Finding Longitude” (compare Fig 10.4 with Figure 26 of Chapter 3 in the latter). It looks like a combination of monochrome against colour and the images being smaller in this book. For most of the images in the book, the poorer quality isn’t important, but for a few (those of the scientific instruments) it does matter.

        Also there is a good description of the Airy Transit Circle and its use at: http://www.royalobservatorygreenwich.org/articles.php?article=1234

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