Today, we meet the King, his mistress, and a smart
young astronomer. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
King Charles II took yet
another mistress in 1670. She was a dark-haired
beauty from Brittany in France. She bore him a son
two years later, and he made her the Duchess of
Portsmouth. The Duchess was the King's clear
favorite. Some wondered if she might not be a
French spy in the English court.
By now a scientific question was gathering
importance. This was the age of navigation.
European ships were ranging the oceans. It was easy
enough for navigators to fix their latitude. But no
one knew how to find their ship's longitude. That
was the uncertainty that almost killed Columbus,
180 years earlier.
The King had recently created the Royal Society to
advance science. Now the Society urged him to build
an observatory. We needed better astronomical data
to solve the longitude problem.
The proposal was foundering in red tape. Then the
Duchess produced a friend from Brittany. He was an
amateur astronomer named St Pierre. Once in the
English Court, he claimed he could calculate
In December, 1674, the King set up a Royal
Commission to study St Pierre's method. It included
Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Those were heavy
hitters. But, for astronomical advice, they turned
to a young man named John Flamsteed.
Flamsteed saw that St Pierre's method was
inherently inaccurate. Worse yet, he'd taken it
from two other astronomers, long dead. And when
Flamsteed questioned St Pierre, he found the fellow
didn't even understand the method he was proposing.
Flamsteed reported to the King that we'd have to
get longitudes by another method entirely. Then
we'd only do it when we had far better data on
locations of stars and planets.
Flamsteed's answer to St Pierre made it crystal
clear that England urgently needed the observatory.
King Charles reacted. That very day he signed the
warrant to build the Greenwich Observatory. He set
up the world benchmarks for longitude and time.
So the Duchess's friend St Pierre went back to
France. We don't hear from him again. Yet he and
the King's mistress had precipitated one of the
important scientific projects of all time. Ten
years later, the King elevated another mistress to
the aristocracy. He made her -- and not the Duchess
-- Countess of Greenwich.
So the King and his court swirled about and played
their roles. But in the midst of it all was quiet
John Flamsteed. And it was he who really redirected
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds