The Greenwich Royal Observatory is quite an interesting place with an even more interesting past. The observatory’s placement on a steep hill overlooking central London in the distance was been a prime spot for centuries. In ‘There but for the’, Mark makes the hike up to the observatory and gives us a peek at its history, “the writer… described Queen Elizabeth the First, quite unforgettably, dancing in the great hall in her favorite place right there, right here in Greenwich all those hundreds of years ago”. In the time of the Tudors, Greenwich castle stood where the observatory now is. It apparently was used by Henry VIII to house his mistresses. In the 1670s it was proposed that the castle be turned into a royal observatory and King Charles II founded it in 1675. The original part of the observatory, Flamsteed House, was designed by Christopher Wren, a prominent English architect who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Royal Observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research building in Britain. In its modern form, the Greenwich Royal Observatory houses mainly a museum of the history of astronomy, navigation, and time. The actual scientific work has been moved elsewhere and the observatory is mainly kept as a tourist attraction. The meridian line is marked by a stainless steel band that cuts across the observatory grounds and one of its buildings. There is also an extremely powerful green laser light that the observatory constantly shines along the prime meridian across London. It has been there since 1999. Apparently, on a clear night, the laser can be seen to reach ten miles away. When the weather is overcast, it can reach even further away.
As we know, the Greenwich Royal Observatory is the site of the Prime Meridian. The prime meridian is a chronological point of reference and was established as a navigational tool for sailors. Sir Georgie Airy, a mathematician and astronomer established the Greenwich meridian in 1851. In the following years, several countries established their own prime meridian so in the 1880s, an International Meridian Conference was held at the request of U.S. President Arthur. At this conference it was decided that the most popular meridian point, the one at Greenwich, would be used internationally. The French, in their historic contrariness to the English, decided to continue using their prime meridian in Paris for the next few decades. However, currently the Greenwich meridian is used internationally.
The Greenwich Royal Observatory was a very interesting place with an astounding view of the city of London and I know, at least for me, it was extremely refreshing to view the city from afar. It provided a fresh prospective after being in the thick of London for nearly two weeks. This excursion helped me map Englishness because, well, this place is all about mapping – mapping the seas and the skies. We saw some good old fashioned British ingenuity and the massive power of the historic British Empire was obvious in all the artifacts and articles around Greenwich Observatory. We could especially see the power and narcissism of the British empire from the simple fact that the Greenwich meridian is used around the world just because the British had the most sway in the popularity of their meridian. Regardless of its reduction from utilitarian to tourist attraction, the Greenwich Royal Observatory was a very cool place.