Royal Observatory

Chris Ciambor

August 12, 2013

It is common knowledge that for a time, England was the center of the world, a huge world power throughout the centuries, with a legacy that is felt to this day.  The Royal Observatory illustrates where England stood for centuries in the world of math, science and overall world dominance.

The Royal Observatory maps Englishness by showing the history of England as the center of the world.   The Royal Observatory made maps that made navigation easier. The brightest minds in existence worked to study astronomy and create navigational tools to assist England in world dominance.

There are also several references to Greenwich in City of the Mind. For instance, Matthew takes his daughter, Jane to a museum in Greenwich via boat. He goes here to find an image of a ship to put in a building. (pg. 46) There are also other references to different times such as that of the Blitz. (pg. 46)

Given all these references and the location of the prime meridian, it is quite clear that this location is a very important landmark within the city of London, and also one within the country of England itself. That is why I feel it is a good representation of Englishness and mapping Englishness.


The Greenwich Royal Observatory

The beautiful thing about the Greenwich Royal Observatory is that it houses the Prime Meridian, the imaginary line that is the zero degree line of longitude. I found it kind of amusing to be waiting in line to stand on a line, but it was, nevertheless, really amazing to say that I was in the east and in the west. I found an interesting post on the Prime Meridian through the National Geographic. In it, it says, “Governments did not always agree that Greenwich meridian was the prime meridian, making navigation over long distances very difficult. Different countries published maps and charts with longitude based on the meridian passing through their capital city. France would publish maps with 0 longitude running through Paris. Cartographers in China would publish maps with 0 longitude running through Beijing. Even different parts of the same country published materials based on local meridians. Finally at an international convention called by U.S. President Chester Arthur in 1884, representatives from 25 countries agreed to pick a single, standard meridian. They chose the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. The Greenwich Meridian became the international standard for the prime meridian.” This I find very fascinating because it wasn’t something that was scientifically calculated from the beginning, representatives had to decide which meridian they thought would be the best location as the Prime Meridian.

This excursion was important to this course because it is referenced a handful of times in Ali Smith’s There But For The as a location that both Brooke and Mark visit. Brooke likes to see how fast she can run up the hill (which I give her a lot of credit for, that hill is a steep climb) and Mark goes to the park to think and to have mental conversations with his dead mother. (Psycho, anyone?) It was a beautiful park and wasn’t that far outside of London, making it an easy destination to travel to and see something from our history textbooks. It’s really important to be able to combine literary elements with the historical elements. It adds context and understanding to what you’re studying. There But For The accomplished exactly that and led us to an international imaginary line.

As far as mapping Englishness, how much better could the idea of mapping get than a place with a 0 longitudinal line? This place is all about mapping, whether it be from longitude, to time, to the International Date Line. On a more literary level, this is the kind of thing that Virginia Woolf is talking about in her “Literary Geography” article. It’s adding context and a physical place to our literary maps. In terms of Englishness, it’s kind of amazing that the 0 longitude line was decided for England and that this place, in general, exists. Flamsteed House is also on this location and is the “original Observatory building at Greenwich, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 on the instructions of King Charles II.” (x) It also is the place where the Royal Astronomers and their families lived and worked. This existence of knowledge and power on the same location is what I think defines Englishness. Throughout London, there is the overwhelming love of knowledge. We have read this in our texts and have seen it firsthand in Oxford. This source of knowledge is something that England is proud of and definitely something that defines them. If this is the place that the Royal Astronomers worked and lived, this is the kind of place that epitomizes Englishness and the commitment to that love of knowledge and power.

Any space you visit where great minds once worked is a powerful place to visit and to be able to experience and we were fortunate enough to have that kind of experience.

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Longitude 0° 0′ 0”


Longitude 0° 0′ 0”

The Prime Meridian is an imaginary that splits out planet in half starting at the north pole and making its way down through the south pole. Like slicing an apple or an orange, it creates two equal halves. This line happens to run through a spot at the top of a hill in Greenwich. The Royal Observatory, at the top of a peak, perfect for viewing stars and discovering new ideas of time and space, and is the center for measuring every other place on earth!
Longitude 0° 0′ 0”
Imagine being the source for measurement of all other places. This reflects greatly on the British Empire and the fact that they are the center of the world… Look at any map that is folded out for a full 2d view. Great Britain is the center, not Asia or America or the Middle East.

When I walked up that hill to the Royal Observatory (please note the term ‘royal’ because I’ll return to it later) I was taken aback by the beauty of the view. I could see the skyline of the city of London, the park below, the blue sky littered with clouds and a cool breeze that floated past. I was excited and eager to explore what was hidden behind the gates!
When I finally got inside I was surrounded by clocks and fancy paintings of men showing off their clothes and legs. I felt surrounded by displays of knowledge, wealth, privilege and was reconfirmed in my suspicions of Britain being ‘the center of the universe’. I wanted so badly to appreciate and take in my surrounding but I was stopped by the crowds of people wandering around and taking pictures to have proof of being at…
Longitude 0° 0′ 0”
What does it mean to stand on that line, to have each foot on a different sides of the world? I began to think about it in a figurative way and discovered that I didn’t find any special significance in the idea of it. I think it is essential so we can label the measurements of other places in relation to something. Put one foot on a path and the other on the grass, that is a split that means something. Overcoming boundaries mean something but the splitting of the earth in a particular spot (especially straight through Britain) in 1675 has great scientific benefits but also is a display of power, masculinity and rule.
Longitude 0° 0′ 0”

‘Royal’ Observatory. Royalty throughout the history of England has been revered as God’s chosen. Look at the Church of England. Henry the VIII was a confused and sexually frustrated man who wasn’t allowed to divorce his wife because of the church rule. But, as God’s chosen ruler of England, he had the power to make his own church and force his people to adhere to his rules, not only in state but in church. If this isn’t an example of masculinity, power, and patriarchy (all in the name of God), I’m not sure what is.
With this in mind, I ask the reader to ponder, what it means to label something ‘royal’ and what that means for the observatory. I am not denying the fact that the observatory was the key to many advancements in science. Instead, I am asking everyone to think about why an imaginary line running through Greenwich, England is so important. And, where do you stand in relation to Longitude 0° 0′ 0”?


Greenwich Royal Observatory

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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.

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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.


The Greenwich Royal Observatory



The excursion to the Greenwich Royal Observatory was interesting in many ways than just one. First, the actual finding of the Observatory and the long trip through London to it was an adventure in itself; however, the hike up the giant and steep hill was one worthwhile, not simply for the view but for the exposure to history as well. I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at the Royal Observatory, but being able to overlook the city of London was incredible and made the whole world beneath me appear so small. The world felt even smaller as I waited in line to straddle the Prime Meridian, standing with one foot in the East and one in the West and again thought of the many conversations we had been having in our classes regarding who is able to inscribe meaning to something. The Prime Meridian, or the 0 degree longitude of the world, made me again question who was allowed to choose that this place, in England, would be the center piece of the entire world. I find it amazing that this system of longitude and latitude is universally accepted and still in use today. Every inch of the world is measured either East or West from this line, making its placement extremely important and impactful on the entire world and how we view our concept of placement on the world. In speaking of relation of who we are in various spaces, and being able to map exactly which spaces we are embodying, we essentially are using the Prime Meridian to determine this every day. As we move, our longitude and latitude alters, which if reflected based on measurements from the Prime Meridian and the Equator. Therefore, these lines have dramatically come to influence how we view our spatial identities.21454_10201164072838889_1005489938_n

This line, that in any other placement of the world we could cross without even noticing its invisible barrier, has come to be a tourist attraction in the Greenwich Royal Observatories. The actual line and physical statue representing it are gated off to the general public and require paying for tickets in order to stand near or on the line. Again, this is another example in London and our modern world in general, where something historically significant has been preserved and then pushes the public to spend money to see it in order to continue to preserve this landmark. This is how meaning comes to be ascribed to things, as is becoming more and more clear to me, anything that is deemed worth preserving must have a significant dollar value, otherwise, like the London Docklands, the area would be torn down and reconstructed into something worth a large sum of money. While these spaces are archetypally the same thing, a plot of land that we are capable of inhabiting, we as human beings have come to ascribe certain meanings and value to these places which then allows us to preserve them and consider them sacred or historically valuable.

Interesting Links:

Brief history of the Greenwich Prime Meridian of the world

Who determined it?