An important part of the Royal Museums Greenwich complex, the Royal Observatory Greenwich is one of the world’s most famous observatories, having played a vital role in the history of astronomy and the development of modern navigational techniques. Visitors to the Royal Observatory Greenwich today will find plenty of fascinating things to explore, as the historic attraction contains the Peter Harrison Planetarium, the Great Equatorial Telescope, the Flamsteed House Time Ball, several galleries of innovative clocks, and of course, the Prime Meridian of the World.
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History of the Royal Observatory Greenwich
The history of the Royal Observatory Greenwich begins in the late seventeenth century, when King Charles II and his advisors sought out ways to improve the navigational abilities of British sailors and ships as the traversed the globe. Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design an observatory and named John Flamsteed the first Royal Astronomer. By the summer of 1676 Flamsteed House (the Royal Observatory’s first building) had been built and research was being conducted at the facility.
Several notable scientific breakthroughs occurred at Royal Observatory Greenwich over the course of the almost three centuries it was a working observatory—many of the most significant having to do with the standardization of time. The Royal Observatory Greenwich’s biggest claim to fame, though, undoubtedly is being the site where the Prime Meridian of the World was set. Prime Meridian—the longitudinal line dividing the Eastern and Western Hemispheres—had until the late nineteenth century been highly irregular, with different countries adhering to different systems, each observing their own standards. This changed in 1884, when an international conference was arranged to try and settle the matter once and for all. When all was said and done, a universal prime meridian had been established, with Greenwich at its center.
Royal Observatory Greenwich Highlights
An essential component of any visit to the Royal Observatory Greenwich is taking the opportunity to walk down the line that marks the Prime Meridian of the World. That’s right, the Prime Meridian here is literally marked out on the pavement at your feet via a series of informative bricks. As a result, it’s a fabulous spot to snap a fun selfie while learning all about how Prime Meridian came into existence as a concept.
Another major highlight of a trip to the Royal Observatory Greenwich is the Great Equatorial Telescope. As soon as you arrive at the attraction, you can’t miss it—it’s the structure with the large “onion dome” roof on the hill—so be certain you don’t! The Great Equatorial Telescope was installed here in 1893, and it remains today one of the largest refracting telescopes found anywhere in the world. In fact, it is the largest such device located in the whole of the United Kingdom.
It’s worth making some time in your Royal Observatory Greenwich visit to enjoy a show at the Peter Harrison Planetarium. This state-of-the-art facility regularly hosts talks by astronomers, screens educational films, sponsors children’s programming, and stages immersive experiences that leave you feeling as though you’ve just ventured to the moon and back again.
More to See and Do at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich has a long, rich history—and as befits an attraction with its pedigree and prestige, it has a lot to offer guests. Here are several more things to see and do while visiting the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
•Dating to 1676, the Sir Christopher Wren-designed Flamsteed House is the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s original facility. Here you can move through the Astronomers Royal Apartments, where the first scientists working here once lived. If it works for your schedule, be sure and watch the Time Ball drop from the roof of Flamsteed House. One of the world’s oldest public time signals, the Time Ball drops every day at 1:00pm.
•While you’re touring Flamsteed House, you’ll definitely want to stop in at the Octagon Room, which is, as advertised, an eight-sided room that stands today as the oldest single portion of the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The Octagon Room is an elegant space, with tall windows and high ceilings designed to provide working astronomers clear views of the night sky from the comforts of indoors.
•The Shepherd Gate Clock, which is affixed to the gates of the Royal Observatory grounds, was the world’s first-ever Greenwich Mean Time clock. Many experts consider it to be one of the most significant clocks ever made, and you can still observe it in action today.
•Of particular note within the Time and Longitude Gallery of the Royal Observatory museum complex are the famous Harrison Clocks. Designed and built by John Harrison in 1735, these ingenious devices revolutionized how sailors navigated the open seas by helping crewmembers determine longitude while on the ocean. The Harrison Clocks are quite striking timepieces to boot.
•The Airy Transit Circle telescope was built by George Biddell Airy and went into operation in 1851. It is the instrument credited with helping astronomers define the Prime Meridian, and visitors may observe it mounted in the Transit Circle Room today just as it was in centuries past.
Why Royal Observatory Greenwich Should Be on Your Must-See List
Few scientific sites in existence today can boast of the legacy that the Royal Observatory Greenwich possesses. Much about how we determine, tell, and keep time today was worked out here during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the attraction is full of historically significant artifacts, rooms, and scientific instruments. There’s a lot here to explore, and when you’ve had your fill of history and astronomy, the other facilities of the Royal Museums Greenwich are mere steps away: Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, and the Queen’s House. Oh, and the Old Royal Naval College is just down the street, too!