Ashis Dutta visits the Old Royal Observatory where Greenwich Mean Time was born a couple of centuries ago

Alighting from the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) of London, I took the road towards Greenwich Park and walked up to the far side to where the famous sail-ship Cutty Sark is dutifully preserved. I moved on, leaving the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House to my right and trudged up the asphalt path to the Old Royal Observatory sitting pretty on top of the mound. Huffing and puffing, I inched closer to longitude 000 00’ 00”.

In 1884, 41 delegates from 25 nations huddled in Washington DC one solemn October morning to decide the world’s time-centre. The multitude of meridians followed by different nations made maritime navigation and trade difficult; and everyone agreed on the need for a single time scale. The problem was, which one? It was put to vote, and Greenwich won by 22 votes against one. The longitudinal line passing through the Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich became the Prime Meridian, and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was born.

Usually, observatories have to do with the stars above. But the saga of this one began with the seas. The maritime nations of 17th Century Europe were vying with each other for supremacy at sea, for conquest of far-off lands, merchandise and trading rights. This, in turn, sparked the European naval and scientific community to discover the means to measure the imaginary lines on the face of the planet, the longitudes.

In 1675, under Charles II, the mound at Greenwich Park on the outskirts of London was selected as the site for the Royal Observatory, and the building design vested upon the legendary Sir Christopher Wren. The position of Astronomer Royal was created and John Flamsteed was appointed as the first one.

In a nod to the prevalent superstition, Flamsteed plotted a horoscope, according to which the foundation stone for the observatory was set on August 10, 1675, precisely at 3.14 p.m. (then local time). However, later inscriptions reveal that neither Flamsteed nor his close associates believed in planetary horoscopes!

From the ground floor, I took the winding stairs that lead up to the crowning glory of the observatory, the Octagonal ‘Star Room’. The Great Star Room or the Octagon Room seems not to have changed much since Flamsteed’s days. Its tall windows were designed to accommodate the long telescopes of those days. Being open to the panorama of the sky, the Octagon Room was perfect for observing celestial events and planetary movements. Flamsteed, however, set up his positional observatory in a small shed in the garden.

On Flamsteed’s death, Edmond Halley stepped in as the second Astronomer Royal. Halley was already famous by that time, having mapped many stars of the Southern Hemisphere, had drawn up charts of earth’s magnetism and accurately predicted the course of the comet named after him — Halley’s Comet. Halley shifted Flemsteed’s original meridian a bit in the Observatory.

I strolled eastward from Flamsteed’s meridian and crossed over two later meridian lines, those of Halley and Bradley. Further east and I joined a small crowd gathered at the meridian drawn by the seventh Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddet Airy. I followed the thin red line of that meridian out of the room, to the open courtyard. The red strip continued across the courtyard. I bid for my time to boldly walk up, like so many have done before me and so many would do after, and stand with one leg each on each side of the Time Centre of the World.