If you only had one more day to spend in London, and had already seen many of its major museums, where would you go? When I encountered this dilemma in 2010, I decided to take the Tube (the British subway system) to Greenwich, a borough of London, to see the Royal Observatory.
Britain’s King Charles II decided that Britain ought to have its own astronomical research center. As Britain continued to increase its presence in the international scene, it needed to simultaneously remain technologically advanced. Thus, in 1675, work began to build the Royal Observatory on the ruins of Greenwich Castle, which had once served as King Henry VIII’s hunting lodge. John Flamsteed became Britain’s first Astronomer Royal, and lived at the Royal Observatory, where he performed astronomical research. The Royal Observatory continued to serve as Britain’s primary astronomical research center until after World War II, when it moved to Herstmonceux and then to Cambridge. It eventually dissolved in 1998. However, the original Greenwich Royal Observatory functions as a free museum today.
In the 19th century, as international travel increased, especially with the advent of the railroad, the need for a standardized international time zone system arose. Therefore, in 1884, twenty-five nations met in Washington D.C. to decide that Greenwich, England would be the location of the Prime Meridian. This spot was chosen because it had already been represented as the Prime Meridian on many British maps that were used throughout the world (since the Royal Observatory was there), and because the United States had already used the Prime Meridian as the basis for its time zones. The Prime Meridian is the longitudinal line on a map that measures 0 degrees. Theoretically, every 15 degrees east or west of the Prime Meridian is one hour earlier or later than the time in Greenwich.
When you visit the Royal Observatory today, you can stand on the Prime Meridian, right outside the building. While I was there, I saw tourists from all over the world taking turns standing on it. Inside the Royal Observatory, you can learn about the history of astronomy, navigation, and time, and look at a variety of old instruments that have been used in these fields.
After seeing the Royal Observatory, I walked next door to the National Maritime Museum, which is also free. It documents the history of British seafaring. The exhibits include a huge collection of maritime paintings, tools used in navigation, and the jacket that Admiral Nelson died in at the Battle of Trafalgar. Because the museums is housed in a beautiful building, it has been used for the set of several films including the live-action 101 Dalmatians film from 1996.
The Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum merged with two other museums in 2012 to form the Royal Museums Greenwich. The other museums in this group are the Queen’s House, a 17th century home built for the wife of King James I and now used to display art, and Cutty Sark. I do no remember seeing the Queen’s House when I was in Greenwich, nor did I see Cutty Sark. Cutty Sark is a Victorian ship that visited every major port city in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, when I was in Greenwich, it was undergoing repairs from fire damage, which is why I did not see it. Apparently, there is also a planeterium at Greenwich, but I do not remember it.
Although the Prime Meridian is a man-made concept, it is still a fun place to visit.
Sources and Further Reading
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Greenwich Meridian.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/Greenwich-meridian (accessed December 19, 2020).
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Royal Greenwich Observatory.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Royal-Greenwich-Observatory (accessed December 19, 2020).
“History of Cutty Sark.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/cutty-sark/history (accessed December 19, 2020).
“History of the National Maritime Museum.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/history (accessed December 19, 2020).
“History of the Queen’s House.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house/history (accessed December 19, 2020).
“History of the Royal Observatory.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory/history (accessed December 19, 2020).
“What Is Greenwich Mean Time?.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/greenwich-mean-time-gmt (accessed December 19, 2020).
“What Is the Prime Meridian and Why Is It in Greenwich?.” Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/prime-meridian-greenwich (accessed December 19, 2020).