15 May Grantham’s American Astronomer
Maybe it was something in the water, but South Kesteven was the birthplace of more than one scientist, mathematician and astronomer of note in the mid -17th to early 18th Centuries. So many in fact, it is not possible to fit them all in one post.
Isaac Newton is of course the district’s most famous scientist, but had he been the sociable type, he wouldn’t have been short of company. One local scientist certainly well known to Newton was Arthur Storer.
Arthur was the stepson of William Clarke, with whom Newton lodged while he was a student at Grantham Grammar School. The boys lived together at the Clarke’s apothecary, and attended the school together.
William Clarke encouraged both boys, and taught them the principles of the apothecary’s trade, the importance of accurate measurements, and the uses of medicinal plants.
William’s Brother Joseph, and Henry Stokes, the master of the Grammar School, were also key in the development of the young scientists. Both had been educated at Cambridge University and ensured Newton and Storer received a comprehensive education.
Arguably their greatest impact was in championing the boys, even convincing Isaac Newton’s mother to allow him to return to his studies, rather than become a farmer.
As children, the relationship between Isaac and Arthur was sometimes strained – Newton listed ‘beating Arthur Storer’ in his famous list of sins – however, they remained close throughout Arthur’s life time.
Arthur immigrated to Maryland in 1672, and after a brief return to England finally settled there permanently in 1678.
He was as keen a scientist and mathematician as Newton, and pursued his studies throughout his lifetime. The two remained in contact, despite all the difficulties of long distance communication in the 17th Century
Arthur studied the stars, and took detailed measurements of their movements, along with recording several significant astronomical events.
In 1682 Storer observed a comet, and using an astrolabe, he tracked its path until it disappeared from the night sky, compiling some of the most accurate data of the age. Naturally he wrote to Newton, and sent copies of his meticulous notes.
Using this information, along with his own calculations, Newton was able to determine that the comet must follow an elliptical orbit.
Newton directly referenced Arthur’s work in the Principia, as part of his calculations of the paths of celestial bodies.
Storer’s measurements and calculations, alongside Newton’s work, led Edmund Halley to surmise that Storer’s Comet was the one which had been recorded throughout history. Halley predicted the comet would return in 1759, he was right, and when the comet reappeared it was given a new name, one it retains to this day – Halley’s Comet.
Storer is considered to be the first American Colonial astronomer, and he is much celebrated in his adopted home nation.
The Arthur Storer Planetarium now stands on the site where he first observed his comet, in Calvert County, Maryland.
In Grantham he is memorialised by a Blue Plaque, which can be found on the wall of his former schoolhouse.