In January 1729 a paper written by James Bradley was read at two meetings of the Royal Society. On a newly discovered motion of the fixed stars, later described as the theory of the aberration of light, it was to transform the science of astrometry. The paper appeared as a narrative of a programme of observation first begun at Kew and finalized at Wanstead, but it was, in reality, a careful reconstruction devised to enhance his reputation in response to a recognition that the programme was initially conducted in terms that were inimical to what he conceived to be his interest. The planned attempt to repeat Robert Hooke's celebrated experiment by James Pound, Samuel Molyneux and George Graham was set up at Molyneux's residence in Kew with James Bradley replacing Pound after his untimely and sudden demise. The unexpected and counterintuitive behaviour of the object star γ Draconis and the eradication of any suspicion of instrumental or systemic error led to the abandonment of the attempt to measure annual parallax and the initiation of new conjectures. An annual nutation was proposed but after the observation of a control star, 35 Camelopardalis, this conjecture was abandoned. Unknown to Bradley and Graham a premature approach was made by Molyneux to Newton claiming that the ‘nutation’ negated the whole of Newton's system. In the abandonment of the nutation yet another conjecture opposed to Newtonian theory was proposed and abandoned. Bradley determined to use his own instrument designed on different principles by Graham to observe the phenomenon in Wanstead. At Wanstead Bradley observed many stars to determine the parameters of the phenomenon. With the law of the motion described, Bradley proposed a hypothesis to explain it. Drawn from his earlier work on the ephemerides of Jupiter's satellites his hypothesis of the ‘new-discovered motion’ was quickly presented to the Royal Society as Bradley was working on a later and more definitive version of his paper. It is this later, third, unpublished version that is commonly referred to throughout this essay. It issued a challenge to ‘anti-Copernicans’ to offer an explanation of the observed phenomenon in geostatic terms. One such astronomer, Eustachio Manfredi, had examined the phenomenon of ‘aberrations’ in detail, the term being his. It was Bradley who first applied the term to the ‘new-discovered motion’ and within a short time ‘aberration’ was being applied by astronomers in the reduction of their observations. Annual aberration was widely accepted as evidence of the motion of the Earth. The paper enhanced Bradley's reputation and projected him into the forefront of European astronomers.
(Online publication September 24 2009)
I have discussed the ideas in this paper extensively over many years with Professor Rob Iliffe of the University of Sussex, my late doctoral supervisor at Imperial College; with Dr Allan Chapman of Wadham College, Oxford; and with Professor Simon Schaffer. Many other colleagues and interlocutors have helped me to develop my ideas about Bradley's work on the aberration of light. Any shortcomings are of course entirely my own.