BRADFORD is full of surprises and nothing is more surprising than the legacies of three of its famous sons who made their mark in astronomy.

Many people’s image of Bradford is one of a city that became the wool capital of the world in the 19th century and since then has seen better days - a classic case study of the Industrial Revolution.

My book about Bradford gives the lie to this lazy view. Every Day Bradford provides a memorable story from the city’s rich history for each day of the year, covering a range of topics, events, places and people from all walks of life.

Born and bred in Bradford myself, time and again during my research I came across fascinating stories that I had not encountered before. The diversity of the city’s history amazes me.

Bradford would not seem to be the place where you might find astronomers world-famous in their day. All three men, academically very bright, gifted in mathematics and astronomy, benefited from a Bradford education that was each typical of different eras. Each left a most unusual legacy for the world. Over the coming weeks I will provide a story about each of these stars from Bradford.

The first is Abraham Sharp (1653-1742). Abraham Sharp was born the ninth child into one of Bradford’s most established families, who lived in the manor house at Horton Hall. Bradford was no more than a very small market town built around the ‘broad ford’ in the bowl of hills into which Bradford Beck flowed and thence to the River Aire, three-and-a-half miles away. Abraham was one of the privileged few in the mid-17th century to receive any education. He attended the small Bradford Grammar School that received its royal charter from King Charles II in 1662.

At school Sharp developed a love of mathematics, despite the text books being written in Latin. When he was 16 his father apprenticed him to a textile dealer in York, but that life was not for him. He moved to Liverpool, London and Portsmouth, doing a variety of jobs. During his time in London, he developed a growing interest in astronomy. He started to work as an assistant for John Flamsteed, who became a close friend and then in 1675 the first Astronomer-Royal. Sharp made himself indispensable and got to know other astronomers. He also calculated ‘pi’ to 72 decimal places, briefly holding the record until it was overtaken to 100 decimal places in 1706.

March 1694 was the turning point in Sharp’s life and career. He had already just come back to Bradford, and his notebook gave no record why he returned. However, he declined an opportunity that someone much more ambitious would have grasped immediately to go back to London. He received a letter from Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame), the most eminent astronomer of the day, suggesting he should apply for the mathematical chair at Christ’s Hospital in London: ‘You may in my opinion stand as fair for it as you are deserving it, if it deserve you’. Some 15 years later, Sharp confessed to his friend Flamsteed that ‘I had no inclination for so laborious a confinement, being better pleased with an easier though less advantageous employment’. He was never to leave Bradford until his death 48 years later.

Reclusive by nature and obsessed with astronomy, Sharp maintained a close collaboration with a small number of distinguished, like-minded London-based friends, even when he returned to his home town. Now the owner of the family home of Horton Hall, he had an extension built to accommodate his obsession in studying the stars. It was called Sharp’s Observatory, the only such observatory in England outside Greenwich. Two and a half centuries later in 1963, this was sadly demolished with the hall, when its expensive upkeep was no longer viable.

Working from home like this, he nevertheless made a major contribution to astronomy. For example, he designed a new instrument, the Mural Arc, that enabled Flamsteed to measure the stars. In 1995 it was described by an eminent science historian as ‘the finest and most exact astronomical instrument constructed to date, and it won the praise of all who saw it’.

The instrument enabled him to compile the three-volume Historia Coelestis Britannica, the first catalogue of the stars, a task that Sharp took over on Flamsteed’s death to publish six years later in 1725.

Sharp became the earliest Bradfordian to be the subject of any biography when the pre-eminent Victorian local historian, William Cudworth, wrote a book about his life in 1889. The astronomer is also remembered with this tablet in Bradford Cathedral:

‘… being deservedly numbered amongst the most skilful mathematicians of his time, cultivated a lasting friendship with men most distinguished by a similar renown, especially with Flamsteed and the most illustrious Newton. He drew up the description of the heavens made by the former of these (Flamsteed) in (astronomical) tables of the greatest accuracy; he also published anonymously various writings and descriptions of instruments perfected by himself’.

Finally, a far less conspicuous memorial is also his most surprising legacy - the naming of a lunar crater as Sharp’s Crater, giving a place for Bradford on the moon some 250 years after Sharp’s death.

Sources: Life and Correspondence of Abraham Sharp, William Cudworth (1889) and The Incomparable Mr Sharp: Astronomer and Mathematician, Astrid Hansen in The Bradford Antiquary (2010).

* Every Day Bradford by Martin Greenwood is available from online stores, including Amazon, and bookshops such as Waterstones and Salts Mill.