A Forgotten Episode in the History of the Secular Acceleration: William Whiston, Arthur Ashley Sykes and the Eclipse of Phlegon

  • John M. SteeleEmail author
Part of the Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences book series (SHMP)


In 1734 William Whiston published Six Dissertations dealing with biblical history and astronomical chronology. Tucked away in a long discussion of the calculation of ancient eclipses, Whiston referred to Halley’s discovery of the moon’s secular acceleration, remarking that “This I have all along esteemed one of Dr. Halley’s greatest Discoveries in Astronomy”, and provided an estimate of the correction to be applied to the calculation of the time of syzygy on account of the moon’s secular acceleration, the first ­correction for the secular acceleration to appear in print. Whiston’s discussion of the secular acceleration was presented within an ongoing acri­monious dispute between Whiston and Arthur Ashley Sykes, a Cambridge educated clergyman and prolific writer of controversial religious pamphlets, over whether the eclipse reported by Phlegon should be associated with the darkness during Christ’s crucifixion, and appears to have passed other astronomers by without making any impression. As we will see, only one other scholar, George Costard made any reference to Whiston’s discussion of the secular acceleration, which quickly became a forgotten episode in the history of its study, missing from all later (and contemporary) accounts of the subject.


Solar Eclipse Full Moon Secular Acceleration Future Edition Natural Religion 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian StudiesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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