National Maritime Museum Manuscripts : Papers of Nevil Maskelyne

National Maritime Museum Manuscripts

The tension inherent in these papers is best summed up by a line from a draft talk 6:21 that is included among them: 'there is little that is spectacular in the lives of great scientists.' The mixture of account books, notes, correspondence, and inventories that are included here show very clearly how the life of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, mixed scientific endeavour with every day concerns over household provisions and family relationships. Even the paperwork and correspondence of Maskelyne's daughter Margaret after his death, mixes books to be left 10:1-10:22 to the Royal Observatory with an inventory of their furniture 10:51-10:66, and discussions of his gravestone 11:155 with correspondence 11:145-11:154 about her own courtship.

The two account books 2:1 cover the period 1766-1799, and range across the whole of Maskelyne's daily activities. Chronological payments mix scientific instruments for the observatory with personal books, gifts to family and charities, and bills for fuel, food stuffs, farriers' work and transport. Lists at the front of each outline his main sources of income, which include the Board of Longitude among his livings and indentures, his salary from the Ordnance office, profits from his fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and his pension from the Exchequer. A number of items are separated out from the main chronological accounts, which include payments on behalf of the Board of Longitude 2:11-2:14 to computers and comparers of the Nautical Almanac, as well as bills for gardening and post-chaises. Accounts and receipts 9:1-9:95 from the various booksellers with whom Maskelyne had dealings likewise show a mixture of scientific with classical and religious works, key intellectual texts of the period, domestic medicine, and fiction such as Robinson Crusoe. These also deal with his own publications. A fourth book 4:1-4:116 includes some accounts, but mainly consists of recipes for cures and extracts from medical works, as well as correspondence with Sir Joseph Banks regarding his gout.

Sir Joseph also features prominently in the folios of correspondence, where again private and public affairs are mixed. Maskelyne's correspondence with Banks 5:56-5:169 in the 1790s discusses activities of the Board of Longitude in some detail and shows how far these two were running the Board alone by this point. In one letter 5:119-5:120 Maskelyne discusses his problems with the printer Buckton and comments that he thinks they cannot resolve the problem without calling a Board, although he does not want to. Earlier letters 5:5-5:22 to Maskelyne's brother Edmund in the 1760s mix family finances and relationship discussions with accounts of his voyage to Barbados and his views on Irwin's marine chair. One 5:17-5:22 dwells at length on family disputes, before going on to discuss his tests on Harrison's clocks at the Greenwich Observatory, his work on publishing the Nautical Almanac, and the Board's work to get H4 RMG icon copied by other watchmakers. One key letter 5:50-5:53 to Anthony Shepherd, Plumian Professor at Cambridge, on Maskelyne's return from Barbados discusses his hopes of being elected Astronomer Royal, and which key figures he knows will support his application.

But all is not every day practicality. Also included here are a range of awards from European Academies of Science, including a particularly ornate one 1:1 from Catherine the Great for the Academy in St Petersburg, complete with a gold medal-style seal filled with wax. A letter 7:85 from Lalande to Maskelyne introducing Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre likewise describes how Maskelyne was for Delambre 'le dieu de l'astronomie.'

Katy Barrett
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge Cambridge Digital Library