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National Maritime Museum Manuscripts : Letter from Nevil Maskelyne to George Atwood regarding timekeepers

Maskelyne, Nevil

National Maritime Museum Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>A letter sent by the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, to the Cambridge mathematician George Atwood in 1793. This letter hints at the important process of ally-making that existed between prominent London figures in the development of a practical solution for finding longitude. As noted in the entry for George Atwood in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from 1793-94, Atwood worked closely with the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw to investigate the properties of cylindrical balances in comparison to the spring-driven watches made by the watchmaker Larcum Kendall. What this alerts us to is the degree to which Maskelyne - a member of the Board of Longitude which (amongst other duties) was occupied assessing claims for reward for solutions to find longitude at sea - was actively working behind the scenes in attempts to establish relationships between various allies. As Earnshaw made clear in his 1808 Longitude: An appeal to the public, he had relied heavily on Maskelyne's support for his introduction to the Board of Longitude, in 1789. What is hidden both in that text and in many of the official publications of the Board of Longitude is that Maskelyne clearly offered continued support to Earnshaw in his attempt to develop timekeepers for use at sea.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This situation should alert us to the fact that throughout the history of the Board of Longitude, the construction of both theories and machines were at essence reliant on the collaboration of various forms of labour and correspondence.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Support and patronage in the history of the Board of Longitude was not unique to the relationship between Maskelyne, Atwood and Earnshaw. Indeed, the 'Mr Arnold' mentioned in the last sentence of Maskelyne's letter was the prominent watchmaker and competitor to Earnshaw, John Arnold. Like Earnshaw, Arnold also relied on powerful support from powerful London savants, most notably the hydrographer to the British Admiralty and East India Company, Alexander Dalrymple, and the wealthy gentleman and president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks. As President of the Royal Society, Banks had in fact been embroiled in a dispute dubbed the 'Mathematicians Mutiny', in which a group of members, including Atwood and Maskelyne rallied against Banks' dismissal of Charles Hutton as foreign secretary to the Society; a situation that made clear certain rivalries that found their expression in some of the activities of the Board of Longitude. (See J L Heilbron, A mathematicians' mutiny, with morals, in World changes, Cambridge, MA, 1990 (Cambridge, MA, 1993), 81-129).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Eóin Phillips<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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