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Papers of Nevil Maskelyne : Miscellaneous correspondence

Papers of Nevil Maskelyne

<p style='text-align: justify;'>An envelope of 48 items of correspondence which previously belonged to the long-serving Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, encompassing almost the entire time that Maskelyne held that position from 1765 to 1811. These letters reflect the astronomer's position as not only the most visible and respected astronomical 'expert' in Britain - at a time when this expertise was seen to encompass general mathematics, navigation and surveying as well - but also as a prominent figure in Europe. A number of the letters are of dual interest, revealing not only the original communications about Maskelyne's diverse interests and activities and personal life but also, like palimpsests, the calculations and notes and sketches which he later added when using them as scratch paper. Many other volumes from the astronomer's archives reveal a similar tendency to record his thoughts, drawings and calculations on whatever paper was to hand. The text of some letters, such as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> that (RGO 4/187:16:1)</a> of John Wood, is crossed out, perhaps to set it apart from the scribbles.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The letters hail from around the globe and in many cases convey: details of observed astronomical phenomena; observations towards the use and improvement of the lunar-distance method of finding the longitude (which Maskelyne championed) or of the Jovian moon method; efforts at settling the coordinates of terrestrial locations; the use and complications of instruments such as the sextant; projectors dealing with the Board of Longitude such as John Wood; and the computing and compiling of the annual Nautical Almanac and other publications by individuals including <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> William Gooch (RGO 4/187:19:1)</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> Mary Edwards (RGO 4/187:10:1)</a>, which the astronomer initiated and oversaw for the Board. Others are announcements seeking Maskelyne's presence at many of the institutions with which he was involved, as when Lord Sandwich<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> requested (RGO 4/187:5:1)</a> that he attend the election of a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge in 1772 in the hope of swinging the vote towards a candidate from their alma mater, Trinity College - and a number of announcements of meetings of the Royal Society (of which he had been elected a Fellow in 1758) such as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> this (RGO 4/187:17:1-17:2)</a> in 1793. All of these documents were later covered in Maskelyne's calculations and geometric sketches.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Other <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letters (RGO 4/187:42:1)</a> involve the purchase of a pocket globe and a telescope with a six-foot focal length from George Dollond and Peter Dollond in 1807 and 1808. A small number of letters address the workings of the Board of Longitude or the Royal Observatory, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> such as (RGO 4/187:30:1)</a> the Board's oversight committee including Joseph Banks reviewing accounts in 1798, an upcoming <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> official visitation (RGO 4/187:33:1)</a> of the Royal Society to the Observatory in 1801, and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> samples of papers (RGO 4/187:35:1)</a> under consideration for use in publications in 1804.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Of great interest is also an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> undated draft letter (RGO 4/187:48:1-48:2)</a> addressed to 'My Lord', in which Maskelyne first responds to John Harrison's applications to the Board of Longitude and to Parliament to get a second £10,000 in reward money for his marine timekeepers despite refusing to produce two more watches and to otherwise submit to the trials required by the legislation of 1765. The astronomer asked to provide his correspondent with an abstract and explanation of the Act of 1714, which he originally intended 'as an introduction to an answer to Mr. Harrison's scandalous [originally 'abusive'] pamphlet on my trial of his watch at the Royal Observatory; tho I afterwards dropt the design of publishing the same thinking such abuse thrown out without probability or proof required no refutation'. The polished version of this draft was sent to Lord Sandwich in 1773, and is now <a href='/view/MS-SAN-F-00004/1'> in the Sandwich Papers (SAN/F/4:22:1)</a>. Maskelyne never responded in published form to John and his son William Harrison's slights, put forth in the 1765 pamphlet A Narrative of the Proceedings relative to the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea and in other media including the newspapers and journals, although unknown anonymous supporters of his or the Board's cause did rally in the media. The rest of this letter deals with longitude determination and marine timekeepers by other makers.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Other letters in this volume mainly revolve around the astronomer's personal life, which complements the personal manuscripts including diaries and correspondence which are now held at the National Maritime Museum. Such interpersonal relationships and expressions of good will commonly greased the cogs of Georgian society, business and institutions. For example, in 1795James Stuart Mackenzie, the Lord Privy Seal of Scotland (retired from politics) and amateur astronomer, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> invited (RGO 4/187:20:1-20:2)</a> Maskelyne to dinner and addressed him as 'My Dear Tycho' after the famed astronomer Tycho Brahe. The same year, Mr Rowed of the Globe Tavern in Fleet Street in London <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:22:1-22:2)</a> about an upcoming club meeting at the astronomer's house. In a letter of 1785, Charles Hutton, professor mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, also <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> mentioned (RGO 4/187:18:1)</a> a meeting of the club when he wrote about various subjects including A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary upon which he was working. Hutton had been foreign secretary of the Royal Society until Joseph Banks organised his ouster in 1783, which eventually led to the resignation of he and other mathematicians from the Society. Again, this letter has been covered, back and front, with calculations and sketches.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>In 1799, William Manwaring of Paddington in London <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:32:1-32:2)</a> about sending Maskelyne and his wife and daughters presents of pears and a pair of pigeons which he had bred. Dr. Layard, in an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> undated note (RGO 4/187:25:1-25:2)</a>, sought Maskelyne's vote for a candidate at the British Lying-in Hospital and thanked him for having obtained the proxy votes of his in-laws, the Ladies Clive (his sister Margaret having married Robert Clive). This was presumably Daniel Peter Layard, a successful man-midwife and physician. Other correspondents paid their compliments, some as friends seeking a meeting and some as strangers. As an example of the latter, William Marsden<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:6:1-6:2)</a> from Fort Marlborough in Bengkulu (now in Indonesia) in 1772 (the letter reaching Greenwich eight months later) apologising for approaching the astronomer without an introduction and then praising his British Mariner's Guide and method of finding longitude, and relating his own observations made with the Captain's sextant. Marsden concluded that, 'Any Service in my power on this Coast will be a pleasure to me to Perform you'. Correspondents sometime also introduced others to Maskelyne, as when at the end of his letter of 1799, Thomas Wright<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(99);return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:31:2r)</a>: 'I beg leave to introduce Mr. Webber to the honor of your correspondence;- He is a person of Merit and of great application to the objects of his profession'. This was the American astronomer Samuel Webber, who had recently assisted Wright, the surveyor general of the colony of St. John's Island, in taking accurate sightings to establish the positions of the various rivers then claimed to be the border between New Brunswick and the District of Maine in Massachusetts.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The correspondents are mainly British, including those posted or travelling abroad, but also include a small number of contacts from foreign nations. The Britons mainly included astronomers and computers (Israel Lyons, Mary Edwards, William Wales, William Gooch), and members of the government and Naval and military establishments (Captain John Wallis, Royal Artillery officer Robert Fenwick, Lord Sandwich, Captain Huddart, Captain William Mudge, Henry Parker at the Admiralty, James Stuart Mackenzie, the soon-to-be-deposed Governor William Bligh of New South Wales, etc.). As Mary Croarken has written about in different articles, Mary Edwards of Ludlow was a highly unusual female contributor to the 'search for the longitude', having been a long-serving 'computer' (calculator) for the annual Nautical Almanac. Edwards first assisted her husband John, whom the Board of Longitude awarded £20 and £200 in 1778 and 1780 for his work on the metals for reflecting telescope mirrors, and then entirely replaced him as computer when he died in 1784. A year later, she <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:10:1)</a> to direct and to thank Maskelyne for assisting with settling her late husband's accounts with renowned London instrument makers including Edward Troughton, Edward Nairne and Benjamin Cole and in transporting her husband's instruments back and forth for sale. Again, the back of Edwards's letter is covered in notes and sketches.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>On the foreign side, two officers of the War Ministry in Madrid in Napoleonic Spain <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> conveyed (RGO 4/187:36:1-36:2)</a> observations of a solar eclipse made by Ali-Beik Abd-Allah at Tangier in 1803, and in 1806, Julian Canelas<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 4/187:31:1-31:2)</a> from an observatory on the Isla de León (between the city of Cádiz and the Spanish peninsula) to ask for observations of a recent solar eclipse and of the occultations of Antares to compare with his own (with this copy being a translation). Gian Giuseppe Barzellini<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> sent (RGO 4/187:8:1-8:2)</a> a paper about his calculation of the altitude of pole of the Austrian Habsburg city of Gorizia for a solar clock in 1774. Barzellini, whose papers and books are now held at the theological seminary in Gorizia, was the first director of its insurance bank, worked with the local agrarian reform society, and conducted a land survey of the province. He says in the letter that he taught himself mathematics, astronomy and instrument design by studying publications. Four years after this, he constructed a meridian line on the exterior wall of the cathedral. It was not unusual for partially or wholly self-taught enthusiasts to contact Maskelyne for his opinion or to try to contribute to larger astronomical efforts, as one can also see with the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 4/187:4:1-4:2)</a> from the artillery officer Robert Fenwick in Barbados in 1770.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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