skip to content

Papers of Nevil Maskelyne : Astronomical observations made at the Island of Barbados

Maskelyne, Nevil

Papers of Nevil Maskelyne

<p style='text-align: justify;'>The observations book of Nevil Maskelyne from his voyage to Barbados on behalf of the Board of Longitude from 1761 to 1764, shortly before he became Astronomer Royal. Maskelyne had been made an FRS of the Royal Society in 1758, and had already been sent by it to the island of St Helena in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus. When weather stymied the astronomer's efforts there, he worked on the lunar-distance method of finding longitude at sea, which he would publish two years later in The British Mariner's Guide. In 1763, Maskelyne was appointed as the astronomical observer to travel to Barbados, rather than to <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00005/32'> fever-ridden Jamaica (RGO 14/5:28)</a> as was originally planned, as part of the second sea trial of John Harrison's marine timekeeper H4 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. The Board directed him to observe eclipses of Jupiter's moons in order to find the longitude difference between England and the island, and to observe the equal altitudes of the Sun before and after noon in order to check the going rate of Harrison's watch. These would be simultaneously observed in England at Portsmouth by John Bradley, nephew of the the late Astronomer Royal James Bradley.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>On the way to and from Barbados, Maskelyne was also to test the lunar-distance method of finding longitude of which he became a lifelong champion, the Irish projector Christopher Irwin's marine chair for purportedly steadier astronomical viewing at sea, and Tobias Mayer's latest lunar tables. He was appointed a naval Chaplain with a sizeable gratuity of ₤300 plus expenses and was accompanied on the voyage by Charles Green, assistant to the current Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss. This volume is important because it sheds light on the details of, and Maskelyne's and Green's working processes and occasionally thoughts during, this important voyage. Firstly, the expedition <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00005/45'> extinguished hopes (RGO 14/5:41)</a> for a reward for Irwin, a relatively well-known longitude projector of the period who had managed to drum up public and institutional interest in part through strategic use of the newspapers and periodicals, and who had received a grant of £500 from the Board on <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00005/41'> 17 August 1762 (RGO 14/5:37)</a>. More importantly, it set the tenor for many of the ensuing activities and conflicts of the Board, with Maskeylne's lunar-distance method (aided by Mayer's tables) and John Harrison's longitude timekeepers both gathering steam and, as a result, John and his son William Harrison developing a lifelong enmity towards the astronomer.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The elder Harrison had in fact worked well with the Commissioners of the Longitude from at least 1737 until the early 1760s, as the Commissioners repeatedly gave him financial and logistical support with little question and limited requirements. This began to change as the Commissioners increasingly institutionalised as a sitting Board, and as the issues of the timekeepers' dependability and affordable replicability become more pressing. William Harrison arrived at Barbados in May 1763 and later wrote that he was told by a third party that Maskelyne was an active competitor for the longitude reward, which led Harrison to confront him about the implied impropriety - although he and his father did in fact <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00005/30'> know (RGO 14/5:26)</a> of the astronomer's assigned role in the voyage and of his interest in lunar distances well before the journey took place. Maskelyne recorded experiencing some success with lunar distances on the journey to the island, and it is possible that his relating this to bystanders and to correspondents upon arrival encouraged William Harrison in thinking that he was actively competing against and could not be trusted with any part of the testing of an alternative longitude scheme.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The confrontation between the two men reportedly distressed the astronomer greatly, and a compromise of sorts was reached whereby Maskelyne and Green observed on alternating days with the Captain and three other witnesses present. Harrison and Green left Barbados on 4 June 1764, while Maskelyne remained until 30 August to make more longitude observations and observations for the Moon's parallax in right ascension which he had begun in St Helena. On the return journey, he continued to have encouraging results with lunar-distance observations. Soon after returning to England, a successful campaign began for him to replace the late Nathaniel Bliss as Astronomer Royal. In late 1764, the Board <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00005/66'> began hearing testimonies (RGO 14/5:62)</a> on the results of the voyage to Barbados and began directing what was to be done with the different types of observations made.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This observations book, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(7);return false;'> labelled (RGO 4/323:3r)</a> 'Astronomical observations made of the Island of Barbados by Nevil Maskelyne AM FRS', records many of the astronomer's activities from 13 November 1763 to 15 August 1764. These included the rating of clocks, observing stars and planets, and adjusting instruments and clocks to compensate for error. Once John Harrison arrived on board the HMS Tartar on 13 May 1764, he also <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(32);return false;'> rated Harrison's timekeepers (RGO 4/323:15v-16v)</a>. The first page bound into the book provides details of how and when the astronomer <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(3);return false;'> conveyed copies (RGO 4/323:1r)</a> of his observations to Philip Stephens Esq., Commissioner of the Longitude and Secretary to the Admiralty, using different ships and their Captains as go-betweens. On the inside of the book's back cover, there is a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(53);return false;'> single note (RGO 4/323:back cover (inside))</a> about the repayment of money which Maskelyne had advanced to someone as well.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>There are additional computations on some <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> loose pieces (RGO 4/323:18a-18c)</a> of paper; many of Maskelyne's surviving records from later decades including in the RGO archive heavily feature such loose sheets of calculations and notes, including on letters and the like which were recycled as scrap paper. Some entries reflect how it was often necessary to adjust instruments or to try to compensate for errors in them, and orientating them to the changing environs required taking different measures, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(17);return false;'> such as (RGO 4/323:8r)</a> making marks on the ground and setting up red flags once on land to help orientate the astronomer's telescope.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , and information about sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: