Rebekah Higgitt (Ed.): Maskelyne

Cover of Maskelyne, Rebekah Higgitt

[D]espite Maskelyne being portrayed in popular literature as a self-seeking academic astronomer with a less-than-personable style, the stories of his interaction with the Nautical Almanac [human] computers reveals that he went to some lengths to provide stop-gap employment to mathematically inclined people, as well as providing long-term stable employment for those with families to support. However, as David Kinnebrook’s story and that of other Royal Observatory assistants show, Maskelyne was a hard taskmaster who did not suffer those he considered fools gladly.

Mary Croarken, “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers” in Maskelyne (2014)

I’ve mentioned Rebekah Higgitt here before, when I reviewed Finding Longitude (2014), a book she co-authored with Richard Dunn. In that review, I described Finding Longitude as a sort of antidote to the historical distortions of Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995).*

Higgitt is the editor of this essay collection, Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal, which, among other things, serves to correct Sobel’s depiction of Nevil Maskelyne as nothing more than a self-serving, privileged, academic villain, bent on thwarting her put-upon working-class hero, clockmaker John Harrison.

The collection consists of eight essays, by eight authors, illustrating aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times, interleaved with an introduction and seven “case studies” by Higgitt. I’m not sure what makes them “case studies”, since they’re essentially another seven essays dealing with another seven aspects of Maskelyne’s life and times.

Higgitt’s introduction provides a brief biography—an early interest in mathematics; a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge; membership of the Royal Society; an expedition to the island of St Helena to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, during which voyage he carried out early tests on the “lunar distance” method of finding longitude; and election to the post of Astronomer Royal, which he held for more than four decades.

The first chapter, written by Higgitt, is entitled “Revisiting And Revising Maskelyne’s Reputation”, in which she sets out the source material that’s available to allow us to make a rounded judgement of Maskelyne’s character and contributions to science in general and the “Longitude Problem” in particular. She also tracks down the origin of Sobel’s peculiarly one-dimensional take on Maskelyne—a 1993 Harvard conference marking the tercentenary of John Harrison’s birth, which Sobel attended as a science journalist. Held to honour a clock-maker, this was primarily a horologist’s conference, and its content reflected that particular focus. The book of conference papers, The Quest For Longitude (1996), therefore contained little information about the astronomical methods of finding longitude (in which Maskelyne was expert), and portrayed Maskelyne largely as an impediment to the adoption of chronometers as a means of finding longitude. (I’ve dealt with the “Longitude Problem” and Maskelyne’s troubled relationship with Harrison in my review of Higgitt’s Finding Longitude, so I’ll refer you to that if you want more detail.)

In the next chapter, Jim Bennett gives a biography of Maskelyne’s one-time associate Robert Waddington, giving an insight into the career opportunities available to someone of mathematical bent at that time. Nicky Reeves’s “Maskelyne The Manager” lets us see how Maskelyne was instrumental in establishing the Greenwich Observatory’s national and international reputation—introducing a routine of testing and maintaining its instruments, and ensuring that the data the Observatory produced were made publicly available. (Previous Astronomers Royal had tended to look on their data as private property.) This segues nicely into Mary Croarken’s “Nevil Maskelyne And His Human Computers”, which deals with the huge coordinated effort Maskelyne organized to allow the timely production of the Nautical Almanac. Using teams of “computers” to calculate the position of the moon years in advance (and to cross-check each other’s results), Maskelyne was able to publish tables that allowed mariners to find their longitude using astronomical observations and about half-an-hour of calculation. From his correspondence, it’s also evident that Maskelyne was genuinely solicitous of the welfare of his team of computers.

Rory McEvoy then provides a chapter dealing with Maskelyne’s relationship with clocks—indispensable instruments for astronomical observation, for which Maskelyne seems to have had great respect, but a certain cluelessness about their appropriate care and maintenance. This combination was probably at the root of his problems with horologists seeking the Longitude Prize—he understood better than the clock-makers what was needed to make a timekeeping device into a useful navigational aid, but he wasn’t very good at looking after exceedingly delicate devices left in his care. So while he manage to incur the undying enmity of John Harrison, we also see Maskelyne championing the more robust and reliable marine chronometers later produced by Thomas Earnshaw.

Alexi Baker describes how Maskelyne steered the Board of Longitude on to a more professional footing; Caitlin Homes deals with the tempestuous relationship between Maskelyne and the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks; and Amy Miller sifts through Maskelyne’s personal records to provide an insight into his home life with his wife and daughter.

Higgitt’s interspersed “case studies” deal with the nature of science and astronomy in Maskelyne’s time; the interdependent roles of the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society and the skilled instrument-makers who sought their patronage; and the artefacts relating to Maskelyne and his family which have been preserved at the Greenwich museums. So a lot of ground is covered—the only significant omission, from my point of view, is any account of Maskelyne’s 1774 gravitational experiments on the mountain Schiehallion, in Scotland.

The whole book is illustrated with relevant images of documents, instruments and paintings. Although it’s necessarily an episodic presentation, with some repetition between chapters, it adds up to a useful survey of Maskelyne’s important role in the advancement of science, particularly the science of navigation. His correspondence shows him to have been both conscientious and kind. He carried out his own very significant work on the Longitude Problem as a public service, without seeking reward, and seems to have borne the occasional enmity of horologists with quiet forbearance.

The brief uncredited coda to the book, summing up his legacy, takes its title from the text of Maskelyne’s memorial tablet: “A Life Well Lived”.

* See, for instance, Davida Charney’s critique of Sobel’s book in her article, “Lone Geniuses in Popular Science” (210KB pdf).

3 thoughts on “Rebekah Higgitt (Ed.): Maskelyne”

  1. It sounds like another interesting read – like “Finding Longitude”. Which I read after your review of it an enjoyed. Unfortunately, this book is not in the Western Australian library system.

    However they do have a copy of “Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, 1730–1850” co-edited by her and Richard Dunne (E-book only). It also is a collection of essays but covering a wider area of experimentation and research. You have re-awakened my interest in this subject so I will have read of this volume shortly.

  2. That looks like an interesting book. Please, let me know what you think. (Though it’s a nose-bleedingly expensive purchase at present!)

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