Today's guest post comes from Dr Rebekah Higgitt: 

We’ve heard plenty about Nevil Maskelyne on this blog, which is unsurprising given that he was such a significant part of the Board of Longitude over four and a half decades. His first meeting at the Admiralty as a Commissioner of Longitude was on Saturday 9 February 1765, his last, his 150th, was on Thursday 6 December 1810. This, of course, coincided with his tenure as Astronomer Royal, from 8 February 1765, aged 32, to his death on 9 February 1811, 46 years to the day since that first, significant meeting.


It was such an important meeting that we decided to invite visitors to the Ships, Clocks and Stars exhibition to it, with a soundscape and table-top projection representing the discussions. The results of the Barbados trial, on which Maskelyne acted as observer, were deliberated; decisions about rewards were made; and future activity decided, including that someone should be rewarded to produce a nautical ephemeris to make the lunar-distance method practical. Within months it was clear that the person to do this would be the new Astronomer Royal, although it was the computers rather than Maskelyne who were rewarded for their work on the Nautical Almanac.

Nautical Almanacs

In hindsight it all seems very seamless. Maskelyne was obviously seen by the Commissioners as a competent observer and mathematician. He had shown on the trial, and as an astronomer hired by the Royal Society to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, that he could use instruments on land and at sea, organise expeditions and plan programmes of observation. In addition, he had a track record in the astronomical aspects of longitude, from aiding former Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, with recalculating Mayer’s tables, to making use of the lunar-distance method at sea, to publishing an ephemeris in the form of The British Mariner’s Guide (1763).

Nevertheless, it might easily have not been Maskelyne, or not at this time. The previous Astronomer Royal, Nathaniel Bliss, had been in position for just two years and died unexpectedly on 2 September 1764, while Maskelyne was still en route from Barbados. He was certainly not the only possible candidate, and in some ways appeared to have the wrong CV. Three of the four previous Astronomers Royal, Bradley, Bliss and Halley, had been professors of geometry or astronomy at Oxford. Maskelyne was a Cambridge men.

Thus, Joseph Betts, successor to Halley and Bliss as Savilian professor of geometry, was a candidate and had the backing of influential figures in Oxford. Another serious possibility was James Short, who was famous for his skill as a maker of reflecting telescopes but also an astronomer, fellow of the Royal Society and the man who took on the large task of collating and reducing many observations of the transits of Venus to produce a figure for the solar parallax. These contenders were all mentioned in a poem in the Gentleman’s Magazine (which, delightfully but snootily, called Maskelyne a “scientific harlequin”), alongside this poet’s favoured candidate, the aged John Bevis, who had an observatory in Stoke Newington and had long been a mainstay of astronomy within the Royal Society.

There is a possibility that figures like Short and Bevis were not seen as sufficiently academic for a position also known as the Regius Professorship of Astronomy. In addition, Short’s championing of Harrison has been assumed as a black mark against his candidacy – for Harrison, and in Dava Sobel’s account, Maskelyne beating Short to the position was a sign of entrenched opinion against Harrison and, beyond him, artisanal skill and the timekeeper method of finding longitude. As Jim Bennett has shown, there was serious concern about whether the kind of ‘mechanical genius’ attributed to Harrison and Short was seen as capable producing and explaining the kind of useful and universal methods the Board of Longitude sought. In addition, Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, had clearly been annoyed that Short opposed him over the question of Harrison’s reward.

We should also acknowledge the importance of Maskelyne’s family. Within days of his return from Barbados, Maskelyne had heard of the vacancy from his sister, Margaret, who was married to Robert Clive (better known as Clive of India). Lord Clive was in Britain at the time, in the midst of honours and acclaim, and in September 1765, by which time he was back in India, he added in a letter to the Prime Minister, George Grenville, “I must not forget to express how thankful I am for the assistance you have given Mr Nevil Maskelyne to obtain the Regius Professorship.” It probably helped too, though, that Grenville had been First Lord of the Admiralty, and a Commissioner of Longitude, as had Lord Sandwich (now Secretary of State). In October 1764 Maskelyne had visited both of these men, as well as the current First Lord of the Admiralty (Earl of Egmont) and the President of the Royal Society (Morton). Grenville, Sandwich and Morton all recommended him to the King – personal acquaintance, ability and family connections undoubtedly all played their part.

What if Maskelyne had not been chosen? I don’t really play with alternate histories, but it’s possible that even if he had not become Astronomer Royal in 1765, Maskelyne might have had another opportunity pretty quickly. Betts died in 1766, Short in 1768 and Bevis, already 71 at the time of the appointment, in 1771. None of them could have had the legacy and lasting influence that Maskelyne achieved, in part simply through the consistency and continuity that he provided through a long stint at the Royal Observatory and within the Board of Longitude.