Magic and the Maskelynes

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It is not only we here at the Board of Longitude project who appreciate Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811) - a dynamic Commissioner of the Longitude who was Astronomer Royal for 46 years and has been unfairly maligned in some of the modern representations of the events surrounding John Harrison's marine timekeepers.

A family of famous British magicians and inventors also trumpeted their ties to the Astronomer Royal! John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) actually trained as a watchmaker before becoming a nationally famous stage magician, and a debunker of Victorian spirit manifestations like fellow magician Harry Houdini. Maskelyne gave flamboyant evidence for the prosecution in the London trial of the American psychic Henry Slade in 1876, which was brought by a young zoologist and supported by scientists including Charles Darwin and the zoologist Thomas H. Huxley. John was also responsible for a number of inventions including the public pay toilet... whose initial cost resulted in the euphemism to 'spend a penny'.

One of John's sons, another Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924), became a magician as well and was one of the early pioneers of wireless telegraphy. His son, Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973), was another stage magician and harnessed his magical and engineering skills to aid British military intelligence during the Second World War.

There is apparently some debate over whether the magical Maskelynes were truly related to our Nevil, as they claimed. However, the grandson of the Astronomer Royal by his only child, Margaret, is also known to have made a name for himself in science and technology during the late 1800s. Nevil Story Maskelyne was a professor of mineralogy at Oxford and one of the pioneers of early photography (alongside his wife Thereza), as well as a Member of Parliament.

More details about the man himself will no doubt emerge from Becky's symposium on Nevil Maskelyne - the astronomer and not the magician -- taking place on Saturday 15 October 2011. Watch this space!


John Nevil Maskelyne

Photo credit: © Wikimedia Commons.

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