Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne - Part Four: The Harrisons' accusations, and conclusions


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It is clear that another component of the Harrisons' suspicions towards Nevil Maskelyne was their long-held conviction that he was actually a competitor for the longitude reward that they thought was rightfully theirs. We cannot be sure whether or not Nevil was hoping to obtain one of the rewards for his work on the lunar-distance method before he became the Astronomer Royal, which automatically made him a Commissioner of the Longitude, in 1765. It was possible, given his interests and abilities as a young man, and was in no way morally questionable. Lunars-star-map Wiki.jpgThe Harrisons do not seem to have objected at first to his being selected as an astronomical observer for the second sea trial of H4, which took place before he obtained the position at Greenwich. They would have already been aware that he was a proponent of the lunar-distance method and had also been directed by the Commissioners of the Longitude to make trials and observations relevant to the method during his voyage to Barbados. However, William Harrison recorded that he heard rumours once he reached the island that the astronomer was a true fellow competitor for the longitude reward and apparently rushed to confront him and to accuse him of being an improper choice to participate in the trial. We do not know what Maskelyne said in response, but the accusation apparently distressed him and led to his alternating observations with his companion under the watchful eyes of multiple witnesses.

Quill wrote of this event that, 'The objections raised by William Harrison reveal the spirit of suspicion and antagonism against Maskelyne that seems to have been continually in his mind, an attitude which was shared by his father, and which was to persist to the end.' There is also no evidence so far that once the maligned observer became Astronomer Royal and thus a Commissioner that he tried to obtain a reward for his efforts, which to modern eyes would have definitely seemed a 'conflict of interest'. As Katy has shown during her research on the Barrington papers, it is possible that the Commissioners of the Longitude considered including wording in the Parliamentary Act of 1765 which would have prevented any serving Commissioner from winning the reward - perhaps to avoid accusations of this nature.

My pointing out these potential contributing factors to the later conflicts between the Commissioners of Longitude and the Harrisons, which will be explored at greater length during our research, is not intended to come down on one 'side' of the issue or the other. Doubtless no party in this episode could be called a perfect angel. It is quite likely that the clockmakers believed the accusations that they levied against Maskelyne and the other Commissioners in public, and it is understandable that they grew increasingly frustrated as years passed without their gaining the reward they were convinced should belong to John. However, there is so far no evidence for, and it in fact seems highly unlikely, that the Commissions and particularly the Astronomer Royal were unduly critical of the sole use of timekeepers for finding the longitude at sea or actively plotted against the Harrisons. This interpretation was far less widely held when the events actually took place than it is now, thanks to selective modern readings of the evidence.

This popular modern interpretation encourages a false understanding of not only the nature and activities of the Commissioners of Longitude, but also of the development of mathematics, astronomy and navigation in general in early modern Britain and Europe. It especially obscures the myriad contributions of Nevil Maskelyne to those areas by hiding the real individual, who was Astronomer Royal and a key force amongst the Commissioners and the Fellows of the Royal Society for decades, behind the unrecognizable mask of a pantomime villain. He and John Harrison should both be recognized for their intelligence and innovation, and for the steps forward that they prompted in the art of early modern navigation.

(Sextant use Wiki.jpgReally the lunar-distance method deserves to be rehabilitated in the popular opinion as well. Chronometers did not make a clearly stellar showing in sea trials until the 1770s, at which point only a handful of the instruments even existed in Britain. They were not cheap enough to be widely used until the 1800s, and some scholars have suggested that their true promise was not realized until the advent of steam-powered sailing. In the meantime, the pursuit of an accelerated lunar-distance method led to other improvements in astronomy and navigation, the establishment of the Nautical Almanac which is still being published, and the development of the basic sextant design that is still in use today - as seen here. Even after chronometers came into wider use aboard ships, astronomical observations continued to be necessary as well for measuring the local time with which the chronometer's GMT would be compared and, in the earlier days, for checking on the accuracy of the timekeeper.)

At any rate, no matter how many factors contributed to the initial deep divide between the Harrisons and the Commissioners of the Longitude, their working relationship was pretty much irrevocably broken by the 1760s and 1770s and only proceeded in stops and starts. The Harrisons were convinced by then that the Commissioners' secret enmity towards them had come to a head, and ultimately that they had no hope of inducing the officials to see things their way and to give them the full reward that they deserved. Meanwhile, the Commissioners no doubt watched with horror as the Harrisons and their supporters published lengthy public accusations against them and particularly Maskelyne in pamphlets and in periodicals. Their dissatisfaction sometimes spilled over into board meetings as well, as when John responded to their requirements for a 'discovery' of his watch designs in 1765 by exclaiming 'That he never would consent to it, so long as he had a drop of English Blood in his Body' and leaving the room 'abruptly'.

Historical events like these are always messy things to deal with, and especially those that encompass a period of more than a century, as we are examining. They were far from tidy and clear-cut when they occurred, and often to understand them, we have to clear away the cobwebs of later interpretations, moral judgements and narrative restructurings. These interpretations often have more to do with the times in which they were developed than with the historical periods that they purportedly describe!

Picture credits: All images © Wikimedia Commons.