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    Re: Bessel's solution of lunar distances
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2019 Mar 19, 08:39 -0700


    Chauvenet appears to have been exaggerating in his description of Bessel's paper. I'm not convinced he ever read it himself. The plain fact is that there were excellent methods for clearing lunars by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and a number of slick, efficient tables followed from those methods by the 1820s. The computations were not a problem, and contrary to the legends which persist to the this day, they were no more difficult and sometimes less difficult than the computations for local time (which every navigator understood and used). 

    By the 1830s, lunars were in steep decline. Chauvenet, like quite a few other mathematicians, both professional and amateur, fell into the seductive trap of imagining that he could come galloping in on his steed of mathematical rigor and save the day by developing a better scheme for working lunars. This was a mis-guided endeavor. It solved no problem. At the same time, Chauevenet's reputation as one of the founding scholars of the US Naval Academy gave him unlimited license to promote his odd methodology for lunars, and it was published in the new government edition of "Bowditch" (which should really have been described as "Logan-Bowditch" starting in the 1880s). I doubt that more than a handful of practical lunars were ever worked using Chauvenet's method as published, though no doubt many students were tortured with its entirely un-necessary tables in that era.

    A reminder to all: I'm teaching my lunars workshop next month, April 27-28, at Mystic Seaport Museum. Details here.

    Frank Reed

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