A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2020 Mar 23, 14:42 -0700
Charlie McElhill, you described this book as "Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal by Rebekah Higgitt" and Jackson McDonald, you described the book as a "biography". Just to clarify, this work is not "by" Rebekah Higgit, and it is not a biography. It is a collection of essays from a half-dozen authors derived from a "one-day symposium held at the National Maritime Museum" in 2011. Rebekah Higgit was editor of the collection. To be fair, she also added a number of essays with observations and analysis intercalated among the individual articles and certainly deserves to have her name on the cover. This work is not a biography proper though it has many elements of "biography" in it, and it is not merely the "proceedings" of a symposium. For an example that distinguishes this collection from a genuine biography of Maskelyne, the second article in the collection is a biographic article on Robert Waddington who was connected with Maskelyne, yes, but this would be no more than a "sidebar" to Maskelyne's life.
Here's a question to ponder: why does this book exist? I'm not asking why its content exists. It's all great scholarship, but it's about a relatively minor figure in 18th-century science. Rather, I'm asking why does this physical book exist? Why was this book, summarizing as it does a minor one-day symposium, exist as a trade hardcover book that you can buy on amazon (and for a while also appeared in general-market bookstores)? It's a historiography and a publishing-industry question.
And of course it's tied to the colossal financial success of Dava Sobel's Longitude which was published a quarter-century ago in 1995. From various perspectives, the time seemed ripe, not merely to un-do Sobel's over-the-top "villain" declaration, but to ride the revisionist surf up the beach and re-write Maskelyne as a freaking hero! That is the only alternative to villain, right?
Finally, let's step back. Who created the tale, legend, even myth of Harrison vs Maskelyne as it stood in 1994, in the pre-Sobel era? It certainly wasn't Sobel (and if you think it was, you're wrong!). She researched it as a journalist, interviewing professional historians (and astronomers with historical notions) and repeated what she learned from her interviews. She elaborated only slightly, adding her vote of solidarity to the Harrison family's point-of-view historically. But Maskelyne and his ridiculous "lunars" had been counted for decades as the enemies of practical navigation in simplistic histories. How did that come about? There's another bit of historiography to contemplate.
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