A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2020 Mar 24, 21:20 -0700
Charlie McElhill, you wrote:
" But having read "Longitude " by Dava Sobel, my curiosity was peaked a bit about the alternate story, if in fact there was one"
Absolutely. In history, there is always an alternate story, especially when people are arguing. Brutus: assassin or hero? revolutionary or conspirator?
And without doubt, Sobel's Longitude adopts the common viewpoint that sees "the little guy" beaten down by the system pitted against a cruel, obnoxious royal astronomer. She chose where to stand... She picked this this point-of-view and thus her book suffers from a "POV problem", as they say today. She makes no apology for this, even now, and many people are outraged. But she didn't invent any of it. That was the prefered POV for decades. It's certainly a flaw in "Longitude" deserving a reaction, a correction. Of course, what we get is an over-reaction and a rather silly glorification of a grumpy bureaucrat as some sort of genius. He wasn't a villain. He wasn't a genius either. History has a rudder, and the semi-automatic rudder control frequently suffers from this cybernetic feedback problem.
Someone in a NavList message (I can't recall exactly who --sorry) not long ago pointed out that claims that Maskelyne was after the prize money have been disproved and (perhaps) suggested that this implies his motives were entirely innocent and scientific. I don't buy that since for Maskelyne, whose family was well-connected and wealthy, prestige was more important than mere ducats. Maskelyne's great claim to "scientific" achievement (measuring the mass of a mountain by its gravitational deflection with careful astronomical observations, often ridiculously exaggerated by describing him as the "man who weighed the earth") is generally regarded as a "setup". The project was fashioned for success, and Maskelyne was maneuvered into managing it. And for this managed science he was awarded the Copley Medal, which had, incidentally, been awarded to John Harrison, too, some decades earlier for his initial chronometer development. The award to Maskelyne was a bit like one of those "Lifetime Achievement" Oscars that they give out at the Academy Awards for an actor who never managed to win one for earlier hard work.
"Finally, I'm surprised by your statement about Maskelyne's ridiculous tables, you as a lunarian."
Heh. Yeah, I was kidding. Most traditional histories of navigation jump to the end and see lunars as a minor footnote. In reality they were widely used at sea for most of a century.
I will say this though... In some ways lunars really were ridiculous, and Maskelyne deserves some blame for promoting them and disdaining clocks. The world could have lived without lunars in all but some exceptional and unique circumstances decades sooner if Maskelyne and the others in the astronomical school back in the 18th century had seen the light earlier. Chronometers were the future, and they could be made practical with nothing more than hard, incremental development. They did not have the vision to see that! And these were men tasked with advancing the safety, efficiency, and raw power of the Royal Navy as well as British maritime commerce. It was a great responsibility, and though their power was highly limited, they could have done so much more, if they had vision. Maskelyne was narrowly focused on the projects that fascinated him personally. Imagine a different history where the Board of Longitude, with Maskelyne himself leading the call to arms, encourages a national program to create sea-clocks in large numbers. Harrison gets his money, his fame, and then some, and British science stops fussing with lunars tables and gets to work on finely-crafted watches and clocks. How much more rapidly would the world have changed?
Again, just food for thought...