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    Maskelyne and Harrison
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2008 Sep 09, 04:27 -0400

    It has been suggested occasionally that Dava Sobel (in her book "Longitude")
    was responsible for inventing the story of Nevil Maskelyne's conflict with
    John Harrison. Most recently, this arose from a reading of a late 19th
    century article describing some of Maskelyne's notes. While Maskelyne's
    notes are certainly interesting, his testimony (which he describes in the
    notes quoted in the article) was well-known, but that testimony was by no
    means enough to persuade his critics at the time.
    
    Not long after Maskelyne's death, the French astronomer/mathematician
    Delambre wrote an account of Maskelyne's life and his numerous achievements
    in astronomy. It was re-published in the "Annals of Philosophy" in June,
    1813. You can read the whole thing here:
    
    http://books.google.com/books?id=2xsAAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA401
    
    Delambre provides a relatively neutral commentary on Maskelyne's conflict
    with Harrison. Here's the relevant passage:
    
    "On [Maskelyne's] return [from St. Helena] he published his British
    Mariner's Guide, in which he proposed that Great Britain should adopt the
    plan of a nautical almanac traced by La Caille after his voyage to the Cape
    of Good Hope. The same year he made a voyage to Barbadoes, in order to
    examine the goodness of Harrison's time-pieces. The report which he made at
    his return, though favourable in general to the celebrated artist whose
    invention he had subjected to the most severe test, was far from convincing
    Harrison, who attacked him in a pamphlet. Maskelyne wrote a reply to this
    attack. Naval men and philosophers took part with one side or other,
    according to their ideas and their habits. M. de Fleurieu, particularly
    connected with F. Berthoud, and entirely devoted to the cause of the
    time-pieces, forgot perhaps on this occasion his accustomed moderation. It
    was a dispute between two useful methods, calculated to assist each other.
    Maskelyne did not find the time-pieces sufficiently certain, nor
    sufficiently regular. Harrison affirmed, not without reason, that they were
    within the limits prescribed by Act of Parliament. He demanded the whole
    reward, which was afterwards given him, though at first he received only the
    half. While pleading his cause he attacked the astronomical methods,
    availing himself of some admissions of La Caille, who, with his
    incorruptible integrity, while boasting of the method of the lunar distance,
    admitted that they had sometimes led him into error. Maskelyne proved by his
    own observations that the errors are much diminished when better instruments
    are employed than those used by La Caille, such as were then beginning to be
    constructed in London. It is possible that in this dispute between mechanics
    and astronomy both sides went a little too far. The time-pieces performed
    every thing - demanded by the Act of Parliament of 1714, and there can be no
    doubt that, if they had been presented at that time, Harrison would have
    obtained the whole reward without difficulty. But 50 years afterwards, when
    the instruments were much more complete, when the lunar observations had
    received unexpected ameliorations, was it not excusable to demand a little
    more? The time-pieces, by the facility which they offered, were likely to
    seduce maritime men, who are usually enemies to long calculations, but their
    exactness could only be trusted in short voyages. In less ordinary
    circumstances, and in long navigations, the method of lunar distances had an
    incontestible advantage. Hence Maskelyne appears to us to have displayed as
    much justice as discernment in assigning one half of the reward to Harrison
    for his time-piece, and the other half to the lunar tables which Meyer
    before his death had sent to the Board of Longitude in London. The English
    nation yielded at last to motives of generosity, as much as of justice, in
    giving to Harrison the whole of the reward to which he had a right,
    according to the literal meaning of the Act of Parliament. Maskelyne, who at
    that time laboured to get the Nautical Almanac adopted, had reason to fear
    that the nation, after having so magnificently rewarded one invention, would
    become more indifferent and more economical with respect to a work still
    finer, and of more utility. It was his duty to plead the cause of science,
    and he performed it with honour, Both parties gained their cause. Maskelyne
    made his country adopt the plan of La Caille, which that astronomer, too
    early removed for the interests of the science, could not get introduced
    into France. The English had the glory of realising it first; and this is an
    obligation which seamen and astronomers of all nations and ages have to Dr.
    Maskelyne, who, in order to succeed in it, stood in need of all his
    perseverance, and of the consideration which he so justly enjoyed."
    
    
    I described Delambre's account above as "neutral" but of course, Delambre
    was a fellow astronomer, and it might be more fair to call it "charitable";
    it was part of an obituary intended to celebrate the man's life rather than
    treat it critically. For a sense of this, here's one of the closing
    paragraphs:
    "Of a character friendly and amiable, he gained the affections of all those
    who had the good fortune to know him, and his death was honoured with their
    regret. Destined at first to the ecclesiastical profession, he preserved
    always the virtues and the sentiments of that profession. He died as he had
    always lived, a Christian, firm in his faith, and in the hope that he would
    be admitted into the presence of a Creator whose works he had so long
    contemplated and admired."
    
    My point here is that the conflict between Maskelyne and Harrison was not an
    invention of Sobel's. It was well-known to contemporaries, and many sided
    with Harrison agreeing that Maskelyne was biased against him. Furthermore,
    it didn't end with Harrison. Maskelyne was accused of bias by Mudge and
    other chronometer advocates in the years that followed. There were numerous
    pamphlets and counter-pamphlets that do not reflect well on anyone involved.
     From my perspective, Maskelyne's faith in an astronomical method of
    determining longitude and his skepticism of a mechanical device was
    perfectly understandable for an astronomer of his time, but it was indeed a
    bias which slowed the advancement of the art of navigation (and an
    "understandable" bias is not the same as "reasonable" bias). Clocks and
    watches of all sorts deserved far more attention from the navigational
    scientists of 18th century England than they received. That doesn't mean
    that the method of lunars, which was much favored by Maskelyne, was
    un-necessary. The impression created by Sobel's book, and in other 20th
    century accounts, that lunars were useless just as soon as they were
    invented is incorrect. They were widely used for the better part of a
    century. As Delambre notes above, chronometers and lunars provided "two
    useful methods, calculated to assist each other".
    
    By the way, there's no question that many people reading "Longitude" simply
    assume that Maskelyne bore all the guilt in the dispute. Though Sobel finds
    serious fault in Harrison's communication skills, she clearly places most of
    the blame on Maskelyne. The writers and producers of the three-and-a-half
    hour tv docudrama, "Longitude" based on the book (2000, A&E television,
    starring Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon) took Sobel's portrayal of
    Maskelyne and made a caricature out of it. If you haven't seen it, beware of
    this: Maskelyne is portrayed as nearly a buffoon. There's a scene with him
    fumbling incompetently with his sextant. In another scene, it's actually
    suggested that he doesn't like women. There's plenty to like in this film,
    and I have watched it twice despite the length, but it does have some
    serious flaws.
    
     -FER
    
    
    
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