Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America

By Edwin Danson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21
Legacy

WHEN NEVIL MASKELYNE, the “seaman's astronomer, ” succeeded to the esteemed position of astronomer royal on February 26, 1765, his first priority was to publish the Nautical Almanac, so useful to mariners. He personally supervised its content of nautical tables, lunar distances, and other information until his death. Maskelyne's administration was also marked by many improvements in the methods and equipment used by the Royal Observatory, the place he loved and where he died on February 9, 1811. He was a mild and genial man, of “estimable character, ” but a man of his class. He was awkward when dealing with the “lower orders” or the less mentally endowed, even to the point of pomposity. The astronomer Sir William Herschel remarked, after their first meeting in 1782, “That is a devil of a fellow!”; it was a great compliment.

Despite being deeply convinced that the lunar distance method was the most reliable and accessible way for the majority of mariners to find longitude, Maskelyne accepted the task of evaluating John Harrison's timepieces. Harrison's chronometers were for their day the most precise mechanical instruments ever devised, but Maskelyne, and many of his fellow scientists, seriously doubted that their precision could be reproduced in sufficient numbers, or at an affordable cost, to meet the demand. Poor reproductions would expose unwitting mariners to even greater perils if they trusted the accuracy of an inferior chronometer. Undoubtedly, Maskelyne believed himself the most qualified person to test Harrison's timepieces, knowing full well that he would be charged with conflict of interest. The testing and trials of

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