We’ve had a good many blogs about Nevil Maskelyne and John Harrison, who are both important figures in our story, but one thing we are trying to do is tell a more rounded story of the Board of Longitude and the people it dealt with.
One man who has been largely lost in the footnotes is the German astronomer, Tobias Mayer (1723-62) – although there is a museum dedicated to him. His relative anonymity today is a shame, since he was extremely well known, and much sought after, in his own era. Leonhard Euler, for instance, described him as ‘undoubtedly the greatest astronomer in Europe’.
Mayer, it turns out, was central to the longitude story, since it was his work that made the lunar distance method possible. His main interest was actually land mapping, for which the accurate determination of longitudes was crucial, and in the 1750s, while at the University of Göttingen, Mayer created new lunar and solar tables to improve this work. He also came up with a design for a repeating circle, an instrument for making accurate observations, but it was only after much encouragement that he sent his ideas to the Board of Longitude, since he doubted that the Board would reward a foreigner (that said, Britain and Hanover did share a king at the time).
The Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, checked the tables, however, and found them to be very accurate, while sea trials showed that Mayer’s ideas could be used to find longitude at sea (and also led to the development of the sextant). Nevil Maskelyne gets a look in here too, since he also used Mayer’s tables to determine longitudes on voyages to St Helena in 1761 and Barbados in 1763.
As a result, the Board eventually awarded Mayer, or rather his widow, £3,000 in recognition of his work. A surprising footnote to this, according to his biographer, is that Mayer had never even seen the sea.
I’ve begun thinking about Mayer because this year’s Scientific Instrument Symposium includes a visit to Göttingen, so I’m intending to do a paper about Mayer’s role in the development of navigational instruments and techniques. From what I can see, there are still a few gaps in the story. Whether I can fill them is another matter.
For more on Mayer, try one of Eric Forbes’ pieces, in particular:
Eric G. Forbes, Tobias Mayer (1723-1762) Pioneer of Enlightened Science in Germany (Göttingen, 1980)
Eric G. Forbes, The Birth of Navigational Science: The solving in the 18th century of the problem of finding longitude at sea (National Maritime Museum, 1980)
Portrait of Tobias Mayer, from Allgemeine Geographische Ephemeriden (1799)
Mayer’s repeating circle, from Tabula motuum solis et lunae (London, 1770)