Readers of this blog may be interested to listen to a talk I gave at the Royal Society last week. Audio and slideshow versions are available here. The talk was entitled “Hero or villain? Nevil Maskelyne’s posthumous reputation” and, while pointing out that ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are hardly historiographically useful categories I discussed how Maskelyne has come to be most commonly known as the villain of the story of longitude.
I began by briefly introducing the man and his life, before discussing the two early and influential accounts of his life, which demonstrate the range of Maskleyne work and his high international reputation. These were a 1812 article in Rees’s Cyclopaedia by Patrick Kelly, who was master of Finsbury Square Academy and an author on nautical astronomy, and the Eloge produced for the French Institute in 1813 by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, permanent secretary for mathematical sciences, director of the Paris Observatory.
Kelly was one of Maskelyne’s close acquaintances and Delambre, according to Lalande in a letter to Maskelyne held in the NMM’s Caird Library, once considered Nevil “le dieu de l’astronomie”. It’s unsurprising that Maskelyne comes out well of these accounts, but it is typical that early 19th-century biography should be sympathetic to its subject and that it should be produced by friends, family or colleagues. They are the sources that were taken up, and thus my talk explored why and at what point the image of this significant figure of British science, who was acclaimed for his dedicated hard work and for making the Royal Observatory useful to the public, became one of elitism and obstructiveness.
As I hope I show, it can’t all be blamed on Sobel’s Longitude but, rather, dates back to earlier rediscoveries of John Harrison, and to horological histories that have tended to ignore significant aspects of the contemporary context.
My talk also dwells a little on my dual response to this. On the one hand there is an academic one that seeks to avoid historical goodies and baddies, to explore fully contexts and motivations and to replace simplistic accounts with more nuanced ones. On the other, there is a sense of injustice which, of course, must mirror that felt by those championing Harrison. There seems to be ample evidence that Maskelyne was a pretty nice, and fair, man but it’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge! I hope, at least, that future displays at the Royal Observatory – Maskelyne’s home – can take advantage of the objects, manuscripts and accounts that the Museum has to reflect something of Maskelyne’s significance in his own time and his life with friends, colleagues and family as well as antagonists.
While over at the Royal Society’s list of history of science podcasts, do take a look at some of the others on offer. 18th-century enthusiasts will enjoy James Sumner’s “‘How should a chemist understand brewing?’ Beer and theory around 1800″; material culture/materials folk should listen to Susan Mossman on plastics; more on someone closely connected to the history of the Royal Observatory can be found in Frances Willmoth’s talk on Jonas Moore; early 17th-century instruments and clocks are discussed by Rebecca Pohancenik. And much, much more. Many thanks to Felicity Henderson at the Royal Society for inviting me to join them.
While much of this blog has been squarely set in London – in and between the Royal Society, Admiralty, Board of Longitude, Royal Observatory and instrument-makers’ workshops – we have also from time to time strayed out to the Pacific or Arctic, following Captain Cook in 1769 and the move of the 1818 Longitude Act to incorporate previous rewards for locating the North West Passage. What was found in Arctic by John Ross, William Parry and their crews was not, of course, the long-sought route to the Pacific but data, specimens and a testing ground for new techniques and instruments.
While it would make no sense to suggest that such things would not have been accessed without the availability of chronometers and Nautical Almanacs, these expeditions and their collections are necessarily part of our story. There is the same confluence of people and interests, and the longitude technologies added to the precision of, and confidence in, the data brought home. While botanical specimens seem a long way from testing and using navigational instruments, they represent the way in which expeditions were helping to bring the faraway and unfamiliar near, just as they allowed the possibility of taking well-known things long distances. They each reveal the ambition of knowing, recording, collecting, measuring, cataloguing and, essentially, stating a claim for things in the world.
In thinking about how to represent these things in exhibitions, I have recently had a look at some of the botanical specimens collected in the Arctic on Parry’s expeditions. It was a great treat to see inside the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, and to see a range of specimens that, in some cases, closely represented how they were originally arranged by the Arctic voyagers and, in others, demonstrated how working Herbaria incorporate historical specimens into their modern taxonomic arrangements. I have written another post elsewhere which muses on some of what such collections can tell historians, and with another image of a set of specimens from the Parry collection.
The image below represents what happens to specimens when they are incorporated into the Herbarium proper. Two specimens have been cut from their original paper mounts and placed on the same piece of paper of a standard size, used across the Herbarium. They are not type specimens – these are marked out with a red stripe on the paper – but exist as a representation of a species in a particular time and place. The bare historical information remains: the specimen on the left came from the Rocky Mountains (I see the names Drummond and Harkes(?) but am unsure who these people were or when this expedition occurred), the one on the right was collected at Melville Island on Parry’s first voyage – the place that British Arctic explorers first overwintered.
It was clear from the Edinburgh Herbarium alone that a large number of specimens were brought back from the Arctic on these voyages. The British Museum was the primary repository – its plant collections now part of the Natural History Museum – but duplicate, triplicate and more specimens could be sent to other Herbaria and collectors. This was not only because the surgeons, the chief naturalists on such voyages, were assiduous in their work, but because many other officers were collecting too. One of the Parry collections was put together by Lt William Hooper, the Purser, but across the whole Herbarium many other individual collectors can be identified. In some cases brief field notes, recording the scarcity or otherwise of the plant, have also been kept, revealing adherence to Parry’s scientific instructions to write down as much as possible.
Despite this, only one 1820s specimen that I saw (for which, sadly, I have lost the photograph) attempted to record a precise location. Ironically, perhaps, it gives Latitude to the second but the space next to ‘Longitude’ was left blank. TBC, perhaps.
I’ve mentioned before how everything I do seems to end up relating to our longitude project. Last Wednesday, I went to a ballet at Sadler’s Wells in London, an adaptation by the Pet Shop Boys of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Most Incredible Thing. I did not know of this fairy tale previously, so didn’t know that the story’s hero is a clock maker!
The modern adaptation of the story by Matthew Dunster, turns it into a particularly contemporary mixture of Communist state control and an X-Factor-style talent contest. The ballet starts with the citizens, like automatons, following the dreary round of their daily lives. The king proclaims a contest to find ‘the most incredible thing’ in the state, the reward for which will be half of the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage. After thousands of entries, the prize is won by ‘Leonardo’, a young clock maker who has invented and built an extraordinary tiny clock. This expands to produce 12 visions, which appear for each number of the clock: four seasons, five senses, seven deadly sins and so on. Leo is helped to construct it, alone in his impoverished studio, by the physical embodiments of his three muses: concentration, love and courage. After the clock is destroyed by ‘Karl’, the Orwellian villain of the piece, Leo is helped to reconstruct it by the same muses. The power of this act causes Karl’s death, and overturns his brief victory in the contest, in which his destruction of the wonderful clock becomes itself ‘the most incredible thing.’
The idea of the lone genius, aided by divine inspiration, creating an extraordinary one-off instrument which, once destroyed, can only be saved by further supernatural aid, is of course interesting to us in our ideas on John Harrison. I was especially struck by the idea that destroying such an object becomes itself an incredible act. Leo’s watch here became the ‘object of virtue’ par excellence. But, what particularly interested me was the representation of the incredible clock within the staging of the ballet. The physical object was a small, traditional pocket watch, not dissimilar from H4, which was treated as fragile and jewel-like, crushed simply in Karl’s hands in the destruction scene. Yet, in the invention scene, it expands into a wonderful paper ‘castle in the air’ dreamed up by Leo, and composed of cut-out paper showing parts and diagrams (see the photo gallery of the Sadler’s Wells site), not unlike Harrison’s drawings in The Principles of Mr Harrison’s Time-keeper. Further, when the visions appear from the clock, they do so from a huge dial face-cum-projection screen which dominates the stage, and from which the images and dancers appear and expand. These representations and understandings of the clock were the twins of those I have been finding on the part of longitude pamphleteers in the eighteenth century.