Mrs Pam Arnold-Palmer, a direct descendent of Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811), recently donated to the Museum a fascinating collection associated with the fifth Astronomer Royal, who worked at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich from 1765 until his death in 1811. The objects range from letters to medals, notebooks to clothing, chronometers to sketches. Maskelyne is principally known for creating the first Nautical Almanac, published in 1766, which provided the tables seamen needed to enable them to find longitude from sextant measurements of the Sun, Moon and stars. The medals show how widely his work was appreciated as they include examples from Russia, France and USA, as well as the Copley gold medal of the Royal Society of London. Maskelyne’s international links are also highlighted by his correspondence with astronomers in other parts of Europe.
The letters, notebooks and accounts contain much interesting material about Maskelyne’s role in preparing the scientific work of several voyages of exploration. They reveal the equipment he recommended and some of his efforts to secure the services of suitable astronomers to carry out observations. These documents are a fascinating combination of the official and the personal, throwing light on his life at Greenwich and his recipes for various medicinal remedies, as well as his work as Astronomer Royal. The clothing includes dresses belonging to his wife, Sophia, and only daughter, Margaret, as well as a padded silk observing suit sent from India by his brother-in-law, Robert Clive. The personal nature of much of this material helps to provide a more rounded picture of Maskelyne than emerges from the official records of the Observatory, or from more recent accounts of the story of finding a method of measuring longitude at sea.
‘Portrait of Nevil Maskelyne by John Russell RA, made when Maskelyne was in his forties’ (ZBA4305)