My Royal Society talk: Maskleyne’s reputation

[Cross-posted from the Longitude Project blog]

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 inRees’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.