CAPTAIN COOK – JOHN HARRISON – CHARLES GREEN: THREE YORKSHIRE MEN WALKED INTO A BAR

‘He [John Harrison] wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch’. Dava Sobel, Longitude, Fourth Estate, London, 1998

Harrison H-4 Chronometer

Since earliest times sea-faring nations England, Portugal, France, Spain and the Netherlands vied with each other to solve – the Holy Grail of Navigation – longitude – calculating with precision a ship’s position while at sea beyond sight of land.

1714  – Westminster: Legislation, The Act of Longitude 1714, followed an enquiry into England’s first recorded 18th century maritime disaster.

In 1707 off the Cornish coast in heavy weather six (6) of Admiral Clowdisley Shovell’s ships lost their bearings and were dashed to pieces on the Scilly Isles with the loss of 1500 lives.

As a consequence in 1714 The Board of Longitude was established to invite and evaluate submissions and award a prize of £20,000 to whom-so-ever solved the problem of longitude at sea.

‘The Board of Longitude was top-heavy with astronomers, mathematicians and navigators’. Sobel. ibid

A king’s ransom £20,000 – reckoned now more than £400,000,000 – had unintended consequences for it did much to delay recognition of the solution – time – Harrison’s ‘pocket- watch’ the perfect time-keeper’; a delay that cost countless lives.

‘[Harrison] made a special enemy of the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the [Longitude] prize money and whose tactics at certain junctions can only be described as foul-play’. Dava Sobel. ibid.

To the detriment of the world’s seafarers the contest developed into a naked grab for cash with one powerful contender – Maskelyne – crushing the other – John Harrison a Yorkshire carpenter and his mechanical time-keeper. See: Lotto and Longitude

There were only two (2) viable contenders for the Longitude Prize. The Nautical Almanac – Luna Tables  and Star Cataglog –  favoured by a succession of Astronomer Royals and Harrison’s invention a sea-going ‘Watch’. In 1765 Maskelyne published his Nautical Almanac. See: Moon Versus Machine

‘At the heart of Dava Sobel’s fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and horology stands the figure of John Harrison and his forty-year obsession with building the perfect timekeeper’. Sobel, Longitude, Cited Back Cover Paperback Edition

A succession of Astronomer Royals, understandably Rev. John Flamsteed the first appointed in 1676 whose Luna Tables were his life’s work; followed by Edmond Halley, James Bradley, Nathaniel Bliss and the fifth holder Nevil Maskelyne all remained wedded to Luna Tables.

‘The [1765] Almanac represents Maskelyne’s enduring contribution to navigation – and the perfect task for him too, as it embodied an abundance of excruciating detail’. Sobel. ibid.

But well before 1765 and Maskelyne’s Almanac – time – the essential ingredient for solving the problem of longitude had been conquered.

John Harrison, the man who solved longitude in 1759′. Peter Ackroyd, Revolution, Macmillan, London, 2016

However the might of Astronomer Royal Rev. Nevil Maskelyne was brought to bear on Harrison personally and against his ‘never failing guide’ the marine chronometer.

So when in 1769 Yorkshire-man Lieutenant James Cook RN, after observing the Transit of Venus at Tahiti sailed, in accordance with ‘Secret Admiralty Instructions’ to search for the fabled Great Southern Land, he took with him Maskelyne’s ‘tedious’ celestial Almanac but not Harrison’s ‘never-failing pocket-watch’. See: Lotto and Longitude

‘[It] was bolted to a window-seat at the Observatory’. Dava Sobel. ibid.

Cook did have the invaluable service of Charles Green a fellow Yorkshire-man. An accomplished astronomer Green had served as official Assistant to two (2) Astronomer Royals. Firstly James BradIey who succeeded on the death of Edmond Halley in 1742.

Bradley held the post for twenty (20) years until his death in 1762. Nathaniel Bliss followed Bradley in 1762 but ill-health marked his short tenure. Bliss did not take up residence at Greenwich he remained at Oxford University where he died in 1764.

During the hiatus 1762-65 Charles Green, another Yorkshire-man,  acted as surrogate Astronomer Royal. In 1764 with Bliss too ill to travel, Green acting as official representative of the Board of Longitude, had travelled to Barbados with Maskelyne to assess the accuracy of John Harrison’s ‘watch’.

While Green found that it satisfied all that was required Maskelyne took the opposing view. See: The Third Man – Charles Green

At the beginning 1765 King George III announced the appointment of Maskelyne as Britain’s fifth Astronomer Royal. Charles Green logged his final Observations on 15 March 1765 and left the Observatory soon afterwards.

Nevil Maskelyne, after negotiating a more than satisfactory salary, assumed his active role in mid March 1765 and held the position until his death in 1811. See: Captain Cook Caught Short

 

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