"Reverend Nevil Maskelyne"
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Nevil Maskelyne
Public DomainNevil Maskelyne
Sobel is perhaps a little unkind to Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).   He is the villain of this piece, but in life he played other, happier roles.   The single act of instituting the Nautical Almanac should make him a hero to mariners the world over, and his aggressive advocacy of the lunar distance method of calculating longitude was not unreasonable given the constancy of the heavens and the low cost of a set of lunar distance tables as compared to a chronometer.   Indeed his method was preferred by seamen for several decades, until reliable chronometers became more affordable.   He was awarded the Copley Medal 26 years after Harrison (for “curious and laborious Observations on the Attraction of Mountains” – an experiment to measure the density of the Earth) , and his lunar distance work almost certainly kept safe many ships and their crews throughout the late-18 th and early-19 th centuries.

For those who care about such things, we also have Maskelyne to thank for the primacy of the Greenwich Meridian.   Perhaps the irritation this caused the French is the Reverend’s most endearing achievement…