It had been a busy day of meetings for me. Each time that I returned to my office, I noticed the same number as a missed call on my telephone. Although I tried calling back, I didn’t realize the person who was so eager to speak to me was in England. Around 10:00 in the evening (his time), Jonathan Peacock of Durham County, in the northeast of England, finally reached me by phone. And did he have an interesting tale to tell.
In his retirement Jonathan Peacock has been researching Jeremiah Dixon, who was born in Cockfield, County Durham in 1733. In 1760 Dixon was commissioned by the Royal Society to go with Charles Mason (then working as a junior assistant at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich), to Bencoolen in Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus on 6 June 1761. Due to contrary winds and a sea battle with the French Navy, their departure was so delayed that they ran out of time and only got as far as Cape Town, South Africa. There they built an observatory and made a very successful set of observations. Afterwards they went back to St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa, where Nevil Maskelyne (later to be 5th Astronomer Royal) had come to make his observations (unsuccessfully due to the weather) on the East Indiaman Mercury (sometimes known as Mercury Snow). Dixon was then sent back to Cape Town with Maskelyne’s clock (made by John Shelton) to check the force of gravity; Mason stayed in St. Helena assisting Maskelyne. They then both returned to England in January 1762, hitching a lift on a passing convoy of East Indiamen. Mason was on the Prince Edward, and Dixon was on the Falmouth.
The transit of Venus refers to the alignment of Earth, Venus, and the sun, such that the orbit of Venus across the sun is visible from Earth. In general, predicting transits of Venus had been complicated, although a pattern related to the months of December and June was finally established for 8, 121, 8, and 105 years before starting over. Astronomers such as Charles Mason (1728-1786) sought to witness and record the timings of this astronomical rarity, because the data allowed them to calculate with greater accuracy the distance between Venus and Earth. As a consequence, astronomers would take that calculation to ascertain the distance between Earth and the sun, as well as the distances from the sun to the other planets.
Jonathan Peacock was calling me because he realized that Ms. Codex 208, held by the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, was undoubtedly the journal kept by Charles Mason on his altered excursion to Sumatra . Mason had been asked to keep a logbook by the Royal Society because of its extreme interest in navigation and accuracy. In the middle of the eighteenth century a ship’s latitude was comparatively easy to determine from the height of the sun at noon. A person didn’t even need to know accurately when 12:00 noon was; he could go on measuring until the sun was at its peak height, which told him when noon was anyway. The problem, however, was longitude. In the Scilly disaster of 1707 four British ships with more than 1,400 sailors were lost in stormy weather; it was later determined that the main cause for the calamity was the navigators’ inability to calculate accurately their locations. The Royal Society looked to the moon, hoping that reliable assessments could be determined by the lunar position. Although the Society was, in fact, producing lunar tables, in 1761/2 they had not yet been published . To build background information, the Royal Society asked Mason to keep his own record, so its members could see how accurate the ship’s master was in his navigation.
-Mason’s log entries describing reaching the Scilly Islands and calculating their position at the end of his return journey in April 1762.
This fascinating piece of history now clarifies not only the purpose behind Penn’s anonymous logbook but also its author. It is definitely written by Charles Mason; in fact, it contains his autograph on folio 87v. It is clearly in his hand, as compared with various pages of his journal made in 1763-8 while surveying in America, (the original is in the National Archives). It is also stylistically similar, for example, in the use of the “astronomical characters” to indicate the days of the week. Finally, he was the only person to travel on that sequence of three ships.
In the year following Charles Mason’s trip to capture the transit of Venus, he and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned to settle a border dispute among British colonies in North America. Their four-year effort resulted in a line of demarcation that formed part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia (now West Virginia). The demarcation is known as the Mason–Dixon Line. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a complete digital facsimile, with multiple magnifications, has been made for Charles Mason’s logbook, Ms. Codex 208. It can be viewed at Penn in Hand. Readers everywhere can now study Mason’s notes and calculations. As a start, my colleague Mitch Fraas will be posting shortly about using the logbook to map Mason’s voyages based on the entries for those days during which Mason calculated both longitude and latitude on board ship, a preview of which is shown below.
The journal had been cataloged in the 1960s as a logbook of an unknown scientist but the entry had also noted that it was formerly owned by Charles Mason without putting the two together. This information led Mr. Peacock to contact the library for more information. How the volume arrived at Penn is unknown. The earliest record of it being present in the library comes from May 1914. There is some possibility it came to Penn thanks to the fact that upon Mason’s death in Philadelphia in 1786 he left many of his books and papers to Rev. John Ewing, an early provost at Penn. See Cope and Ewing, “The Astronomical Manuscripts Which Charles Mason Gave to Provost the Reverend John Ewing during October 1786,” Proceedings of the APS 96.4 (1952), 417-423. -Editor
The lunar tables weren’t published until 1767. See letter from Maskelyne dated 24 February 1767: “Messrs. Mason and Dixon, Herewith I send you, agreeable to your desire, the nautical almanac of 1767: also a table for facilitating the computation of the moon’s distance from the sun…” Letter bound into NARA RG59 (302029) Journal of Charles Mason, Kept During the Survey of the Mason and Dixon Line, 1763-1768.