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Papers of Nevil Maskelyne, 1706 - 1843

Reference Code: GBR/0180/RGO 4

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises a large series of observations, calculations, computations and tables, with accounts, booklets, illustrations, journals of voyages, notes, treatises and other material. There is a large volume of correspondence, which reflects the varied nature of the Astronomer Royal's work, and includes correspondence with computers and comparers; letters from Gauss, Piazzi, Zach and Olbers, who contacted Maskelyne at the time of the discovery of the minor planets; and correspondence with Charles Mason about the 1769 transit of Venus. The subjects covered in the collection include marine chronometers and mathematical astronomy, the Schielhallion Experiment, Maskelyne's early life, and Charles Mason's calculation of the Moon's place. The papers are mainly in English, with other languages featuring intermittently.


  • Creation: 1706 - 1843


Conditions Governing Access

From the Management Group:

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811) was born in London on 6 October 1732, and educated at Westminster School. He entered Catherine Hall, Cambridge, in 1749, but migrated subsequently to Trinity College (B.A., 1754; M.A., 1757; D.D., 1777), where he became a Fellow in 1757. He was ordained curate of Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1755, and received the living of Shrawardine, Shropshire, 1775, and the rectory of North Runcton, Norfolk, 1782.

Maskelyne first developed an interest in astronomy and optics after viewing the solar eclipse of July 1748. During the 1750s, he made the acquaintance of James Bradley, the Astronomer Royal, and with his support he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1758. In 1761 he was sent by the Society to St Helena, where he failed in an attempt to observe the transit of Venus. He was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1765, in succession to Bradley, and oversaw the publication of the first 'Nautical Almanac' in 1766. As Astronomer Royal, Maskelyne was closely involved in the efforts to establish longitude by means of lunar distances and the use of marine chronometers, and during the 1760s and 1770s he supervised the testing of John Harrison's chronometers. In 1774 he planned and superintended the Schiehallion Experiment, which attempted to determine the earth's density by examining the gravitational attraction of a mountain in Perthshire. During his lifetime, he made over 90,000 observations, which were published in instalments between 1776 and 1811. He died at Greenwich Observatory on 9 February 1811.


52 archive box(es) (52 boxes) : paper

1 bundle(s) (1 bundle)

Language of Materials






Other Finding Aids

A number of items from RGO 4 have been digitised on the Cambridge Digital Library, where there are also more detailed catalogue descriptions. See:

A word-processed handlist is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The bulk of the papers became part of the Observatory's archives following the death of Nevil Maskelyne. RGO 4/150-229 were presented by Mrs Arnold Foster in 1911. RGO 4/320 originally belonged to N. Arnold Foster, and was transferred to the National Maritime Museum by Col. Quill, 23 March 1967, and to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, 12 August 1975. Items RGO 4/329-330 were acquired from Edwin Rose in 2019 having been purchased by him at auction.


This description was created by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The biographical history was compiled with reference to the entry on Nevil Maskelyne in Sidney Lee, ed., 'Dictionary of National Biography', Vol. XII (London, 1909), pp. 1299-1301.


Maskelyne, Nevil

Finding aid date

2005-11-04 13:49:00+00:00

Includes index.

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
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Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom