Nevil Maskelyne, the Cambridge-trained mathematician and later Astronomer Royal, was appointed by the Royal Society to observe the 1761 transit of Venus from the Atlantic island of St Helena, assisted by the mathematical practitioner Robert Waddington. Both had experience of measurement and computation within astronomy and they decided to put their outward and return voyages to a further use by trying out the method of finding longitude at sea by lunar distances. The manuscript and printed records they generated in this activity are complemented by the traditional logs and journals kept by the ships’ officers. Together these records show how the mathematicians came to engage with the navigational practices that were already part of shipboard routine and how their experience affected the development of the methods that Maskelyne and Waddington would separately promote on their return. The expedition to St Helena, in particular the part played by Maskelyne, has long been regarded as pivotal to the introduction of the lunar method to British seamen and to the establishment of the Nautical Almanac. This study enriches our understanding of the episode by pointing to the significant role played by the established navigational competence among officers of the East India Company.
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