Captain Cook’s Computer: the life of William Wales, F.R.S. (1734-1798).
Wendy Wales has for many years been researching husband’s family from Yorkshire, and found a possible link to William Wales, astronomer on Cook’s Second Voyage around the world. That led to researching William, his family and his fascinating life. Such research never stops, so I’m grateful to Wendy for pausing and putting in a wonderful book of almost 500 pages what she has discovered so far. She has published the book herself in paperback form at such an incredibly low price that there is no reason to resist the temptation to buy a copy.
Wendy has used her research to raise William Wales from being a mere footnote in Cook’s story, to his rightful place as a person of great interest and effectiveness in the story of 18th century science and literature.
In the book Wendy puts William’s many activeties into perspective, rather than just telling us what happened. For example, he walked 180 miles from his Yorkshire village to London in his twenties, which always puzzled me. Wendy shows that was not such an unusual thing to happen, and describes the route he probably took based on one of the road maps then available.
Evidence of William’s first few years in London is scanty, but Wendy has found that from 1763 he was a contributor to the Ladies’ Diary, a scientific and mathematical periodical. In June 1765, he was employed by Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, to help calculate the tables for the new Nautical Almanac. Within three months William had married Mary Green, sister of Charles Green. Charles had been employed at Greenwich since 1760, as an assistant astronomer. Wendy explores the links between the Wales and Green families, and how they might have led to William getting the job with Maskelyne.
The Almanac needed tables of lunar distances for each three-hour period of Greenwich time. The tables were produced independently by two computers, the eighteenth century term for people who calculated tables. A third person compared their results for discrepancies, and resolved any found. William was one of four people appointed as computers. Israel Lyons was another computer. Israel was the person paid to lecture Joseph Banks on botany whilst Joseph was studying at Oxford University.
As William’s story moves along, Wendy guides us through the many people connected to Cook’s own story, starting with John Harrison (born near William’s home village), whose chronometer was tested in part by Charles Green, and its copy (by Larcum Kendal) was tested by William. In 1768, the Royal Society appointed several people as observers of the Transit of Venus due in 1769. Charles Green was one of the two appointed to go to the Pacific Ocean. William Wales was one of the pair to be sent to Hudson’s Bay, Canada. William Bayly (an assistant astronomer at Greenwich) was sent as an observer to North Cape, Norway.
William Bayly did not need to leave until April 1769. Charles Green sailed in Endeavour during August 1768. William Wales left in May 1768, aboard Prince Rupert. He arrived at Prince of Wales Fort, Hudson’s Bay, in August, and set about getting an observatory for his many instruments built before winter set in. The Hudson Bay Company’s men also had to build accommodation for the observers. William was observant in many ways, Wendy notes. “Birds were always evident in Wales’ journals [and] recorded with a passion”. The creatures that “were to become the bane of his life during his stay belonged to the insect world”. Apart from mosquitos, there were also sand flies, which “he described as intolerably troublesome, and on hot calm days attacked his face and eyes in their millions”. The arrival of winter was, perhaps, welcomed, although the cold must have been worse than anything he had ever experienced. The observations of the transit on 3 June, the following year went well, and Prince Regent arrived in August to take the observers home. They arrived in London in October.
Within a year, William had submitted his journal to the Royal Society, along with the transit observations, and a paper on meteorological observations. All were well received, and published. He continued to contribute to the Ladies’ Diary, and also to the Gentleman’s Magazine.
In 1771, the Board of Longitude appointed him as one of the people to teach the use of the Nautical Almanac to the masters of Navy ships. Following the return of Endeavour, William was involved in the review of the transit observations of Green (who had died during the voyage) and Cook. The following year William was appointed astronomer for Cook’s Second Voyage, sailing in Resolution. William Bayly was appointed astronomer in Adventure. One of their key roles was to use both the Nautical Almanac and some chronometers to calculate longitude, and to compare the different methods.
At this point in the book fans of Captain Cook may feel they are familiar with the story. Wendy puts William centre stage, bringing him out of the shadows that he is found in most other descriptions of this voyage, For example, at Madeira we learn interesting details of how the astronomical instruments were carefully taken ashore and fixed to a bookcase. At Santiago, Cape Verde, it was Cook who assisted William in measuring the length of the island, and not the other way round. As they ships sailed through the Antarctic Ocean, William’s experience in the icy conditions of Hudson’s Bay is apparent in his descriptions of the conditions they met amongst the icebergs.
I was amazed to read that it was William, and not James Cook, that named the Maskelyne islands in the New Hebrides group after the Astronomer Royal.
During the voyage William not only undertook his own duties, but also taught the officers the how to take observations. Wendy writes, “Cook remarked that Wales had tutored the officers to such a degree, that he couldn’t tell any difference between Wales’ observations and those of the officers”.
Back in London in 1775, William looked for a job. He applied for, and won against competition, the post of Master of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital, London. Apparently, at that time “the boys were the terror to the whole community”, so William must have had an interesting start to his new job. One of his pupils later described how “his teaching often demanded the laying of the lash”, but “he was patient and had a fund of humour, and a constant glee about him, which was enhanced by his north-country dialect”.
In 1776, William was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His application was signed by Cook, Maskelyne and Daniel Solander, amongst others. Soon after returning in Resolution, William Wales began work on preparing the astronomical observations for publication. William Bayly assisted until he sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage. The volume was published in 1777, and included one of William Hodges’s paintings of waterspouts in Cook’s Straits.
Also published that year were George Forster’s account of the Second Voyage and, six weeks later, the official account of the voyage, based on Cook’s journal. William was greatly upset by criticisms and slurs made by George, and wrote to him. Their correspondence led to William publishing in 1778 a pamphlet of some 86 Remarks on Mr Forster’s Account, and led to George replying the same year with his own pamphlet, a Reply to Mr. Wales’s Remarks.
Soon after his return to London in 1775, William Wales picked up his work his work as a computer for Maskelyne’s Nautical Almanac. He also continued reviewing the astronomical observations made by Charles Green in Endeavour., along with those of the earlier voyages of Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis and Captain Carteret. The results were published in a single work in 1788. Williams’s work as a computer stopped in 1793, when Maskelyne realised they had enough information for the next ten years. In 1795, William was appointed Secretary of the Board of Longitude, “a prestigious position which he was to hold until his death”.
William was very much a family man. He and his wife Mary had seven children: Sarah, William, Anne Hagley, Joshua, Mary Judith, John and James. The first was born in 1767, and the last in 1783.
One of his pupils was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who later wrote the poem the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wendy explains that some people have speculated this tale may have been based on William’s tales and teachings. She says it is more likely to be his huge library of books.
William Wales died in December 1798, and was buried at Christ’s Hospital. When the school moved to Horsham, Sussex, in 1902, the remains in all of the graves were moved to a mass grave in Ilford Cemetery, Essex. William’s collection of books, periodicals, instruments and maps was sold in March 1799, taking five days for the 1140 lots. The sale included “some Original Drawings by Hodges”.
The biography of about 400 pages is followed by almost a hundred pages of supporting information, including what happened to William’s family, three family trees, the instructions he was given before Cook’s Second Voyage, the instruments he took with him, a list of his publications, and geographical features named after him.
This book is an easy read. Wendy has an engaging style. Her enthusiasm for the subject oozes throughout the work.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 39, number 1 (2016).