Joseph Harris (British astronomer)

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For other people of the same name, see Joseph Harris (disambiguation).
Joseph Harris
Born 1702
Trefeca, Talgarth, Brecknock, Wales, United Kingdom
Died 26 September 1764
London, United Kingdom
Residence Great Britain
Nationality British
Ethnicity Welsh
Occupation King's Assay Master at the Royal Mint

Joseph Harris (1702 – 1764) was a British blacksmith, astronomer, navigator, economist, natural philosopher, government adviser and King's Assay Master at the Royal Mint.

"Of Joseph Harris, the eldest, who married one of the daughters, and heiress, of Thomas Jones, of Tredustan, little has been recorded beyond the information derived from his monument in the church. His talents were highly respectable, and indeed pre-eminent. But though he wrote several astronomical treatises, which are highly thought of, and was esteemed by the learned and great of his day, no biographer has written his life: no anecdotes of him have been preserved; nor have his virtues or talents been recorded farther than as they appear in his works, which in general are anonymous. Indeed, that modesty, which is so amiable in him, seems to have descended to his posterity where he was born, for after all the enquiries I have made with respect of him, instead of learning any other particulars of his life, I have received only general encomiums and empty praise. I am much hurt that this self-taught philosopher, who was an honour to this county of Brecon, should pass almost unnoticed. The blame lies not with me, for it seems to have been destined, that his record should be only in heaven." Theophilus Jones, A History of the County of Brecknock (1805)

Early life[edit]

As far as biographies of Joseph Harris are concerned, things remained much the same now as they had been in 1805, when Theophilis Jones was writing. The Harris family history of three brothers, all highly successful in entirely unrelated avocations, has until now concentrated on the youngest of the three, Howell Harris, known as the Apostle of Wales. But now, three hundred years after his birth, attention may be paid to Joseph, the polymath eldest son of this extraordinary family. He was baptized on 16 February 1704[1] in the ancient church of Saint Gwendolen, Talgarth, on the slopes of the Black Mountains in the then Welsh county of Brecknockshire (now subsumed into the county of Powys), though his memorial plaque in the same church suggests that he was born up to two years earlier. He was the firstborn of Howell Howell, a joiner who arrived in about 1700 from Llangadog, Carmarthenshire, and Susanna Powell, a local woman with relatives in the village, and they lived in a small cluster of houses called Trefeca, (but then written Trevecka which sounds the same) about a mile south of Talgarth in the valley of the Breconshire River Llynfi, a tributary of the River Wye. The spirit of the age was to anglicise, especially in this area close to the border with England, and some time before the baptism of Joseph the family name changed to Harris; nonetheless, all family members were bilingual in Welsh and English. Four more children were born in the next few years, of whom Thomas (baptized June 1707) and Howell (baptized February 1714) survived beyond infancy to old age.[2]

For Joseph's life in Talgarth before he moved to London the authority is the occasionally unreliable work of Theophilus Jones's History, which found little to say, as the quotation above shows. But we do know that he had been apprenticed to his mother’s brother as a blacksmith, and that he met and fell in love with Anne Jones, from an eminent local family, whom he courted for at least 12 years and then married soon after he was appointed to the Royal Mint in 1736. From the fact that, despite the differences in their social position, Anne’s father, Thomas Jones II, High Sheriff of Brecknock, recommended that she treat Joseph’s attentions with respect, we may guess that his brilliance was well-known locally

In the last weeks of 1724 Joseph moved to London with introductions from Brecknock MP Roger Jones. Within a few days of Joseph's arrival in London he met the Governor of New England at Roger Jones's home, and Edmond Halley was showing him 'a quadrant worth at least £300', so it may not be far from the truth to guess that the introductions included one to the then Astronomer Royal. This letter is the first in a collection of more than 3300 documents made by Joseph's youngest brother, Howell, now available in digest form in Boyd Stanley Schlenther and Eryn Mant White's Calendar of the Trevecka Letters (2003).[3] The manuscripts themselves now lie in the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales,[4] Aberystwyth.

South Sea Company Expedition[edit]

Six months after his arrival in London, in late summer 1725, Joseph boarded a ship for the Gulf of Mexico. The South Sea Company traded there in slaves and goods under the Asiento agreement; the trade agreement allowed the Company to send one ship of a limited size each year to sell goods in the fairs of Vera Cruz and Portobelo, but the Company was stretching the agreement to send TWO ships, both loaded to the gunwales with goods. One ship would remain offshore while the other would sell its own cargo at the Fair, return to sea to be restocked by the first and again return to land to sell that second cargo. In 1725 the two ships were the Prince Frederick, under Captain Williams, and the Spotswood, under Captain Bradly;[5] Joseph writes[6] of going aboard a ship with £300,000 of goods and 250 men, but it isn’t yet clear which of the two ships he was in. The South Sea Company had no difficulty in selling its goods, which were much in demand for their quality; but the Spanish government, faced with policing vast territories with inadequate forces, was not so keen and, in protest, seized the Prince Frederick, detaining her in the Gulf for several years while a complex international dispute played out. During his time in Vera Cruz Joseph observed and described a partial eclipse of the sun and was unable, because of overcast skies, to observe a predicted eclipse of the moon. He established the latitude of Vera Cruz as 19° 12'N and its longitude as 97° 30'W to within 1° of its actual position (but the site of Vera Cruz has been changed more than once in its existence because of disease generated by surrounding swamps and forest); this was done decades before the development of Harrison's chronometer which facilitated the establishment of longitude by providing accurate timekeeping. These observations, sponsored by Halley, are recorded as "Astronomical Observation Made at Vera Cruz" in the Transactions of the Royal Society, but the astronomical dates in the Transaction need to be corrected for the calendar shift in September 1752. By our calendar now the eclipse of the Sun viewed in Vera Cruz occurred on 22 March 1727.[7]

Treatise of Navigation[edit]

By 11 April 1728[8] Joseph had returned to London, some years ahead of the Prince Frederick, and several of his subsequent letters speak of its continued detention, the death of Captain Williams in Vera Cruz and the political events around the negotiations. Joseph's months at sea (three in each direction for Vera Cruz) had not been wasted and early in 1730 he published at his own expense a Treatise of Navigation, full of advice to improve techniques of seamanship and offering two new models of nautical instrument; he deposited for copyright several copies of the treatise at the Stationers' Hall in the middle of February 1730.[9] The price was 12 shillings (60p.), and its subscribers are many, varied and of much interest still; they include five Fellows of the Royal Society (Halley among them), the Earl of Godolphin, Alexander Pope, Ann Knight (daughter of James Craggs, Postmaster General in the Government, who in March 1721 had taken a lethal overdose of laudanum the night before he was due to be questioned by a Parliamentary Inquiry into the South Sea Bubble), as well as many other Brecknock and London luminaries.

Just after the publication of the Treatise of Navigation another work appeared over Joseph's name: Description and Use of the Globes; and the Orrery. An instruction manual, it proved very popular and ran into many editions over the rest of the century. Oddly though, it is never mentioned by Joseph or his family in their correspondence, all references to 'my book' being apparently to the Treatise; and in the eighth edition in 1757 the name of Joseph Harris appears over a description of him as 'Teacher of the Mathematics' despite his having by this time been King's Assay Master for eight years and in the Royal Mint for twenty-one. Sadly for Joseph's fame, the book was in the Bibliotheca Britannica wrongly ascribed to an earlier writer, John Harris F.R.S., a mistake which is only now being corrected.

Late in 1730 he sailed westward again, this time to Jamaica. He went as an employee of the Hon. Colin Campbell, to carry out an experiment devised by George Graham and to supervise a cargo of astronomical instruments destined to establish an observatory there.[10] The instruments were eventually bequeathed to Glasgow University by the later purchaser, Alexander Macfarlane, and returned to Scotland between 1757 and 1760, where they formed the basis of the University's Macfarlane Observatory. Colin Campbell wrote that Joseph Harris was taken ill in Jamaica and returned home early as a result; but although Joseph suffered an initial bout of what he (and later in another context Mungo Park) called 'sever seasoning' (perhaps malaria), and said was unavoidable for all newcomers, he afterwards wrote an extensive letter home[11] describing the island and claiming full health; indeed he stayed until April 1732, longer than he had anticipated before he left London.[12] On his way home during the summer of 1732 he made two observations which were subsequently published in the Transactions of the Royal Society, this time sponsored by George Graham: "An Account of Some Mathematical Observations Made in the Months of May, June and July 1732; as also the Description of a Water-Spout".

Back in London in early July he looked again for work. At the beginning of September 1732 Joseph travelled to Cranbury in Hampshire to stay for a month at the home of John Conduitt MP. Conduitt had succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as Master of the Royal Mint and was married to Newton's half-niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt; Newton lived there for his last years until his death in 1727. Joseph's eventual appointment in January 1736 to a junior position at the Royal Mint may well have owed something to this visit.

In 1733 Joseph hoped to get an appointment to a Portsmouth mathematical school,[13] but commented sadly that other candidates were 'backed by great interests'; so in August of the same year he started to work at Gossfield Hall, Essex, for the family of Ann Knight, née Craggs, and John Knight MP; he was almost certainly tutoring James Newsome, her son by an earlier marriage, perhaps in navigation for a career in the Navy. There he certainly came to know well Walter Harte, and a year or so later was thanked by him,[14] for help with what Harte called his 'Pamphlet', by date likely to have been Harte's Essay on Reason. The Essay was written after the sudden and unexpected death of John Knight in October 1733 and contained an elegy to him. Ann Knight subsequently appointed Walter Harte Rector of Gossfield's St. Catherine's church. Shortly after this, Joseph used his friendship with Walter Harte in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to get his youngest brother Howell into Saint Mary Hall, Oxford, now part of Oriel College. In the event the only record of Howell's presence at Saint Mary Hall is the single day of his matriculation, 25 November 1735, and there is no sign that he ever slept or ate there, although his registration fees continued to be paid until 1738.


Throughout his years in London, Joseph loved Anne Jones (who moved with her family from Trefeca to nearby Tredustan just across the Llynfi river), but he doubted that it was reciprocated. But about 1730, just before he left for Jamaica, he began to suspect, perhaps from his mother Susanna, that maybe all was not lost, and early in 1733 wrote a passionate letter to Howell[15] about how his despairing love for her had made it impossible for him to settle down. A correspondence started, and when Joseph wasn't in Wales, Howell was the intermediary; we know from Joseph's letters that he enclosed missives and books for her in his letters home, but we don't know how often she replied. Howell kept almost every piece of paper that came to the Trefeca house, but no comparable collection by Joseph of letters he received has come down to us. At that time a woman's reputation had to be protected at all costs as her future marriageability depended on it; Joseph was aware of this and secured Anne from gossip. He wanted to marry her, but knew that he could not until he was financially secure; shortly after Joseph took up his appointment at the Mint, Anne Jones and he were married on 31 October 1736 at Saint Benet's Church, Paul's Wharf near Saint Paul's Cathedral.[16] There is no mention of the ceremony in any correspondence! They had no fewer than five children, of whom only one, Anna Maria, survived.

Appointment to the Royal Mint[edit]

By early 1736 Joseph knew that he had been appointed to the Royal Mint, as assistant to Hopton Haynes, Master's Assay Master. He and his younger brother Thomas, a tailor, had been living together, but now wrote that Joseph was to move into the Mint on Lady Day (25 March).[17] The appointment was confirmed by Treasury warrant on 6 April 1737.

Joseph occupied a house at the Royal Mint in the Tower of London until his death in 1764, though he did have a second home in the country in the Grove Street area of Hackney. Howell mentions it in diary entries from June 1746 to September 1749, and there are Poor Rate levies on Joseph there to 1752.[18] From early 1760 he spent a lot of time at a country house he rented in Lewisham, called Place House.[19]

Despite his position at the Mint, Joseph retained his interest in navigation, and in the Transactions of the Royal Society 1739-41 41 an article by him was published, entitled "An Account of an Improvement on the Terrestrial Globe". As an indication, perhaps, of the increasing respect the Royal Society accorded him, he was entitled 'Gentleman' and needed no intermediary.

In 1745 two English privateers captured two of three French ships returning from the Gulf of Mexico with treasure from Lima. The haul, valued by some as £800,000 (approximately £120,000,000 nowadays), was taken to the Mint to be melted down and the coins stamped with the word LIMA. In Joseph's letters home at this time he talks of working under enormous pressure all hours around the clock.[20]

In 1749 Joseph was promoted to the senior position of the King's Assay Master, with a specific requirement that he set up a training structure to ensure an orderly succession for the future. Such structure as there was involved two parallel hierarchies: the senior branch was the King's Assayers, and the junior branch the Master's Assayers, each originally keeping an eye, one assumes, on the work of the other. Joseph arranged that, starting at the lowest position in the ranks of the Master's assayers, the next promotion would be to the same position in the King's assayers, then back to the Master's assayers until eventual arrival at the top as the King's Assay Master. This orderly system laid a stable foundation for decades to come for the increasing influence and importance of the Mint.

Founding of Brecknockshire Agricultural Society[edit]

"At a Ploughing Match near Trevecka in 1754, Howell Harris and some other people from the locality discussed the formation of a Brecknockshire Agricultural Society. There was at that time a County Club for Gentlemen in existence at Brecon and in March 1755 this became the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society. Howell Harris was not one of the original members of the Society. Howell and his brother Joseph Harris, were made Honorary Members in 1756 'in recognition of the offer of soldiers and contribution to their funds'" John Davies "Howell Harris and the Trevecka Settlement'.[21] It is likely that a January 1756 'Report of the Agricultural Society to prepare a scheme to develop a market in the county for woollen yarns' was written for them by Joseph. This agricultural society was the second established in the country.[22]

On 2 April 1757 Joseph wrote, after another period of serious illness, to his brother that 'His Majesty hath been graciously pleased to grant me for life an additional allowance of £300 a year and I am to have a deputy[23] to assist me in the office. I expect my Patent next week.'[24]

Essay Upon Money and Coins[edit]

It may be that Joseph's thoughts about the metal content of coin were tempered by the experience of the large influxes of precious metal in 1745, the increasing evidence of the destruction of the Spanish economy by the addition of large quantities of precious metal from the New World, the ruination of the French economy by Scotsman John Law and, again in Britain, the increasing use of copper in small value coins and trade tokens, but in 1757 and 1758 he published a two-part Essay Upon Money and Coins, in which he emphasized the importance of maintaining a silver standard and anticipated in some measure Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. The essays grew from Joseph's earlier briefing notes to Henry Pelham, first Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer,[25] to whom Joseph refers anonymously in the text only as 'the great and good man'. It seems that a policy had been developed to expedite the weighing of silver coin as a remedy against counterfeiting, and they were waiting for peace to return before it was introduced. But first Pelham died unexpectedly (1754)and then Joseph (1764); Joseph did not get round to writing up the policy. Luckily his assistant Stanesby Alchorne (later himself to be King's Assay-master) wrote it up in manuscript form and it clearly completes the first two published Parts. There are more details about this Part III below in the section on Joseph's death.

Concern with Weights and Measures[edit]

Increasingly seen as a safe pair of hands, in 1758 he produced a Report of the Parliamentary Committee appointed to enquire into the original Standards of Weights and Measures. This remained a pre-occupation for the rest of his life, and on 6 April 1763, Jérôme Lalande (then Professor of Astronomy at the Collège Royale and eventually director of the Paris Observatory), on a journey round London and the home counties and having persuaded friends to arrange a meeting with Joseph at the Tower of London, wrote that 'he promised me a standard weight as soon as there was one from the workbench'. The standard weights made by him (or to his order) can be seen now in the Science Museum, London.

Observation of the 1761 Transit of Venus[edit]

In 1760, after yet another long bout of ill health, he decided to make his own observations of 6 June 1761 Transit of Venus across the Sun, and to make them from the village of his birth, Trefeca, where his brother Howell was building up a 'Teulu' or 'Family', a religious commune of artisans. Sending down equipment ahead of his own arrival, Joseph used his telescope first to create a meridian line in the 'Teulu' building (now the Methodist Coleg Trefeca). This denoted the exact time of midday there (an adjunct of longitude), and became for a while the arbiter of time for the area as neighbours dropped in to set their watches at midday. Having created the meridian line, he observed the departure of Venus across the sun's edge (Venus being already part of the way across the face of the sun at sunrise at Trefeca). This work was written up and towards the end of November 1761 he arranged to send the account to Lord Macclesfield, then President of the Royal Society.[26] It maybe wasn't sent to, or was mislaid by, Lord Macclesfield, and the first publication of Joseph's "Account of the Transit of Venus over the Sun 6th June 1761" was in January 2010, when a transcript of it and other contemporary letters and diary entries appeared in the journal Brycheiniog.[27] Coleg Trefeca still displays a Newtonian telescope which Joseph is said to have made himself and to have used for the observations. The meridian line was never of interest to Howell, (who dismissed Joseph's learning as mere 'head knowledge') and, forgotten, it was later destroyed in new building works.

Surprisingly, in 1762 Joseph appears, perhaps at the request of Lord Shelburne, then President of the Board of Trade, to have joined, and perhaps acted as Membership Secretary of, the newly founded Boodle's Club. Other members on the same page of his records include Adam Smith, David Hume and other members of the Scottish Enlightenment. Joseph's work for Boodle's Club ceased suddenly at about the same time as the death of his wife, Anne.


In Spring 1763 Joseph's wife Anne died unexpectedly; she was buried on 25 April. Joseph was bereft but, as always, patiently resigned to what he saw as God's will, though he and his daughter, Anna-Maria, travelled extensively afterwards, perhaps to expunge sad memories. A year and a half later, on 26 September 1764, he too died unexpectedly after a short illness and was buried on 5 October. In the three months immediately after his death, his assistant, Stanesby Alchorne, wrote a Part III to the Essay Upon Money and Coins and had it bound with printed copies of Parts I and II, '...proposing some regulations, for remedying the present bad state of our Coin, and for obviating all cause of complaint about our Money for the future'. Stanesby Alchorne attributed his familiarity with Joseph's thoughts to 'having had frequent opportunities, during seven years close intimacy with Mr Harris, of perusing the original manuscript, and hearing the several parts repeatedly explained and enlarged upon'.[28] This manuscript has come to light only during the year 2012 and has not so far been published; as soon as it is, a reference will be placed on this Wikipedia article.

A Treatise of Optics[edit]

In his Tower of London home he left behind a number of experiments set up to establish the nature of light and of optics. Eleven years later friends published a volume based on as many of the experiments as they could. The volume, published over his name in 1775, was A Treatise of Optics, but unfortunately the compilers declared themselves to have been unable to reconstruct more than a small proportion of them.

His surviving daughter Anna-Maria remained in the Tower of London house for some time after his death, and was probably responsible for arranging the sale of her father's library on 11 February 1765. It was either she or her uncle, Thomas Harris (disapproving father-in-law of actress and writer Mary Robinson) who placed the elegant memorial plaque to Joseph in Saint Gwendolen's church, Talgarth, Powys. Eventually she moved back to Brecon and, with the money from her parents and a large, unexpected inheritance from her uncle Thomas, Joseph's younger brother, started a wealthy and respected line of descendants in Brecknockshire.


  1. ^ all year dates in this piece have been altered to conform with the 1752 calendar change by which the quarter from the beginning of January to the end of March was assimilated into the same year as the following April to December. But unless specifically stated, the old style dates of the day and the month have been retained
  2. ^ baptismal records Saint Gwendolen Church
  3. ^ henceforward referred to in footnotes as S & W
  4. ^ henceforward referred to in footnotes as LGC/NLW
  5. ^ The Craftsman vol.2 with thanks to Jim Chevallier for this reference; also for Historia da civilizacao moderna e contemporanea issue 1 (1946) "Em 1725, o navio Prince Frederick foi acompanhado ate as indias Ocidentais pelo barco Spotswood, cujas 300 tonelados de mercadorias lhe foram transferidos"
  6. ^ S & W letter no.3
  7. ^ personal communication from Dr. Peter Duffett-Smith, Reader in Experimental Radio Physics at Cambridge University and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, to whom I owe much gratitude
  8. ^ S & W letter no.4
  9. ^ Stationers' Hall entry 7 February 1729; with grateful thanks to John P.Chalmers
  10. ^ D.J. Bryden "The Jamaican Observatories of Colin Campbell FRS and Alexander MacFarlane FRS" Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London Vo.24, No.2 (Apr. 1970)
  11. ^ S & W letter no.21
  12. ^ S & W letter no.18
  13. ^ the New Royal [Naval] Academy, Portsmouth, was founded in this year and one must wonder if it is to this institution that he refers
  14. ^ S & W letter no.49
  15. ^ S & W letter no. 27
  16. ^ London Metropolitan Archives, with grateful thanks to Wendy Hawke
  17. ^ S & W letter no.62
  18. ^ L.B. Hackney Archives
  19. ^ personal communication L.B. Lewisham Archives
  20. ^ S & W letter no.1363
  21. ^ Brycheiniog vol IX (1963)
  22. ^ Brycheiniog vols II (1956) and III (1957) Henry Edmunds "History of the Brecknockshire Agricultural Society 1755-1955"
  23. ^ Stanesby Alchorne, himself duly King's Assay Master 1789-98
  24. ^ S & W letter no.2200
  25. ^ Stanesby Alchorne Preface to m/s Part III Essay Upon Money and Coins (1764),
  26. ^ NLW Ms.17529(c)
  27. ^ vol XLI, p 51
  28. ^ discussion of Stanesby Alchorne's Preface to Part III can be found in The British Numismatic Journal 1992 (vol.62, 1963, p.196) by Marvin Lessen