Book Review – ‘Captain Cook’s Computer: The life of William Wales FRS (1734–1798)’ by Janet MacDonald
In the eighteenth century, computers were not electronic boxes but people who performed calculations to create tables which assisted astronomers, surveyors, and navigators in their work. William Wales was one such, and this books focuses on his life.
The book falls into three sections, the first starting with Wales’s early life. He was born in rural Yorkshire in 1734, but it seems little is known of his education, or indeed other events in his life until he was employed in 1765 to help with the computations for Maskelyne’s new Nautical Almanac. In that same year Wales married Mary Green, whose brother Charles also worked with Wales, and together they co-authored several works. One of these, the Miscellanea Scientifica Curiosa, incurred the wrath of the tetchy mathematician Reuben Barrows, whose comments on this book are a masterpiece of invective (p. 43). Shortly after this, Maskelyne was appointed Astronomer Royal and engaged Wales and three others to calculate and check a new nautical ephemeris for finding longitude at sea.
The second section of the book deals with Wales’s voyages, and the third covers Wales’s life after these voyages. Back in London in the summer of 1775, he had to find employment to feed his growing family, and was fortunate to be appointed as Master of the Royal Mathematical School, where, as well as his salary, he had a house close to the school premises. He taught navigation and astronomy as well as mathematics, and many of his pupils were taken to sea on his recommendation: one on Cook’s third voyage and another on George Vancouver’s on his voyage to the north-west of America …