Thursday, 28 March 2013

Jeremiah Dixon

Who's Jeremiah Dixon, I hear you ask!

Well if you've ever heard of the famous Mason-Dixon Line, or Mark Knopfler's song, Sailing to Philadelphia, then you've heard - albeit it unknowingly - about Jeremiah Dixon.

Jeremiah Dixon (July 27, 1733 – January 22, 1779) was a surveyor who is perhaps best known for his work with Charles Mason, from 1763 to 1767, in determining what was later called the Mason-Dixon Line.

Dixon was born in Cockfield, near Bishop Auckland, in 1733, the fifth of seven children, to George Dixon and Mary Hunter. His father was a wealthy Quaker coal mine owner; his mother was said to have been the "cleverest woman" that ever married into the Dixon family.  This intelligence certainly seemed to show itself in her children, especially Jeremiah.

Jeremiah became interested in astronomy and mathematics during his education at John Kipling's school at Barnard Castle. Early in life he made acquaintances with mathematician William Emerson, and astronomers John Bird and Thomas Wright.

Jeremiah served as assistant to Charles Mason in 1761 when the Royal Society selected Mason to observe the transit of Venus from Sumatra.   Their passage to Sumatra was delayed, and they landed instead at the Cape of Good Hope where the transit was observed on June 6, 1761. Dixon returned to the Cape once again with Nevil Maskelyne's clock to work on experiments with gravity.

Dixon and Mason signed an agreement in 1763 with the proprietors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, Thomas
Penn and Frederick Calvert, sixth Baron Baltimore, to assist with resolving a boundary dispute between the two provinces. They arrived in Philadelphia in November 1763 and began work towards the end of the year.

The survey was not complete until late 1766, following which they stayed on to measure a degree of Earth's meridian on the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland, on behalf of the Royal Society. They also made a number of gravity measurements with the same instrument that Dixon had used with Maskelyne in 1761. Before returning to England in 1768, they were both admitted to the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge, in Philadelphia.

Dixon sailed to Norway in 1769 with William Bayly to observe another transit of Venus. The two split up, with Dixon at Hammerfest Island and Bayly at North Cape, in order to minimize the possibility of inclement weather obstructing their measurements.

Following their return to England, Dixon resumed his work as a surveyor in Durham.  Evidence of his skill as a draughtsman can be seen in a plan of the park of Auckland Castle, completed in 1772 All Jeremiah's maps are beautifully decorated, and works of art in themselves. 

Jeremiah died unmarried in Cockfield, January 22, 1779.

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the commencement of the Mason-Dixon survey in 1763, the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle will host an exhibition of items such as model ships, surveying equipment and historic maps.  It will also feature a slave whip which Jeremiah kept as a trophy.   Jeremiah saw the owner thrashing a slave with the whip, took it from him, thrashed the owner with it and kept the whip. Artefacts from the native Americans who worked alongside Jeremiah will also be on show.

Jeremiah Dixon: Scientist, Surveyor and Stargazer  will run from Sat 27 Apr 13 - Sun 06 Oct 13.

Jeremiah Dixon also appears in Thomas Pynchon's 1997 novel Mason & Dixon.   The song Sailing to Philadelphia from Mark Knopfler's album of the same name, also refers to Mason and Dixon, and was inspired by Pynchon's book.

I love this song!

Here's the original version with Mark Knopfler and James Taylor

and here's a live version with Mark only

Enjoy :D

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