Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997)

Mason & Dixon

Biography of Jeremiah Dixon

From the Oxford University Press National Dictionary of Biography,
[Provided by Daniel O'Hara]

Name: Dixon, Jeremiah
Dates: 1733-1779
Active Date: 1773
Gender: Male

Field of Engineering, Construction, Naval
Interest: Architecture and Surveying, Science
and Mathematics, Space and Aviation
Occupation: Surveyor and astronomer
Place of Birth: Bishop Auckland, county Durham
Education: John Kipling's School in Barnard Castle
Death: Cockfield, county Durham
Spouse: Unmarried

Dixon, Jeremiah 1733-1779, surveyor and astronomer, was born in Bishop Auckland, county Durham, 27 July 1733, the fifth of the seven children of George Dixon, a well-to-do Quaker coalmine owner, and his wife Mary Hunter of Newcastle. He was educated at John Kipling's School in Barnard Castle, where he acquired an interest in mathematics and astronomy. While still a young man in south Durham, he made the acquaintance of the mathematician William Emerson, the instrument-maker John Bird, and the natural philosopher Thomas Wright [qq.v.].

In 1760 the Royal Society chose Charles Mason [q.v.] to go to Sumatra to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, and, probably on Bird's recommendation, Mason suggested Dixon should go as his assistant. An encounter with a French frigate delayed their final sailing so that they could not reach Sumatra in time. They therefore landed at the Cape of Good Hope, where the transit was successfully observed on 6 June 1761. On the passage home, they stopped at St Helena in October and, after discussion with Nevil Maskelyne [q.v.], who had observed the transit there, Dixon returned temporarily to the Cape with Maskelyne's clock to carry out gravity experiments.

Mason and Dixon eventually reached England early in 1762. In August 1763 Mason and Dixon signed an agreement with Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, seventh Baron Baltimore [qq.v.], hereditary proprietors of the provinces of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to go to North America to help local surveyors define the disputed boundary between the two provinces. Arriving in Philadelphia with their instruments in November, they began operations before Christmas 1763. When work for the proprietors on what was to become the famous Mason-Dixon line was complete late in 1766, they began on the Royal Society's behalf, at Dixon's suggestion, to measure a degree of the meridian on the Delmarva peninsula in Maryland and to make gravity measurements with a clock sent out by the Society, the same one that Maskelyne had had in St Helena and Dixon took to the Cape in 1761. They reported their task complete on 21 June 1768 and sailed for England on 11 September. Before leaving, they were both admitted as corresponding members of the American Society held in Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge.

In 1769 Dixon sailed to Norway with William Bayly [q.v.] in the Emerald to make observations of the transit of Venus on 3 June on the Royal Society's behalf. Dixon observed on Hammerfest Island, Bayly at North Cape, about sixty miles apart in case of cloudy weather. They reached England again on 30 July. Dixon returned to Durham, resuming his work as a surveyor. Among places he surveyed at this time were the park of Auckland Castle and Lanchester Common. He died unmarried in Cockfield, county Durham, 22 January 1779. He should not be confused with his contemporary, Jeremiah Dixon, FRS (1726-1782) of Gledhow, near Leeds, son-in-law of John Smeaton [q.v.].


H. W. Robinson, 'Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779)' a biographical note', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. xciv, June 1950, pp. 272-4; A. Hughlett Mason, 'The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon', Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. lxxvi, 1969; D. Howse, Nevil Maskelyne, the Seaman's Astronomer, 1989; C. C. Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. iii, 1970.


Derek Howse

© Oxford University Press Dictionary of National Biography


Mason & Dixon
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