The story of the 18th-century contest (sponsored by the British government) to find a solution to the problem of how to determine longitude at sea has received much attention, mostly due to Dava Sobel's best-selling book
But Pat Rogers argues in the Times Literary Supplement
that Sobel (and just about every other historian who has written about the subject) has fallen for a hoax. Specifically, all of these historians have described one Jeremy Thacker as an inventor who, early in the contest, almost found the solution to longitude. But Rogers argues that Thacker didn't exist. He was merely a literary joke, probably created by John Arbuthnot.
The evidence for this thesis: 1) Thacker's pamphlet, Longitudes Examin'd
, is the only evidence of his existence. He doesn't pop up anywhere else in the historical record. 2) The pamphlet is written in an "absurdly grandiose style." 3) "His unblushing admission that he only cares about the £20,000, with no figleaf claims of benefit to mankind, is equally untypical."
Rogers connects Thacker to Arbuthnot because the pamphlet was later included in a collection of The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Dr. Arbuthnot.
I haven't read any counter-arguments to Rogers' thesis, so I'll leave this as undetermined.