Nevil was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University. A condition of becoming a Fellow of Trinity College was that candidates had to take Holy Orders. Nevil was ordained as Curate at Chipping Barnet in Hertfordshire. His ambition was to become an astronomer after seeing an eclipse of the Sun in 1748. All of his academic and social endeavours were to that end. One of his friends was James Bradley, the Astronomer Royal who sponsored his election to the Royal Society.
The Society sent Nevil to St. Helena to be part of a worldwide observation of the transit of Venus in 1761. It was during this expedition that Maskelyne met and became friends with, Charles Mason, a mathematician and astronomer from Tetbury who later with Jeremiah Dixon surveyed the Mason-Dixon boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Nevil took the opportunity of the sea voyage to develop his ideas about using astronomy as an aid to navigation.
On his return he set about his duties at Chipping Barnet whilst making regular attendances at the Royal Society meetings and the Member’s dinners at the Mitre dining club. He continued his studies in navigation culminating in the publication of his British Mariner’s Guide, giving instructions for using astronomical tables by Tobias Meyer to find longitude. His book was first published in 1763 and quickly became an invaluable aid for navigators.
One of the preoccupations of the time was to find an easy and reliable method of finding the longitude position of ships at sea. For Britain as an international trading nation this was of paramount importance. So much so that Queen Anne’s government had set up a Board of Longitude and offered a prize of £20,000 [about £2½ million today] for a successful solution. There were many contenders for the award but only two practical methods emerged. Either, by using astronomical observations, or by carrying a timepiece set to the time at the port of origin and comparing it with local time.