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Dixon, Jeremiah (1733–1779), surveyor and astronomer, was born in Bishop Auckland, co. Durham, on 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. The Quaker minute book of Raby, co. Durham, has the following entry under 28 October 1760: ‘Jery Dixon, son of George and Mary of Cockfield, disowned for drinking to excess’. This weakness was apparently inherited from his father, but there is no evidence that it affected his career.

In 1760 the Royal Society chose Charles Mason 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, 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, the hereditary proprietors of the provinces of Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively, to go to North America to help local surveyors define the disputed boundary between the two provinces. After 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 for Promoting Useful Knowledge.

On 13 April 1769 Dixon sailed to Norway with William Bayly in HMS 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 Nordkapp, about 60 miles apart. However, Dixon's observation of the transit was frustrated by cloud. They reached England again on 30 July.

Dixon returned to Durham and resumed 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, near Staindrop, co. Durham, on 22 January 1779. He should not be confused with a contemporary, Jeremiah Dixon FRS (1726–1782), of Gledhow, near Leeds, the son-in-law of John Smeaton.

Derek Howse

Sources  

H. W. Robinson, ‘Jeremiah Dixon (1733–1779)—a biographical note’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 (1950), 272–4 · T. D. Cope and H. W. Robinson, ‘Charles Mason, Jeremiah Dixon and the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 9 (1951–2), 55–78 · The journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon … 1763–1768, ed. A. H. Mason (1969) · C. Mason and J. Dixon, ‘Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope’, PTRS, 52 (1761–2), 378–94 · C. Mason and J. Dixon, ‘Observations for determining the length of a degree of latitude in the provinces of Maryland and Pennsylvania’, PTRS, 58 (1768), 274–328 · C. Mason and J. Dixon, ‘Astronomical observations, made in the forks of the River Brandiwine’, PTRS, 58 (1768), 329–35 · J. Dixon, ‘Observations made on the island of Hammerfost [sic]’, PTRS, 59 (1769), 253–61 · council minutes, 1768, RS