Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, Joseph (1702-1764)

HARRIS, JOSEPH (1702–1764), assay master of the mint, eldest son of Howel and Susanna Harris of Trevecca in the parish of Talgarth in Breconshire, was born in 1702. He is said to have been originally a working blacksmith at his native place, but to have removed at an early age to London, where he soon made his mark as a writer on scientific subjects. He was the author of several papers relating to astronomy and magnetic observations in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ between 1728 and 1740. His other works appear to have been published anonymously, except that on ‘Optics,’ which appeared in 1775 after his death, and was intended to form part of an exhaustive treatise. His essay on money (1756) and coins is still valuable. MacCulloch calls it ‘one of the best works ever published on the subject.’ In ‘Murray's Magazine’ for May 1887 it is described as ‘a careful and singularly advanced essay, which proves him to have been a rigid monometallist, as it contains the expression of an opinion that only one metal can be money, a standard measure of property and commerce in any country.’ This essay is also specially referred to by Lord Liverpool in his celebrated letter to George III, dated 7 May 1805, upon the advantages of gold as the single measure of value. Harris probably held some subordinate post in the mint before his appointment as assay master in 1748. He died in the Tower of London on 26 Sept. 1764, and was buried there. On his monument in Talgarth Church it is said that ‘he invented many mathematical instruments,’ and that his political talents were well known to the ministers of the day, to whom he freely communicated many ‘wise and learned ideas.’ He married one of the daughters and heiresses of Thomas Jones of Tredustan. Harris was not, as has been said, warden of the mint or fellow of the Royal Society.

Harris's works are:

  1. ‘A Treatise on Navigation, containing the Theory of Navigation demonstrated, Nautical Problems, Astronomical Problems, Practical Navigation. To which is prefixed a treatise of Plane Trigonometry,’ London, 1730, 4to.
  2. ‘The Description and Uses of the Celestial and Terrestrial Globe and the Orrery,’ a revised edition of a work of John Harris's (1667–1719) [q. v.], 3rd ed. London, 1734; 7th, London, 1757–8; 9th, London, 1763; 10th, London, 1768, 8vo.
  3. ‘An Essay on Money and Coins,’ 2 pts., 1756, 8vo, 1758, 8vo.
  4. ‘A Treatise of Optics,’ containing elements of the science in two books, London, 1775.

Harris's second brother, Thomas Harris (1705–1782), settled in London as a tailor, obtained contracts for supplying the army with clothing, and amassed a considerable fortune, with which he retired to his native country and purchased the estates of Tregunter, Trevecca, &c. He was sheriff of Breconshire in 1768, and died 23 Sept. 1782, aged 77. Howel Harris [q. v.], the Welsh Calvinistic divine, was another brother.

[Williams's Eminent Welshmen; The Queen's Assay Master in Murray's Mag. for May 1887, by Professor C. Roberts-Austen; Jones's Hist. of Breconshire; Poole's Hist. of Breconshire; letter from Rector of Talgarth.]

R. J. J.