The most obvious is the shuttle’s name, which links it to two historic ships: one under the command of Henry Hudson in search of the Northwest passage in 1610-11, the other commanded by Captain James Cook on his third circumnavigation (1776-9).
An even closer link, however, is that the shuttle is carrying a commemorative medal of Cook from the collections of the National Maritime Museum. The medal was produced in 1784 by the Royal Society in commemoration of Cook, who had been killed five years earlier in Hawaii during the third voyage. The Latin inscription around Cook’s head translates as, ‘The most intrepid explorer of the seas’, summing up the high esteem in which Cook was held by this time.
Cook, of course, had a long association with the Board of Longitude and with the improvement of navigation, in particular since he did so much to test both the lunar distance method and timekeeper methods of determining longitude. The Board of Longitude also had a direct involvement in both the second and third voyages, to which they lent equipment and issued Cook and the voyages’ astronomers with specific instructions concerning the observations and tests they were to carry out. The voyages were critical in demonstrating that both methods of finding longitude could be carried out successfully over the longest distances imaginable – although not nearly as far as the latest Discovery will have travelled by the time it returns to earth. That said, the shuttle will do it much quicker – it’s currently circling the earth every 91 minutes and the whole mission will only last a couple of weeks.
We wish all aboard the Discovery a safe journey – and look forward to having our medal back!
As Katy mentioned in her great response to a performance of The Rake’s Progress, ‘curiosities’ were all the rage in Georgian Britain. Although contemporary satirists such as Hogarth poked fun at the more posturing, ill-educated, overzealous or fraudulent of collectors and exhibitors of curiosities, this had far more to do with those individuals’ negative characteristics that with the objects themselves.
Today we tend to refer to something as ‘curious’ or as a ‘curiosity’ when we mean that it is unusual in a circumscribed and potentially unsettling or negative manner – but these terms had other connotations during the eighteenth century. The Georgians associated them more with what we might call intellectual and scientific curiosity, or a general curiosity about the world. They were intended to be interesting and often wondrous reflections of the manifestations and potential of Nature, Man and their Creator. As we shall see, they also encompassed what we would now call scientific instruments, and timekeepers including those of John Harrison!
Curiosities and curious things were not just inanimate objects – such as a tropical shell, a mounted pufferfish or a piece of artwork carved by distant natives – which could be admired from a visual standpoint. Many purported to produce mechanical motion or to expose hitherto unseeable aspects of natural phenomena, in which case these sights were of equal or greater importance than the instruments that provided them. Mechanical automata were highly popular with the public, as they had been for centuries and would continue to be into the modern era – for example, the ‘Monster Robot’ below, which was exhibited by Mullard Ltd in 1932!
Some of the sellers and makers of instruments and timekeepers specifically treated elements of their stock as ‘curiosities’. For example, the respected optician John Yarwell (active 1671 – died 1713) near St Paul’s Churchyard, whose trade card from 1683 you can see below, referred to some of his stock as ‘optical curiosities’ and touted microscopes for observing natural ‘curiosities’ including the circulation of the blood in fish and ‘animalcula’ in pepper water. Similar terminology and advertising strategies were employed by other instrument makers and sellers during the eighteenth century, including Yarwell’s former apprentice George Willdey (freed from apprenticeship in 1702 – died 1737).
Willdey was one of the longest-serving Masters of the Spectaclemakers’ Company, which oversaw the production and sale of optical instruments as well as eyeglasses, and he diversified his retail and wholesale business to include many other fashionable wares as well. In 1720, the optician advertised in the newspapers that his shop near St Paul’s was a ‘Grand Magazine of Curiosities’ and offered to pay sailors for procuring more. His surviving shop accounts, advertisements and trade cards show that he viewed the large numbers of instruments that he sold and bartered at the retail and wholesale levels each year as natural companions to these other fashionable wares.
The concluding passage of Willdey’s lengthy advertisement of 1720 reflects how often instruments, timekeepers and other mechanisms were also included amongst the ‘curiosities’ displayed to a paying audience during the Georgian era – often alongside natural wonders, antiquities, and sensations such as the fabricated remains of mythical beasts. The optician and luxury retailer announced that, ‘I have now finished the best Burning Glass in the World, and plac’d it upon the Top of my House’. He then employed about 150 of the most glowing words to describe the purported abilities of the glass to melt all manner of materials including metals and to heat baths and prepare foods in the home, before offering to show it to anyone who had spent five or more shillings at his shop. He concluded with a swipe at a competing burning glass by noting that, ‘This far exceeds that show’d in the Privy Garden in White Hall, though each Person paid Half a Crown for the Sight of that.’
As with Willdey’s erection of a giant burning glass atop his house, showmanship was often closely allied with the widespread interest in the natural world and mechanical possibilities in Georgian Britain. We can see this in the public lecturing of this time at venues from private homes to coffeehouses and theatres, in the commercial and advertising strategies of craftsmen and retailers such as Willdey and even John Harrison, and in the ways in which the learned and literate went to view curiosities and collections or acquired and shared their own. The mechanisms and natural philosophical exhibitions included in many public showings of curiosities and employed in commercially motivated ‘stunts’, were not as far removed from the experiments exhibited and the technology employed and examined at institutions such as the Royal Society as we might expect.
A colourful satire of instruments-as-curiosities, and one which references the search for the longitude at sea, was the show put on by the popular stage actor Edward Shuter during
the Bartholomew Fair of 1760. (The actor can be seen in the Zoffany portrait below of two years later, in which he is playing Justice Woodcock from the popular ballad opera Love in a Village.) Shuter portrayed a ‘Magical Optician’ with a warehouse in West Smithfield, ‘where will be seen the most uncommon Variety of the greatest Curiosities that were ever exhibited to public View [including] MOMUS, an Astronomer’. Momus would purportedly show the crowd his ‘new reflecting Telescope, improved upon the Newtonian Plan, for the Discovery of lost Maidenheads, and the Longitude ; which will put an End to all the Perplexities of the profoundest Mathematicians ; and this Pro Bono Publico, without any Expectation of a Parliamentary Reward for the Automata and Ephemerides.’
It was not only such purportedly ‘new’ optical instruments and automata that were advertised by paying exhibitions of curiosities during the eighteenth century, but also timekeeping mechanisms. This was true in larger public venues but also at the more private showings of ‘curiosities’ that were not uncommon at the homes of collectors and natural philosophers, and at the homes or workshops of some craftsmen including John Harrison. From H1 in the 1730s onwards, Harrison was not averse to having his inventions displayed to the more literate and influential members of the domestic and foreign public and to other craftsmen, first at the shop of George Graham and then at his own home. (Of course, he often denied fellow clockmakers and foreign representatives a view of the timekeepers’ innards, so that they could not steal his innovations!)
We thus have records of the opinions of diverse visitors to Harrison’s chronometers, from intellectuals and politicians to artists. This includes our friend William Hogarth, who described H3 as ‘one of the most exquisite movements ever made’, although not as outwardly beautiful as would be a system created by Nature rather than Man. The clockmaker may have sometimes made financial as well as social and intellectual gains from these visits since it was common for craftsmen, inventors and collectors to charge for the right to view their more interesting wares or acquisitions – and Benjamin Franklin is known to have paid 10 shillings and six pence ‘to see his Longitude Clock’ in 1757.
As we can see with Harrison’s inventions and with Yarwell’s descriptions of microscopic views of blood and microorganisms, the Georgian terms ‘curious’ and ‘curiosity’ could be applied to almost anything that exhibited qualities such as newness, innovation, ingenuity or exoticness. In fact, when the first known group meeting of the Commissioners of Longitude took place in 1737, the London Evening Post reported it as a meeting of ‘Persons of Distinction’ who viewed and ‘express’d the greatest Satisfaction’ at ‘a curious Instrument for finding out the Longitude, made by Mr. Harrison of Leather-lane, which he has been six Years in finishing.’
As is true for so many relevant terms that were frequently employed during the eighteenth century — such as curiosity, perfection, discovery and even board — we will have to keep in mind the different shades of meaning that have fallen out of use today. The terms ‘curious’ and ‘curiosity’ might lead us to dismiss an object or method and its maker or collector as a lightweight if amusing historical footnote – but Georgian curiosities encompassed far more than just bearded ladies like Baba the Turk and narwhale tusks that were dressed up as unicorn horns.
A short film documenting the dismantling of John Harrison‘s third marine timekeeper H3. It has been removed from display for cleaning and research for a new chronometer catalogue. It will be back on display in April 2011.
On Friday last week, Alexi, Sophie and I went out for the evening to see a production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress by the Cambridge University Opera Society. We had a very enjoyable evening, with some wonderful singing by the students involved. As none of us are musical specialists, however, that is as much as I will say on that score here.
However, Richard discussed in his very first post for this blog, how our project logo is based upon a plate from Hogarth‘s engraved series A Rake’s Progress, on which Stravinsky’s opera is based. As the resident ‘iconographer’ on the project, Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is of great interest to me, due to the ‘longitude lunatic’ in the final plate set in Bedlam (the insane asylum Bethlehem Hospital). I will blog in the future about the specific iconography of ‘the longitude lunatic,’ what I think this tells us about Hogarth’s attitude to the longitude process in general, and in turn how this informed his overall presentation of eighteenth-century society.
What interested me in Stravinsky’s opera and the libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, was the way in which they adapted Hogarth’s story of the moral and social degeneration of Tom Rakewell, and picked up on wider themes in Hogarthian, and more general eighteenth-century, satire. In Hogarth’s version, Tom inherits a fortune from his miserly father and goes off to London to enjoy himself, paying off his pregnant girlfriend Sarah Young before he goes. In London, Tom gets drawn into fashionable society, hosting levees and attending brothels. He soon runs into debt and narrowly escapes from the bailiffs on his way to an audience at St James’s because of the timely arrival of Sarah with her savings. Despite her continued devotion, Tom tries to redeem his fortunes by marriage to a rich, one-eyed widow, but soon loses this wealth in gambling houses. This lands him in Newgate prison for debt, and he descends into madness and is admitted to Bedlam (where he is joined by the longitude lunatic).
Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman remained largely true to this story, changing the character of Sarah to ‘Anne Truelove’ and fleshing out the character of the rich widow into the comic figure ‘Baba the Turk’ who is a bearded rarity on the London stage, and was one of the most enjoyable characters in our production of the opera. The major change, however, is the introduction of the character ‘Nick Shadow,’ who, in the opera, arrives unbidden in Tom and Anne’s country idyll telling Tom of a fortune inherited from an unknown uncle. He leads Tom to London and there forces him into the sorts of vice and misdemeanour outlined by Hogarth. Nick turns out to be the Devil, plays cards with Tom for his soul, and eventually sends him mad as a punishment for winning the game. The moral outlined by the characters’ epilogue is that ‘For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds a work to do.’
There are three themes of Hogarthian and wider eighteenth-century satire that particularly interested me in this adaptation. The first is ‘Projecting,’ the name given to inventors of improving schemes for which they sought investment by others. This ranged from scientific and mechanical projecting, such as a new repeat-firing canon, or water pumps for irrigating land, to financial projecting of insurance companies or schemes to solve the national debt. Satirists like Jonathan Swift and John Arbuthnot were deeply critical of such schemes which they saw as mostly resting on a delusion of the ‘projector’ and drawing naive investors into debt. We can see these opinions in the Academy of Lagado in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) or in Arbuthnot’s Humble Petition Of the Colliers, Cooks, Cook-Maids, Black-Smiths, Jack-makers, Brasiers, and Others (1716). It is demonstrated by Hogarth in the Newgate prison plate of A Rake’s Progress where one inmate behind Tom tries to produce gold, and another to his left has drafted a scheme for solving the national debt. In Stravinsky’s version, this takes the form of the wonderful ‘Bread machine’ which Nick cons Tom into thinking can turn stones into bread, and which Tom then attempts to sell to recoup his fortune. Nick becomes the projector and Tom the naive dupe.
The second theme is ‘curiosity’ and curiosities, the eighteenth-century fascination in, and collection of, ‘rarities’ and artworks that demonstrated the wonders of nature and man’s ingenuity. Ancient and natural objects were particularly popular. The collections thus formed attempted to show the world in one room – in German a wunderkammer or kunstkammer – and are exemplified by Sir Hans Sloane‘s collection which founded the British Museum. Such fascination with rare and wonderful objects, and often the possession of them for the sake of status, or deluded knowledge, was satirised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the character of the virtuoso. This was given vivid expression in the character of Martin Scriblerus (Memoirs published 1741) created by Arbuthnot, Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and others, who is raised by his father according to ancient knowledge and artefacts, and falls in love with a pair of Siamese twins in a curiosity show. The importance of objects, collection and consumption – particularly the adoption of aristocratic collecting practices by the upwardly-mobile middle class – are everywhere in Hogarth’s work. They appear in A Rake’s Progress in the paintings and objects bought by Tom and displayed at his levee. Marriage A-la-Mode expresses this even more clearly. Stravinsky and co brilliantly adapted this theme in the character of Baba the Turk, herself a curiosity bought, or collected, by Tom, who brings to his house a motley collection of objects given to her by European celebrities. She embodies curiosity as both the noun and the verb.
Lastly, I would like to pick up on the prevalence of gambling in Hogarth’s work, and the question of whether or not we should see him as presenting life as a ‘gamble.’ In his 1722 satire, Annus Mirabilis, or the Wonderful Effects of the approaching Conjunction of the Planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, Arbuthnot was scathing of theological philosophers like William Whiston who saw celestial phenomena like comets as millenarian portents of social and political upheaval. Whiston is also satirised by Hogarth in the person of the longitude lunatic, one of whose solutions for longitude drawn on the wall is the one that Whiston had presented in 1714. Nevertheless, neither satirist saw life as undirected or a ‘gamble.’ Hogarth presents gambling as socially destructive through Tom’s experiences in the gambling den – where the building is catching fire unheeded by the obsessed players. Stravinsky and co pick up on this theme by making Tom gamble for his soul with Nick Shadow and he does eventually go mad as a product of gambling, much like in Hogarth’s version. However, the introduction of Nick entirely changes the message of Hogarth’s work. Nick essentially splits the character of Tom into the evil and the weak, whereas Hogarth’s Tom is a complex social being who is essentially the victim of his own passions and irrationality within a society which prioritised fashionable appearance over moral strength. There is no suggestion of evil, or non-human agency, rather the emphasis is on the corruption of man in contemporary society. This is the context in which Hogarth’s longitude lunatic has meaning.
Because of the recent anniversary, the last few posts have focused on Nevil Maskelyne, 5th Astronomer Royal and a key player in the Board of Longitude. However, 2011 also inevitably marks 200 years since the appointment of Maskelyne’s successor.
This was John Pond (bap. 1767- d. 1836). He is not, it has to be said, one of the better-known tenants of Flamsteed House, being generally considered as the filling between the tenures of Maskelyne and George Airy. (For some reason, the reputations of the Astronomers Royal have this alternating tendency, often reflecting the length of their service: something that William Christie found rather convenient when putting the names of his predecessors in the decoration of his new Physical Observatory. He could keep a chronological order and still have the most worthy – Flamsteed, Bradley, Maskleyne, Airy – on the end walls of the four wings.)
Pond feels the more obscure because we don’t know what he looks like: the image that has traditionally been called his turns out to be another John Pond, the livery-stable keeper of Newmarket and compiler of the Racing Calendar. Our Pond was also the first Astronomer Royal to retire before his death, not merely for reasons of ill health (Bradley and Bliss both managed to retain their positions through periods of prolonged absence and/or illness) but as a result of criticisms from the scientific community regarding the disordered running of the Observatory and for inaccuracies in the Royal Observatory’s published observations.
No, not that John Pond (NMM ref: ZBA0663)
Given these criticisms, it’s ironic that Pond came to prominence because he had demonstrated the existence of inaccuracies in Greenwich Observations. His analysis, read at the Royal Society in 1806, showed that the mural quadrant at Greenwich had become deformed. It impressed enough to earn him an invitation to advise the Observatory’s Board of Visitors. The next year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and from 1808 he was a regular lecturer at the Royal Institution, having become friends with Humphry Davy.
Maskelyne himself was impressed by Pond’s skills as a practical astronomer, and it appears that he was soon lined up as a successor. Pond was offered the job, apparently without competition, and was installed at Greenwich by 13 April 1811. In office, his careful observations and technical innovations gave a new level of accuracy to the work done at Greenwich. Pond’s magnum opus was an admired catalogue of 1113 stars, published in 1833. He was also in office when the Observatory’s work expanded so much that the staff increased from one to six. What went wrong?
The chief answer would appear to be his bad health, which had interrupted, or ended, his Cambridge studies, and caused recurring problems throughout the rest of his life. (A nice comment from his friend, the instrument-maker Edward Troughton was that “a new instrument was at all times a better cordial for the astronomer-royal than any which the doctor could supply”.) However, according to the obituary written for the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Pond was “subject to very painful and harassing complaints”, which probably referred both to illness and the disputes and criticisms that dogged him.
One of these was a protracted quarrel with John Brinkely, professor of astronomy in Dublin, over the measurement of stellar parallaxes. While Brinkely was the superior mathematician, Pond’s better observing meant that he was able to cast doubt on Brinkely’s claims to have measured parallax. However, real criticism of Pond arose as a result of his management of the Observatory and the Greenwich Observations, the accuracy of which had implications for the Nautical Almanac. In particular, Stephen Lee, assistant secretary to the Royal Society, pointed out inconsistencies and charged Pond with incompetence. A committee was set up to investigate – it exonerated Pond, but he had admitted his “little want of vigilance as an editor”, and mud has a habit of sticking.
There is also the sense that history took place around Pond, for he was caught in the middle of the significant battles taking place at this time between old elites and new. At stake was influence with government and a role in dispensing patronage for science. Key battlegrounds were the Royal Society, the Board of Longitude and production of the Nautical Almanac. The old guard has been identified as a coterie, largely formed around the dominant figure of Joseph Banks, and dominant within the Royal Society’s Council and the Admiralty. Many of the self-identified reformers were associated with the Astronomical Society, founded in 1820.
Banks was furious when Pond joined the Astronomicals and ordered him to resign. Pond refused, but he was in a strange position. He was an employee of the Admiralty, and answerable to the Board of Visitors, which was essentially a Royal Society committee and thus very much under the influence of the Royal Society-Admiralty coterie. Yet they were out of sympathy with Pond, for his links with the reformers and, as his obituarist suggested, a lack of understanding of the work performed by a practical astronomer like Pond. It is interesting that he had to insist that the new assistants that the Admiralty provided were not over-qualified for the routine work they would undertake at Greenwich.
There’s much work to be done to understand how this battle played out within the Board of Longitude and the Royal Observatory. The scientific empire of the Admiralty expanded significantly after 1818 – not only with new assistants at Greenwich but also with an expanded remit and budget for the Board of Longitude and, linked to both, a new Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. It is not yet clear exactly whose vision this expansion was, and to what extent someone like Pond was, or could be, influential.
The old guard, responsible for this growth, had lost the battle by the 1830s, by which time fellows of the Astronomical Society were gaining influence in the Royal Society and the Board of Visitors, redefining production of the Nautical Almanac along the way. That they did not also gain control of the Board of Longitude was only due to the fact that it had already been abolished. Allegedly for financial reasons, it is perhaps more likely that this was the old guard’s last laugh: the one thing that they managed to pull out from under the feet of the Astronomicals.
Pond was not able to play a role these changes. His last years were marred by much ill-health and prolonged absence from Greenwich, and the Observatory was left in control of his first assistant, Thomas Taylor, whose alcoholism did little to secure the good management of the Observatory. Pond resigned on 30 September 1835 and died a year later. However, let the last word go to his obituarist, probably his successor Airy, and on the subject of Pond’s greatest talent: “It is not too much to say, that meridian sideral observation … owes more to him that to all his countrymen put together, since the time of Bradley.”
Oxford Dictionary of National Biographyentry by C. Andrew Murray
Eric G. Forbes, Greenwich Observatory: Vol. I. Origins and Early History (London, 1975)
It is clear that another component of the Harrisons’ suspicions towards Nevil Maskelyne was their long-held conviction that he was actually a competitor for the longitude reward that they thought was rightfully theirs. We cannot be sure whether or not Nevil was hoping to obtain one of the rewards for his work on the lunar-distance method before he became the Astronomer Royal, which automatically made him a Commissioner of the Longitude, in 1765. It was possible, given his interests and abilities as a young man, and was in no way morally questionable.
The Harrisons do not seem to have objected at first to his being selected as an astronomical observer for the second sea trial of H4, which took place before he obtained the position at Greenwich. They would have already been aware that he was a proponent of the lunar-distance method and had also been directed by the Commissioners of the Longitude to make trials and observations relevant to the method during his voyage to Barbados. However, William Harrison recorded that he heard rumours once he reached the island that the astronomer was a true fellow competitor for the longitude reward and apparently rushed to confront him and to accuse him of being an improper choice to participate in the trial. We do not know what Maskelyne said in response, but the accusation apparently distressed him and led to his alternating observations with his companion under the watchful eyes of multiple witnesses.
Quill wrote of this event that, ‘The objections raised by William Harrison reveal the spirit of suspicion and antagonism against Maskelyne that seems to have been continually in his mind, an attitude which was shared by his father, and which was to persist to the end.’ There is also no evidence so far that once the maligned observer became Astronomer Royal and thus a Commissioner that he tried to obtain a reward for his efforts, which to modern eyes would have definitely seemed a ‘conflict of interest’. As Katy has shown during her research on the Barrington papers, it is possible that the Commissioners of the Longitude considered including wording in the Parliamentary Act of 1765 which would have prevented any serving Commissioner from winning the reward – perhaps to avoid accusations of this nature.
My pointing out these potential contributing factors to the later conflicts between the Commissioners of Longitude and the Harrisons, which will be explored at greater length during our research, is not intended to come down on one ‘side’ of the issue or the other. Doubtless no party in this episode could be called a perfect angel. It is quite likely that the clockmakers believed the accusations that they levied against Maskelyne and the other Commissioners in public, and it is understandable that they grew increasingly frustrated as years passed without their gaining the reward they were convinced should belong to John. However, there is so far no evidence for, and it in fact seems highly unlikely, that the Commissions and particularly the Astronomer Royal were unduly critical of the sole use of timekeepers for finding the longitude at sea or actively plotted against the Harrisons. This interpretation was far less widely held when the events actually took place than it is now, thanks to selective modern readings of the evidence.
This popular modern interpretation encourages a false understanding of not only the nature and activities of the Commissioners of Longitude, but also of the development of mathematics, astronomy and navigation in general in early modern Britain and Europe. It especially obscures the myriad contributions of Nevil Maskelyne to those areas by hiding the real individual, who was Astronomer Royal and a key force amongst the Commissioners and the Fellows of the Royal Society for decades, behind the unrecognizable mask of a pantomime villain. He and John Harrison should both be recognized for their intelligence and innovation, and for the steps forward that they prompted in the art of early modern navigation.
(Really the lunar-distance method deserves to be rehabilitated in the popular opinion as well. Chronometers did not make a clearly stellar showing in sea trials until the 1770s, at which point only a handful of the instruments even existed in Britain. They were not cheap enough to be widely used until the 1800s, and some scholars have suggested that their true promise was not realized until the advent of steam-powered sailing. In the meantime, the pursuit of an accelerated lunar-distance method led to other improvements in astronomy and navigation, the establishment of the Nautical Almanacwhich is still being published, and the development of the basic sextant design that is still in use today – as seen here. Even after chronometers came into wider use aboard ships, astronomical observations continued to be necessary as well for measuring the local time with which the chronometer’s GMT would be compared and, in the earlier days, for checking on the accuracy of the timekeeper.)
At any rate, no matter how many factors contributed to the initial deep divide between the Harrisons and the Commissioners of the Longitude, their working relationship was pretty much irrevocably broken by the 1760s and 1770s and only proceeded in stops and starts. The Harrisons were convinced by then that the Commissioners’ secret enmity towards them had come to a head, and ultimately that they had no hope of inducing the officials to see things their way and to give them the full reward that they deserved.
Meanwhile, the Commissioners no doubt watched with horror as the Harrisons and their supporters published lengthy public accusations against them and particularly Maskelyne in pamphlets and in periodicals. Their dissatisfaction sometimes spilled over into board meetings as well, as when John responded to their requirements for a ‘discovery’ of his watch designs in 1765 by exclaiming ‘That he never would consent to it, so long as he had a drop of English Blood in his Body’ and leaving the room ‘abruptly’.
Historical events like these are always messy things to deal with, and especially those that encompass a period of more than a century, as we are examining. They were far from tidy and clear-cut when they occurred, and often to understand them, we have to clear away the cobwebs of later interpretations, moral judgements and narrative restructurings. These interpretations often have more to do with the times in which they were developed than with the historical periods that they purportedly describe!
The Harrisons and the bulk of the Commissioners of Longitude may have ended up conflicting so much by the 1760s and 1770s because they held a number of different social, legal and economic viewpoints. Some of these can be attributed to the general confusion that existed in Georgian Britain about ‘state’ and ‘private’ ownership and rights when it came to ‘scientific’ and intellectual works that had received state sponsorship. For example, the Commissioners and the Royal Society engaged in social and legal battle with the family of James Bradley (seen below) and later with the Oxford University Press for 36 years after the death of that Astronomer Royal, over the ownership and printing of the astronomical observations that Bradley had made at Greenwich. The officials believed that the state owned the papers, since the astronomer was employed by and made the observations at an observatory founded by King Charles II in 1675 and funded (albeit somewhat poorly) by the Board of Ordnance. Bradley’s relatives, on the other hand, believed that he and thus they owned the papers and at least deserved a sizeable monetary reward if they turned them over to the Royal Society.
The Commissioners essentially claimed a degree of ownership over Harrison’s timekeepers as well, because they had funded their development and testing and thought that the clockmaker was required to prove their use to the nation before getting the ultimate reward. On the other hand, the clockmaker believed them entirely his property – as most early modern craftsmen and inventors probably would have — and sufficient in their own right to win the reward. The relationships between issues and bodies of state and more ‘commercial’ concerns were fluid during this period, and the barriers between them highly permeable or at times nonexistent. This could encourage advancements in areas such as technology, but could also prove problematic in the absence of clearly established precedents for reconciling the two interests.
I suspect that the Harrisons and the Commissioners had broadly different perspectives in other ways as well, which may have further aggravated the misunderstandings and later ill will between them. The clockmakers clearly dedicated much of their lives year-round to the development of, and the seeking of recognition and reward for, John’s marine timekeepers. There were of course a number of Commissioners of Longitude who served in that position for years, and Maskelyne in particular dedicated much of his time to activities related to his being a Commissioner. However, the Commissioners at large would have still had more of a part-time and institutional view of events than did the clockmakers.
After the initial Act of 1714, which also named some specific individuals, officials and professors became Commissioners by virtue of their other ‘full-time’ positions. From 1737 onwards, boards of longitude sometimes failed to meet at all in a year, and were later only required to meet on a few separate days unless it was judged necessary to schedule more meetings. Maskelyne was an unusual case, and many of the Commissioners would not have done much or perhaps even thought much about issues related to the board in between meetings. The Harrisons would have naturally approached board meetings, especially as the decades passed, with a more pressing concern and with a greater sense of the passage of time (and the aging of John) than would have most of the officials with whom they dealt. The former wanted immediate action, whereas the Commissioners represented a governmental body and sought to apply a legal and bureaucratic framework to their decisions and actions. The officials were also involved in considering and sometimes encouraging more than just one proposal for finding the longitude at a time, and soon became involved in other activities related to navigation such as producing and encouraging related publications.
Perhaps the Harrisons were further encouraged in thinking that the bulk of the Commissioners were plotting against them simply because of the way in which early modern British society worked. At all socio-economic levels and in all trades and pursuits, interpersonal relationships and networking played an even greater role than we tend to think they do today. For example, my previous research on ‘scientific’ instrument makers and sellers in early modern London showed how common it was for almost all aspects of a trade member’s business – from simply finding a person to transport an item of stock, to the momentous establishment of a first shop or the choosing of a partner or apprentice — to be guided by the wide variety of people whom he knew. These often included not only fellow instrument makers and livery company members but also members of interrelated trades and interest groups, blood and marital relatives, religious friends, neighbours, and so on. In the case of trade members who were London-born, these contacts were often spread across the provinces or abroad as well as in the metropolis.
In this sort of milieu, it was the norm rather than the mark of an invidious ‘old boy society’ for the Commissioners to have their activities, such as the choice of observers for the different sea trials, strongly influenced by interpersonal connections and greased by social and well as ‘professional’ interactions. The world was a smaller place at that time, and concepts of relationships and ‘professionalism’ rather different. John Harrison of course benefitted from some similar ties over the course of his career, with established individuals including well-known instrument makers, Commissioners and public figures such as James Short, George Graham, Edmond Halley, John Cust, John Bevis, and Taylor White of the Foundlings Hospital encouraging him and representing his case to the public and to the government.
However, one can see how the Harrisons – increasingly paranoid and defensive as the years passed, although perhaps for some valid reasons – might have perceived such interactions and interconnections betwixt many of the Commissioners and associated individuals as ominous towards their cause. After a board meeting in 1764, William Harrison wrote to his father-in-law that they were newly optimistic about obtaining the longitude reward, in part because of the recent death of the Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss, who had been one of the many individuals also interested in the lunar-distance method: ‘They were all as agreeable as could be, Parsons [i.e. professors] and all, as they have now lost their ringleader.’ This problem of perception may have applied even more so to the case of Nevil Maskelyne, who was apparently quite amiable and maintained many friends across the learned and intellectual spheres – even those with whom he conflicted on a professional level, such as Joseph Banks, the divisive president of the Royal Society.
To read about additional reasons why the Harrisons may have considered Nevil Maskelyne their arch nemesis, see the final part of ‘Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne’ tomorrow: ‘The Harrisons’ issues with Maskelyne, and Conclusions’.
Another element of the accusation that Maskelyne and the Commissioners of Longitude were wrong-headed in their treatment of John Harrison, is the idea that they were short-sighted to continue to consider the lunar-distance method as well, and that they were over-invested in it due to self-interest. Today many people have the impression that the lunar-distance method — and earlier proposed methods of finding the longitude at sea that were based upon magnetic variation or observations of the moons of Jupiter — was as laughable as the so-called ‘powder of sympathy’. If that were true, then surely Maskelyne and the other Commissioners were stodgy / unintelligent / prejudiced / etc. for not having seen from the beginning that timekeepers were the way to go!
However, many intelligent people including Isaac Newton were not sure that clockmakers could make timekeepers hardy, affordable and regular-running enough to fully shoulder the burden of finding longitude at sea – at the time of the Act of 1714 but also well into the second half of the eighteenth century. Before Harrison, the technology just wasn’t there, and seagoing timekeepers were not perceived in terms of precision and reliability. The longitude proposals which involved astronomical observations, or indeed compasses, had a somewhat greater affinity with centuries-old navigational practice than did precision timekeepers as well (although mariners sometimes used sand-filled hourglasses). As Katy mentioned in her last post, when Newton testified to a Committee of the House of Commons in 1714 about four potential longitude solutions, he pointed out that there were key problems with all of them (timekeepers, lunar-distance, observations of the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons, and a much-publicized and sometimes parodied plan by Humphry Ditton and William Whiston involving moored ships launching mortars into the air at regular intervals along established trade routes).
As the decades passed, innovations in astronomy and technology and relatively successful sea trials made it seem more likely that the lunar-distance method and timekeepers could both provide a solution. Many people, including Maskelyne, thought that it might be most effective to employ the two together, if only reliable enough timekeepers could be produced. (The astronomer pointed out that in theory, errors in lunar-distance observations and calculations made aboard ship would not carry over from one day to another, whereas any unpredictability in the going of marine timekeepers would only become magnified as the days passed.) The astronomical data and computations upon which the abbreviated version of the lunar-distance method was based, still needed to be precise enough and widely available for years in advance to be of widespread use – which increasingly came to pass from about the 1760s onwards as Maskelyne published his Nautical Almanacs and associated Tables. However, weather could still pose a problem to observations, calculations still took some time to complete, and older mariners were sometimes reluctant to learn the skills necessary to use the lunar-distance method.
In order to be useful for finding the longitude at sea, timekeepers need to have a very predictable going rate (i.e. the amount of time gained or lost each day) and to be able to stand up to changing conditions aboard ship but also, in the end, to be produced widely and far less expensively than could Harrison’s inventions. At first, the Harrisons and the Commissioners differed over whether John’s timekeepers had been put to acceptably rigorous and defined testing with respect to the first set of requirements once they were trialled at sea and at observatories on land. Then in the 1760s and 1770s, the Commissioners were particularly concerned about whether or not the timekeepers could be reproduced for widespread use, since otherwise they would be of little use to navigation and trade as a whole.
The Commissioners periodically encouraged both Harrison’s timekeepers and the lunar-distance method over the years – but the former actually received the first known award of money from the Commissioners and accounted for most of its expenditures until 1763, which challenges the clockmakers’ beliefs that the officials were prejudiced against them or timekeepers in general. (Professor Eric G. Forbes, who was of the opinion that the German astronomer Tobias Mayer (left) could equally be called the ‘discoverer’ of longitude at sea, came to the same conclusion because the Commissioners approached Mayer’s improved tables for the lunar-distance method just as critically as they did Harrison’s claims.) By the time Parliament awarded £8750 to John in 1773, he had already received grants of money from them totalling more than £13,000. When he asked for more funding in 1746, he told the Commissioners that their periodic financial support of him was much appreciated and vital, since ‘the Difficulty in the Contrivance & the Nicety in the execution of many parts of these new designs have so entirely ingrossed his time & thoughts for many years past as to render him quite incapable of following any gainfull employment for the support of himself & family’.
To find out how a number of ‘cultural’ differences may have contributed to the Harrisons’ conviction that Maskelyne and the Commissioners were plotting against them, see Part Three of ‘Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne’ tomorrow.
Today is the bicentennial of the death of Nevil Maskelyne (6 October 1732 – 9 February 1811), who was much admired in his own time but has been unfairly reduced in recent years to the arch villain in the tale of John Harrison‘s invention of the marine chronometer. As I’ll be discussing in this four-part series of posts, the bulk and perhaps the whole of these accusations against Maskelyne and his fellow Commissioners of Longitude are almost certainly untrue. They also obscure the long and storied career of a champion of, and innovator in, subjects including navigation, astronomy, cartography, geodesy and institutional reform.
Part One: In praise of Nevil Maskelyne, and reassessing the Harrisons’ accusations Part Two: Why lunar-distance? Part Three: ‘Cultural’ differences and the Commissioners’ conflict with the Harrisons Part Four: The Harrisons’ issues with Maskelyne, and Conclusions
Early in his career, Maskelyne was central to the reorganization of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, where previously Astronomers Royal had refused to make the results of their observations public and sometimes let the buildings and instruments fall into disrepair. During his own 46-year tenure as Astronomer Royal and thus as a Commissioner, Nevil was the driving force behind navigational and astronomical innovations including the foundation and advance publication of the Nautical Almanac. A number of his Astronomical Assistants at Greenwich went on to participate in geodetic and astronomical expeditions in their own right due to his teaching and influence, something which never happened under the previous Astronomers Royal. The astronomer and Joseph Banks were the longest serving and most influential of the later Commissioners as well, and the former was given the responsibility for an unbelievable amount of the officials’ activities, judgements and practical arrangements.
Maskelyne was also deeply involved in the activities of the Royal Society, for example publishing an unusually high number of articles in its Philosophical Transactions (more than 50) and helping it and the Commissioners to organize famous voyages of exploration and early science including those made by James Cook (left). This is only a ‘taster’, really, of the many things which the astronomer accomplished during his jam-packed and relatively long life. He was involved with a wider variety of activities than I have time to mention here and participated in expansive global networks of colleagues and friends.
Today I will explain some of the fallacies behind the modern view of Nevil Maskelyne and of the Commissioners of Longitude in general as corrupt, prejudiced and/or unintelligent and uninsightful with regards to their treatment of the Harrisons. This view, which as been put forth by some modern authors including Dava Sobel, is not accurate but has unfortunately come to define the astronomer and his colleagues in the public consciousness. There is so far no evidence that it was true beyond the Harrisons’ later accusations. There are a number of factors that are far more likely to have influenced the decisions and actions of Maskelyne and the other Commissioners, and to have contributed to the discord that existed between they and the clockmakers by the 1760s and 1770s (as we’ve already discussed a bit in comments on other posts).
It’s certainly possible that some well-born or well-educated Commissioners did privately hold snobbish feelings towards the ‘rough and uneducated provincial genius’ John Harrison, as has sometimes been suggested to great dramatic effect. However, there is so far no evidence that this greatly influenced the treatment of Harrison and his inventions, and especially in the case of Nevil Maskelyne. The perception that it did often stems from far more attention being paid to the Harrisons’ emotional and verbose public statements and accusations than to the whole of the surviving records related to these events.
In fact, the majority of the scholars who have examined the eighteenth-century search for the longitude in-depth believe that the Harrisons’ accusations of prejudice, plotting, sabotage and so on, on the part of Maskelyne and the other Commissioners were mostly or even wholly untrue. For example, Derek Howse and Humphrey Quill both concluded that the Astronomer Royal conducted the trials of Harrison’s watch ‘H4‘ at the Greenwich observatory fairly, rather than sabotaging them or misrepresenting results as has been suggested. Maskelyne could have given the clockmakers some more leeway in his interpretation of the results, but that he did not do so was probably not due to ill intent or severe prejudice. Howse, Quill and other authors do not believe that the astronomer had a deeply seated antagonism towards the Harrisons at all, never mind allowing such an emotion to impact the conduct of his positions at Greenwich and as a Commissioner – although he was no doubt offended by the increasingly serious accusations that they lobbed against him in later decades. Maskelyne (pictured below) was in fact one of the people who proposed John Harrison’s son William for election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1765, despite the working tensions that then existed between them.
It also seems unlikely that prejudice or ill will was what prevented the Commissioners of the Longitude from giving Harrison one of the official longitude rewards established by the Act of 1714 – although again, they no doubt grew increasingly irritated as the Harrisons cast verbal and printed aspersions upon their intellectual abilities and moral fibre during the 1760s and 1770s. The majority of them seemed to have truly believed that the clockmaker had not yet fulfilled the requirements of the original and later Acts because he had not proved that his inventions could be reproduced for widespread use rather than being brilliant one-offs, just as surely as the Harrisons believed that they did not have to prove this and that they should have already been given the largest longitude reward years before. When John first petitioned Parliament asking for satisfaction, he was not able to convince the majority of MPs that the Commissioners had not followed the ‘letter of the law’. His second petition successfully sought recompense despite those laws, in light of his brilliant innovations, years of dedicated work, and advanced age.
Nevil Maskelyne insisted when writing much later in 1800 that, ‘He always allowed Mr. Harrison’s great merit, as a genius of the first rate, who had discovered, of himself, the causes of the irregularities of watches, and pointed out the means of correcting these errors in a great degree, in the execution of a portable time-keeper, of a moderate size, to be put on board of ship, not liable to disturbance from the motions of the ship, and exact enough to keep time within two minutes in six weeks. He made no opposit[ion] to Parliament granting him the remainder of the reward of £20,000; but only to the Board of Longitude doing it; as he had not submit[ted] to trials [i.e. as dictated by the related legislation], and those sufficient to enable the Board to give it to him according to the terms of the Act.’
To find out why Maskelyne and the Commissioners of Longitude had good reasons to encourage the improvement of the lunar-distance method as well as that of Harrison’s chronometers, read Part Two of ‘Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne’ tomorrow.
To add to the foregoing discussion between Beckyand Thony over different solutions to the longitude problem, it is interesting that the Jupiter’s satellites option does not disappear from the discussion as quickly as you might think, despite what it did to Louis XIV‘s dominions. John Harrison might also have sympathised with Louis’ frustrations, as it was, of course, land observations of Jupiter’s satellites which were used to check the accuracy of his watch on the trials in 1762 and 1764.
The physician and mathematician John Arbuthnot considered the problem of longitude in his 1701 pamphlet An Essay on the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning in a Letter from a Gentleman in the City to his Friend in Oxford, in which he put forward finding a means to measure longitude as one of the greatest benefits that mathematics would bring. He specifically talks about the efforts of Edmond Halley on his Paramore expeditions which Becky has mentioned below, but he also notes how ‘from the Observation of Jupiter’s Satellites, we have a ready way to determine the Longitude of places on the Earth.’
More pertinent to the history of ‘the Board’ however is Isaac Newton‘s opinion given to the parliamentary committee set up to consider passing the 1714 Act. In this, Newton explained that: ‘for determining the Longitude at Sea, there have been several projects, true in the Theory, but difficult to execute: One is by a Watch to keep time exactly, but, by reason of the motion of a Ship, the variation of heat & cold, wet and dry, and the difference of Gravity in different Latitudes, such a Watch hath not yet been made: Another is by the Eclipses of Jupiter’s Satellites: but by reason of the length of Telescopes requisite to observe them, and the motion of a Ship at Sea, those Eclipses cannot yet be there observed. A third is, by the place of the Moon; but her Theory is not yet exact enough for this purpose: it is exact enough to determine her Longitude, within two or three degrees, but not within a degree.’ You can see that Jupiter’s satellites come second in Newton’s list and that he notes the problems associated with this method but doesn’t deem it as improbable as an accurate watch.
Even more interestingly, a copy of this opinion crops up in the Barrington Papers which I discussed in my last post. Barrington referenced the opinion in his justification to Parliament that further methods for solving the longitude might be found, notwithstanding Harrison’s success with his chronometer. Just as Becky has discussed the long life of a magnetic solution to finding longitude, Galileo’s dream of using Jupiter’s satellites did not vanish into thin air.