Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
The antechapel where the statue stood Of Newton with his prism and silent face, The marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
Last weekend I had the chance to see Craig Baxter’s play Let Newton Be!, performed in Cambridge during their Science Festival. I wrote a post outlining some of my thoughts on the play and on representations of scientific genius, which you can read here. As the play, and these couplets show, Newton has long been a figure that attracted eulogy and myth-making. He was, of course, a legend in his own lifetime, something that needs to be borne in mind when we consider his role in introducing potential longitude solutions to parliament.
At a project meeting the other day, we had a very interesting discussion with Andrew Cook of the British Library, who knows about a huge range of things, including hydrography, charts and the East India Company.
One of the things Andrew was discussing was the importance of place, in particular where different groups of people met and took their decisions. This is particularly important with the Board of Longitude, which never had its own office, although there were meetings and it did have instruments and other equipment to store. This meant that meetings could take place at a range of different locations. Often they were at the Admiralty in Whitehall, which reminds me of two things I’ve come across. The first is a caricature from 1835 entitled *Waiting room at the Admiralty – (*no misnomer) by George Cruikshank.
This seems to accord rather well with a description written on behalf of John Harrison’s son, William, from an account of the period of heightening tension between the Harrisons and the Board of Longitude from 1761 onwards. It gives a rather tantalising description of how Board meetings took place (or at least one view of it):
It may not be improper here to mention in what manner the Board always proceed. They always meet in an Appartment belonging to the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Door of the Room in which they meet is always kept Shut and nobody admitted but Commissioners so that the manner in which they do Business is entirely left to themselves, and all the information they usually have had about Mr Harrison’s affair was no more than a short Memorial or Petition which was intended for nothing but as an instruction to proceed on Business; But they generally form their Resolutions from such Memorial or Petition & having done so they then call for Mr Harrison who is waiting in another Room and inform him of the Resolutions they are come to…
Image credit: George Cruikshank, *Waiting room at the Admiralty – (*no misnomer), published by Thomas Tegg, 1 August 1835 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, PAD4810)
A quick glance at the official minutes of the Board of Longitude demonstrates the limited understanding we have of Thomas Young’s daily activities toward the end of his lifespan despite the huge amounts of research done on his life and intellectual work in that period.
Successful in so many endeavours some of Young’s achievements are inevitably going to be pushed to the side. Two of Young’s achievements in particular dominate work on him, from the memoir written just after his death by his good friend, Hudson Gurney, to the 2007 biography by Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything.
The first of Young’s achievements that has been concentrated on in biographical work was his contribution to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. Young’s work in Egyptology and hieroglyphics was done in his leisure time surrounding his Secretarial and Superintendent duties for the Admiralty and the Board of Longitude.
Shortly after his death Young’s role in the translation became a matter of national pride with a re-invention of Young and his achievements taking place in obituaries and biographies; a prominence was given to his linguistic work to claim the translation of the Rosetta Stone as a British triumph. The Rosetta Stone had been the focus of nationalistic rivalries ever since its transfer from French to British possession in the Napoleonic Wars. At the time of Young’s death he was embroiled in a very public disagreement over reforms of the Nautical Almanac and was hugely unpopular in certain quarters; yet he was quickly established as a great intellectual, a man that Britain could be proud of, for translating the secrets of the ancient Egyptians.
The Rosetta Stone is still remember in this way, situated in the British Museum as one of the key pieces of its collection. Today much of the credit for translation goes to the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion. Yet it is still claimed that Young’s discovery that cartouches around certain repeating sets of hieroglyphics are indicative of proper nouns, which could then be compared with the Greek and demotic texts, was the linchpin of any translation. In the 1970s French visitors to the British Museum complained that the portrait of Young was larger than the one of Champollion on the information panel for the Rosetta Stone; the portraits were actually the same size.
Secondly Young’s work on optics is a prominent feature in biographies and how we remember Young in this context is again shaped by the biographer’s ambition. George Peacock portrayed Young in his 1855 biography as the ‘father of the wave theory of light’ in an attempt to get it introduced into the Cambridge Tripos, which was dominated by Newtonian physics including his corpuscular theory of light. Yet with another re-imagining of Young, some slight exaggeration and embellishment, he and his wave theory could be represented as a continuation and expansion of Newton, rather than as opposition. Wave theory from a man who believed in Newtonian physics and ideals would help to get it included in the Tripos. Young was a conservative, gentlemen of science and famed for opposing change for changes sake in scientific thinking and administration; he had publicly clashed with Charles Babbage who had previously demanded change in the Mathematics Tripos during his time at Cambridge.
These manipulations of Young’s story result in his work as a civil servant being neglected. The last two decades of his life were spent working as Secretary to the Committee for Weights and Measures, Secretary to the Board of Longitude and the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. He helped the Admiralty and the Royal Society to accomplish achievements that were just as important to national pride as his work done on the translation of the Rosetta Stone and our understanding of light. The two most significant examples are the establishment of the Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope and the search for the North West Passage.
One of Young’s duties as Secretary of the Board of Longitude was to verify any claim for the £20,000 prize offered by the Board for the discovery of a North-West Passage. On the 27th November 1820, Lieutenants William Edward Parry, Henry Parkyns Hoppner and Matthew Liddon along with Captain Edward Sabine claimed that in the previous year they obtained a longitude of 110º West of Greenwich sailing within the Artic Circle. Young’s correspondence with Hudson Gurney tells us that this endeavour had economic as well as national significance, affected the domestic supply of whale oil used in lamps and wool combing: “And here is the polar expedition arrived, whom I am to examine on their oaths to get them the £5000, which it seems will be spent in lowering the price of oil, by the information they have given the whalers.”
Young was a man of many great achievements; John Herschel called him a “truly original genius” and his time spent helping to co-ordinate the establishment of the Observatory is not well documented but this endeavour was regarded as much more important that his work on hieroglyphics by his contemporaries. When Sir Joseph Banks seconding Davies Gilbert‘s proposal of a Cape Observatory, he declared that ‘nothing could more essentially promote the glory of this country, than to be foremost in such an undertaking.’
Young’s expanse of work is a challenge to any historian, so we must allow for the neglect of some aspects of his endeavours. Yet hopefully from the Board of Longitude archives a new historical understanding of Thomas Young as Secretary and Civil Servant will emerge, to complement his already well documented work in linguistics and optics. We hope to find yet another side to Thomas Young.
Of course, our research on the Board of Longitude won’t include the development of satellite navigation (a rather more modern thing than we have time to look into), but there are interesting parallels we can draw between the eighteenth century and today. It’s also something we can bear in mind as we begin to think about a longitude exhibition we are planning to have at the National Maritime Museum in 2014.
Firstly, there is the point that it is unwise to rely on a single system. Eighteenth-century navigators appreciated this very well, which is why they were keen to see the development of a range of solutions to the longitude problem but also kept on using older methods such as dead reckoning (which is still a part of navigation today). Rather than being rivals, timekeepers and lunars were complementary, adding to the seafarer’s armoury of available techniques.
A second point is the persistence of concerns about relying on technology at all. This was certainly a concern to many people in the eighteenth century, including the Board of Longitude, as they considered John Harrison’s timekeepers. A question for them was whether such incredibly complex, sophisticated machines could be trusted over very long distances, which was something that James Cook’s voyages helped to answer.
The full title of the pamphlet is Curious Enquiries. Being Six Brief Discourses viz I. Of the Longitude. II. The Tricks of Astrological Quacks. III. Of the Depth of the Sea. IV. Of Tobacco V. Of Europes being Too full of People. VI. The various Opinions concerning the Time of Keeping the Sabbath. As Darin shows, this pamphlet is “an amusing satire of scientific or purportedly scientific practices” and the first section reviews many “whimseys” about finding longitude before suggesting what the author claims is a properly workable idea.
This refers to the idea of a powder of sympathy that, within the framework of natural magic, was a means of healing wounds at a distance, by applying the powder to the weapon that made the wound, or a bandage that had been used to bind it. This, as the pamphlet explains, was something that had been seriously investigated by Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society. (By coincidence he also gets a mention today on the Royal Society’s new book reviews feature.) The potential of this salve as a longitude solution was that, according to Digby, when it was applied to the bandage, it instantaneously made the patient start. Why not, the anonymous writer suggested, take a wounded dog to sea and have someone back in London, at an appointed time, dip the bandage in the powder and then the person on board ship, with the yelping dog, would have an accurate knowledge of London time to compare with observations of local time.
This ‘solution’ receives frequent mention in the literature. Owen Gingerich cites it as being “entirely tongue in cheek” in The Quest for Longitude (1996, p. 135). Dava Sobel, whose Longitude was inspired by the conference that led to Quest, also described it, but prefers the reader to take it slightly more seriously (Darin says she “remains agnostic”, but I think this is on the generous side). Recently it made an appearance on James May’s Man Lab and it is, of course on Wikipedia, although it states that ”it is possible that the pamphlet was a form of satire”. It also appears in the Time and Longitude Gallery at the Royal Observatory, where, if you open a door in the panelling, you will catch a figure dipping bandages and hear the dog barking. (It is a strange experience going through Flamsteed House out of hours when all is quiet save ticking clocks, a recording of the BBC pips and the occasional yelp.)
Part of the reason for the popularity of the story, and the fact that often it is taken as a genuine proposal, is undoubtedly its oddness-factor. They did what? They believed that? However, it is also emblematic of some truths, that can be useful in communicating with the public. On the one hand, while sympathetic magic was on its way out in natural philosophy and the world of the Royal Society by 1688, a few decades earlier it had merited serious consideration by Digby and others, including Robert Boyle. Getting people to think about the range of interests of these early ‘scientific heroes’, and how what is considered legitmate science and what is not at any one period, are important steps. Likewise, as Darin points out, the concept is in many ways sound: if the powder worked, then it would indeed be a longitude solution, and it is a nice, engaging way of making the connection between longitudinal position and time clear.
So, although we should encourage taking a pinch of salt with our powder, it’s a story that will continue to run.