As part of a large cataloguing project to research all the NMM’s marine chronometers, I am currenmtly undertaking a close study of Harrison‘s third marine timekeeper, H3 (made during the 1740s). It is proving hugely interesting and revealing as can be seen in the videos which have been tracking my progress.
The aspect I’m studying at the moment is the extraordinary (at least to me) glazed brass case of the instrument, and I’m wondering about 18th century ‘instrumental’ practice where glazed cases are concerned? The case (which the timekeeper fits in very closely indeed and which stands just over 60cms high) has a ‘top’, a middle band (attached to the timekeeper) and a ‘bottom’, the three parts held together round the middle with 32 screws. The whole thing is incredibly beautifully made, using cabinet-making techniques, and consists of precisely 501 parts, all fitted together mechanically, with no solder anywhere. The brass panels are just 2mm thick and the four main vertical edges are dovetailed (yes!) all the way from top to bottom with a total of 174 tiny dovetails rather in the way that coppersmiths tie plates together before soldering, but much finer and without solder. The dovetails are so well cut the vast majority cannot be seen, but I show a patch where corrosion and stress has revealed some of them (I have temporarily marked the lacquered surface with felt-tip pen to identify them).
The brass panels with dovetails
The structure inside forming the frames for the glazed panels are all pinned and riveted with 425 rivets, and the glass is then puttied in. The decorative moulded cornice is also ‘invisibly’ attached all round with pins, disclosed at one corner where the case was damaged in the past and was apparently heated to repair it, not very successfully.
The decorative moulded cornice
I wonder whether such large cases are unusual at this period, or are other instruments made in the mid-18th century that are housed in such cases? If so, how are they constructed? I am familiar with the 18th century grand orreries (e.g. those by Wright etc) in the lovely ‘cold-frame’ type wooden glazed covers, but can’t think of anything in metal at this period. If anyone knows of any examples please do get in touch below.
As you will have spotted in the threevideosposted on this blog, our Senior Specialist in Horology, Jonathan Betts, has been dismantling, measuring, cataloguing and conserving John Harrison‘s third sea clock, H3. The opporunity to see H3 in pieces has struck a chord with the media, and there have been a number of stories generated. Jonathan gave an interview for BBC Radio 4′s Material World programme, which can be heard here (Jonathan’s interview is 15:40 into the programme). Details of the programme and download can also be found here.
They write: “Preparations are underway for the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in 2014 and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Jonathan Betts has been working on a massive project to dismantle, study, catalogue and reassemble the four world famous Harrison timekeepers. Currently in 1253 pieces, Jonathan is about to start putting the H3 clock back together. Quentin [Cooper] went to see him and to find out more about one of the world’s most historically significant timekeepers which ultimately solved the great longitude problem, and save[d] countless mariner’s lives.”
It’s good to see the anniversary already getting mention, and hints about the forthcoming celebrations. Jonathan also appears in a local publication, The Guide (Enjoying Life from Greenwich to Bromley). The cover sports an image of the sculpture, placed on the meridian line in the Royal Observatory courtyard for the millenium, and the headline “Precision timekeeping explored at the National Maritime Museum”. The article can be read here, and you can also see the main image, showing Jonathan and some bits of H2 taken from below a sheet of glass.
The sheer number of ‘bits’ of these clocks exercises a real fascination. This picture of H2 also appeared in the Metro, there was a lovely spread of H1 and Jonathan’s working notes in the Guardian last year. Take your chance in the next month to visit the Royal Observatory to see the H3 in bits through the window of the Horology Workshop.
Today’s historians have an embarassment of riches when it comes to easy-access sources, thanks to digitization and the Internet. In earlier decades, if a scholar wanted to find the items relevant to their research in large, scattered and often poorly catalogued archives, then they frequently had to to trawl through them by hand and to travel great distances to access them all.
For example John R. Millburn, the respected biographer of scientific instrument makers such as Benjamin Martin and the George Adamses, dedicated much time and effort to paging through early newspapers in search of references to those individuals and even accumulated a small collection of newspapers himself (now at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford). This makes the scholarly achievements of earlier authors such as Millburn even more impressive but begs the question of how much more they could have discovered and accomplished today!
Some people bemoan the loss of the full experience when one is conducting research through computers rather than handling the original documents, but surely no one can deny that this allows scholars to delve through large and sometimes distant corpora of materials in far more manageable amounts of time than before. This is especially vital for a project such as ours, which in reality references many centuries and nations beyond just eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. For example, digitization and the Internet allow me to identify, view and analyze thousands of London newspapers that mentioned longitude from the mid-seventeenth century onwards through the British Museum’s Burney Collection online.
There are of course some dangers and drawbacks to using these resources. Their search engines tend not to work perfectly – often failing to recognize faded, blurred or poorly spaced words and in my experience occasionally turning up different numbers and combinations of results at different times for no obvious reason. Some students and scholars may also be tempted to use such search engines as a crutch – presenting scads of archival findings but without a properly rigorous application of analysis and contextual knowledge or consideration of the nature and limitations of the source type. However, there are similar limitations and the possibility of ‘weak’ scholarship with any body of sources.
Newspapers specifically represent a very rich, but in some ways problematic, resource for early modern scholars. The first English newspapers were single pages published during the 1600s, and by the next century some increased in length to four pages and contained perhaps one essay and one to two pages each of advertisements and news. From about the mid-1700s onward, some were printed in eight smaller pages and ran more varied articles. The lapse of the restrictive Printing Act in 1695 allowed for the appearance of many new titles and for their more frequent publication, including daily and in the evenings, with the Daily Courant becoming the first English daily newspaper in 1702. Judging by Stamp Act figures, their circulation numbers grew from at least 2.4 million copies in 1713, to at least 16 million copies by the end of the 1700s.
These popular publications have proved extremely helpful in constructing a timeline for, and understanding the nature of, longitude-related events and perceptions thereof in England and Europe from at least the 1660s onwards. Some mentions have led us to projectors, publications and even political developments at home and abroad of which we were not yet aware. As is always true in historical research, we must consider these findings alongside those made from other types of documents, however, in order to understand them in context but also to fact-check as much as is possible.
Early modern newspapers were quite different from those which we read today despite some striking superficial similarities, for example with the ideals of accuracy and objectivity not yet being associated with them. Tidbits of news were collected from sources including local hearsay, letters from the provinces and abroad, and other domestic and foreign publications. Sometimes newspapers repeated news items from their sister or competing publications verbatim or with some summarization or elaboration – some of which was clearly innacurate, as if the information had been distorted by playing a game of ‘telephone’.
For example, while the London Evening Post and the London Gazetteer reported in 1749 that a Jewish mathematician of Hanover named ‘Raphael Levi’ or ‘Levy’ was to present his longitude invention to the British Commissioners of Longitude, the Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer gave his name as ‘Joseph Pollack’ - apparently in all earnestness rather than as an intended slur on a foreign projector of a different religion. This was presumably the mathematician and astronomer Raphael Levi Hannover, who had been a pupil of Leibniz.
If such news items or the contents of advertisements, letters-to-the-editor and other commentaries were debated or inaccurate, then usually the only recourse was for objectors to run their own responses in the same formats. This could lead to some back-and-forth between the different parties, as when key supporters and opponents of John Harrison‘s claim to the highest reward overseen by the Commissioners of Longitude tried to hash it out in print.
Many letters-to-the-editor and other commentaries such as reviews were published under pseudonyms, which can make it difficult to judge whether they originated from key players themselves (such as Harrison or a Commissioner), their supporters, or the unallied but informed members of the public who the authors often claimed to be (such as a former mariner or a merchant). The different categories of items which appeared in the newspaper also bled into each other during the early modern period, and it seems highly likely that some percentage of the glowing ‘news’ mentions of projectors were actually ‘puffs’ (i.e. advertisements), prompted and perhaps at times even paid for by those individuals.
As is true of slanted or commercially driven ‘news coverage’ today, this may have influenced the perceptions of the unwary general public or even of movers-and-shakers like some of the Commissioners. For example, it is possible that the Commissioners were encouraged to initially offer financial aid and sea trials to Christopher Irwin — the Irish projector whose ‘marine chair’ for astronomical viewing at sea was ultimately slated by Nevil Maskelyne — by the glowing accounts of his invention and prowess that appeared in the news. Essentially, a number of such early modern projectors and other actors used the newspapers and other publications including pamphlets and books to run what would today be called ‘PR campaigns’.
All of this material and similar surveys of large, sometimes digitized collections will help us to better understand what was going on in Britain and Europe with respect to longitude at sea and the Commissioners of Longitude – as well as one of the key ways in which related information (whether accurate, inaccurate or intentionally misleading) spread and interpersonal interactions were facilitated. Such publications provide a dynamic view of the extent to which longitude saturated the consciousness and culture of the British public in different ways at a time when the nation had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
As we’ve already mentioned in one or two blogs, this year marks the bicentenary of the death of Nevil Maskelyne, 5th Astronomer Royal, who had a crucial part to play in the story we’re researching (and in many others).
Among those using this as a jolly good excuse to celebrate his life and work is the Purton Historical Society, which has raised money for an exhibition at Purton Museum (which they run), opening in May, with a series of events that month as well. You can find more details at their Maskelyne bicentenary website.
The link is that the Maskelyne family were landowners in the Purton area for over three hundred years and Nevil’s holidays from the Royal Observatory were spent at The Ponds, Purton Stoke, which he later inherited. He is also buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Purton, where a commemoration took place on 11 February this year.
I should probably add that I’ll be part of the celebrations, since I’ve agreed to give a lecture there on Saturday 21 May. I hope to see you there!
I’m lucky that my friends and family seem to be taking the longitude project to their hearts, and are sending me bits and pieces that they read or hear and think might be interesting to us. So, in a parallel discussion to my last post on themes in A Rake’s Progress – both Hogarth’s and Stravinsky’s – I here share two pieces of modern day culture that continue eighteenth-century discussions about ‘science’ and particularly the clock maker John Harrison.
The first comes courtesy of my uncle. In 2001, Dick Gaughan the folk singer released a song titled John Harrison’s Hands, with lyrics by Brian McNeill. You can listen to a cover version of this by Stephen Knightley here. The lyrics in full are:
Cold falls the night,
Cold rolls the ocean
And colder blows the breath of fate
That sends the roaring gale.
The stars give their light
For duty or devotion,
But a sailor’s heart needs more than prayer
When eye and compass fail
And more than hope to guide his lonely sail.
By sea and land
John Harrison’s hands
Made sure for ever more
That sailors could find longitude
To bring them safe ashore.
Your work was long,
Your days were driven.
You knew that you could build a clock
To marry space and time.
But your one great wrong
Was never forgiven -
For to be better than your betters
Was worse than any crime,
And their envy was a hill you would not climb.
By sea and land
John Harrison’s hands
Made sure for ever more
That sailors could find longitude
To bring them safe ashore.
And the prize of thirty thousand pounds
Was more than just a prize.
It was dignity and justice
Over bitterness and lies -
And the longer they denied you,
Attacked you and decried you,
The more you saw the weakness in their eyes.
How many lives,
How many talents,
Were tainted by the poisoned well
Of power from which they drank?
But the wind that drives
The bold topgallants
Was harnessed by a man with
Neither privilege nor rank,
And the sailor lads,
they knew and gave their thanks.
Obviously, this picks up on the theme of Harrison vs the Board of Longitude that was propounded by Dava Sobel in her book Longitude, six years before. But it also interestingly picks up on questions of ‘natural’ genius in how Harrison was perceived in the eighteenth century. By both the Commissioners of Longitude and the newspapers he was envisioned as ‘nature’s mechanic’ – someone who had developed a natural mechanical ability that was unrelated to mathematical or ‘scientific’ knowledge as the Commissioners understood these. This was no doubt part of any communication difficulties between Harrison and the Board. There is also an interesting double use of ‘hands’ in discussing both Harrison’s own manual work and dexterity, and also the hands on his time pieces, marking his mechanical control over time. As McNeill’s lyrics put it so beautifully he ‘married space and time.’ Similar discussions over instruments, mechanical knowledge and skill took place in the eighteenth century, as Alexi partly discussed in her post.
My second piece of modern day culture comes via my mother, and treats – by association – of cucumbers again. Harrison is known for inventing the bimetallic strip which compensates for changes in temperature that effect balance springs in clocks. Compensating for this temperature problem was one of the main concerns of clockmakers seeking to solve the longitude problem in the first half of the eighteenth century. This bimetallic strip, however, was also the precursor of the modern thermostat and therefore, among other things, allows greenhouses to be kept temperate in cold climates. It is thanks to Harrison that we are able to grow tender salads, fruits and vegetables in England. So, perhaps cucumbers aren’t such an odd link to the history of science after all.
You might not have noticed the subtle appearance of the ‘Resources’ tab on the top bar, but it is worth a click. Thanks to Nicky we now have an excellent ‘Short annotated bibliography on longitude and the Board of Longitude’. Several of the articles can be accessed online including, for the first time, Derek Howse’s article on the Board’s finances (reproduced with the kind permission of the Hon. Editor of The Mariner’s Mirror). While this might not sound like a thrilling read (and it isn’t exactly that) it is an incredibly useful source that does a wonderful job at showing just how much more there is to say about the Board than the well-known story of Harrison. For a start, many of the items listed in the Board’s accounts date to the period after Harrison’s death, including grants, rewards and expenses given to a much wider range of individuals and projects than most readers will suspect. The list is a veritable Who’s Who of European astronomers, mathematicians, instrument makers and explorers.
The online Resources will be developed as the project goes on, leaving, we hope, a useful a legacy that will include, ultimately, a much more complete bibliography. This initial list is, however, an important group of must-reads for anyone interested in knowing more about the Board and its role.
The National Maritime Museum owns a painting that is something of a mystery, so I thought I would open the question up to readers of the blog. It was in the Museum’s foundational collection, donated by its major benefactor, Sir James Caird (acquired from the collection of Wyndham Law of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service), then believed to be a portrait of Nevil Maskelyne. This explains why I have come across it again recently, for it is included in both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry and Derek’s Howse’s 1989 biography, The Seaman’s Astronomer. Howse, however, had his doubts about the attribution, for the sensible reason that it does not look all that much like the other known portraits. It now appears in the NMM’s online catalogue as “Formerly called Nevil Maskelyne“. If you do a Google image search you will find both attributions – you will also, bizarrely, find that you can buy a Photo Mug of Formerly Called Nevil Maskelyne from Amazon.
Here is the portrait in question, BHC2854:
Here is another portrait of Maskelyne from the NMM collections ZBA3405:
Now. It’s hard, especially for a non-expert, to be conclusive about resemblances in 18th-century portraits, but in these two NMM images we have a clear difference in eye colour and, across all the portraits of Maskelyne that I’ve seen, the nose is a different shape to that in the first image here. Derek Howse, who was formerly head of the Astronomy and Navigation Department at the NMM, suggested that the portrait might in fact be of George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, who was an astronomer and president of the Royal Society. I am tolerably persuaded that this portrait of Macclesfield at the Royal Society resembles our BHC2854.
What goes against this identification is the fact that the mystery portrait is apparently inscribed “Jno Downman Pinx. 1779″, attributed to John Downman. Macclesfield died in 1764, and it seems somewhat strange that a Royal Academy-exhibiting painter of portraits and “fancy subjects” would have painted a deceased Earl. However, looking at other portraits by Downman, although many of these are watercolours rather than oils, I am not convinced that this really is his work – second and third opinions would be gratefully received.
In writing this post, however, I am particularly hoping that someone might be able to identify the book that the sitter is holding up. There appears to be two volumes, one open to show the titlepage(?) and a fold-out frontispiece depicting Saturn and Jupiter, with the four Galilean moons. This image does not strike me as either particularly suitable for Maskelyne (who in the Royal Society portrait holds up an optical diagram) or a depiction of cutting-edge astronomy for 1779, even admitting that Uranus was yet to be discovered. Macclesfield, however, had a truly wonderful collection of scientific books and manuscripts, rich in texts of the 17th century. These were, sadly, dispersed at auction and are now to be found gracing collections all over the world (although much ended up in Cambridge, including the Newton-related manuscripts). Could this portrait include two of the volumes from the Macclesfield Library?
Or maybe it is some other 18th-century gentleman and lover of astronomy? If it can be solidly identified as either Macclesfield or Maskelyne it may grace our future Longitude exhibition, for both were Commissioners of Longitude. If it is someone else… who could he be?!