Continuing my posts on the themes that run between discussions of the longitude problem in the 18th century and the present day, I have come across a particularly appealing document in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
This is the menu from a meeting of the ‘Odd Volumes’ Society in 1921, at which Rupert Gould was the speaker. Rupert Gould is well known as the man who brought John Harrison’s longitude chronometers back to mainstream attention and has been portrayed by Dava Sobel, and Jeremy Irons, as a slightly unworldly obsessive. This menu shows that he also had a sense of humour, and was well aware of the links that could be drawn between Harrison’s status as a ‘natural genius’ in the 18th century, and Gould’s own independently acquired knowledge of the H chronometers in the 20th. The ‘Odd Volumes’ were a group of academically and gastronomically interested men who met once a month to hear a paper on subjects ranging from science to art. These papers were sometimes published as ‘opuscula’, beautifully bound volumes available only to members of the society. Their monthly menus were also illustrated and printed on fine paper, and are now collectors items.
On November 22nd 1921, Rupert Gould addressed the Society. The menu is illustrated with the PL Tassaert engraving after Thomas King’s portrait of Harrison. The emphasis is on Harrison, longitude inventors, and Gould himself as ‘odd’ or indeed mad. The inside of the menu quotes Edward Harrison’s 1696 Idea Longitudinis on ‘An Officer in the Navy … who Cursed and Damned the Man who should discover the LONGITUDE,’ and minutes of the Board of Longitude interviewing one John Baptist who ‘wished to lay a scheme before them … but, it becoming presently manifest that he was Lunatick, he was desired to withdraw.’
The description of the evening’s proceedings announces that, ‘the enjoyable portion of the evening being over, the majority of the Brethren and their guests will hastily seize their impedimenta and depart with all possible celerity, signs of extreme consternation writ large upon their faces. For then the overgrown form of Brother Rupert T Gould (Hydrographer) will arise … and commence an interminable harangue, full of sound and fury, upon John Harrison (Father of the Chronometer, and son of Henry Harrison, of Foulby). The outpouring of our Brother’s chrononhotontologue having at length reached some conclusion … a discussion, or more properly a vituperation, [will be] initiated, condemning both the matter and manner of the Hydrographer’s discourse.’ John Harrison’s interactions with the Board also involved lengthy discussions ‘condemning both the matter and manner’ of his address.
As the menu involves eight courses, including soup, sole, lamb, duck, ice cream and further desserts these must indeed have been quite some occasions, ‘odd’ in terms of both content and style.
Although the 300th anniversary of the 1714 Longitude Act is still over three years away, planning and research are, of course, beginning for the NMM’s Longitude exhibition in 2014. Richard and I are bringing together object lists based chiefly on the Museum’s holdings, but bringing in key items from other instititutional and private collections. There are also discussions afoot regarding an international tour. For this reason I am currently on a trip to the USA with the NMM’s head of exhibtions and programmes. We will be looking at some possible exhibtion venues, but I will also have the opportunity to see some of the most important collections of scientific instruments and speak to some knowledgeable curators. Some of these instruments and that knowledge will, I hope, make their way into the Greenwich exhibition, or the American tour.
While in the US I will be seeing curators and objects at the Adler Plantarium and Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, and Harvard’s Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments. There are some objects that would fit perfectly into sections on the development of navigational instruments in the 18th century – Jesse Ramsden’s prize-winning dividing engine being the most obvious - but it will also be interesting to get an idea of how the story might be viewed from America. I hope to get a better idea of what London-made instruments were being bought and used in post-Revolutionary America, and what kinds of navigational instruments began to be made there. It will also be instructive to compare and contrast the push for scientific voyages of exploration in the early 19th century, after the conclusion of the Anglo-American and Napolionic Wars.
Discoveries of Captains Ross, Parry and Franklin in the Arctic regions from the years 1818 to 1827 (NMM: G285:1/2)
The Arctic voyages that the had Board sponsored from 1818, led by John Ross and William Parry, echoed and enlarged the focus on scientific instrumentation, observation and recording that had been a key element in Cook’s voyages of the previous century. The Board’s demise did not spell an end to the importance of these elements in subsequent voyages, notably those of HMS Chanticleer in 1828 and HMS Beagle in 1831 and 1837. While Beagle falls outside the story of the Board of Longitude, it is certainly part of the longer story of finding and fixing longitude at sea and – just as importantly for accurate charting and position-finding - on coasts. However, Britain was not the only nation interested in navigation, surveying, exploration and scientific collecting at this date: America, for example, authorised a scientific expedition to explore the Pacific and South Seas in 1836.
The resulting circumnavigation took place in 1838-1840 under the command of Lt Charles Wilkes, and is best known for confirming the existence of an Antarctic continent. The Naval History Blog of the US Naval Institute, put up a post relating to this expedition yesterday, quoting a 1939 article that highlighted the centenary. The instructions for this voyage, like those for the British Arctic and surveying voyages, made much of the scientific rationale and equipment. The Wilkes expedition, for example, took no less than 29 chronometers, as well as instruments for astronomy, hydrographic surveying and geodesy - most of which Wilkes had selected personally while in Europe. There were also three naturalists, two botanists, a mineralogist, a philologist, a taxidermist and two draftsmen.
The Sectretary to the US Navy wrote that “The expedition is not for conquest but discovery. Its objects are peaceful. They are to extend the empire of Commerce and Science; to diminish the hazards of the Ocean and point out to future navigators a course by which they may avoid dangers and find safety”. Despite this, the expedition also took on the task of investigating instances of attacks on whaling ships, and of carrying out punishments. Wilkes himself was subsequently tried, and acquitted, by court-martial for his response to an attack by islanders of Malolo that killed two officers. The ‘punishment’ on this occasion was the burning of two villages and killing of 57 islanders. It is never possible to disentangle the histories of science, navigation and exploration from those of national rivalry and imperial conquest.
With just one week until I go to Purton to take part in their Nevil Maskelyne bicentenary celebrations, I am beginning to gather together everything I’ll need. Fortunately, I can use Maskelyne himself to help me. In September 1794, the Astronomer Royal wrote himself some notes (now preserved in Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre) on what to take on one of his regular trips to Wiltshire. This is what he took:
Hearsley’s abstract Tables of taxes
Paterson’s roads & maps of Counties
Tea; Wine; brandy; Rum; Cork-screw;
Decanters; Buchan’s domestic medicine;
Lewis’s Dispensatory; Prayer books;
Map of Wiltshire; Wood’s Essence for
meat and fish; Worstead boot-stockings;
Flannel waistcoat; Spare suit of cloths;
spare wig; great Coat; Boots, spurs
and whip; gloves; oyl-skin hood; spare
pair of shoes; umbrellas; Paper
pen and ink, wax and wafers, &
pen-knife; knife with instruments;
money-weighing machine. Rasor,
strop, brush, shaving cloth; Books of
amusement; Papers about estates &
leases of the estates; Papers about
the board of Longitude; maps of the
seat of war; Messuage cards; 2 pair of buckles; 6S stamp & other stamps;
For our research project, it’s interesting to see him taking his Board of Longitude papers with him – perhaps not surprising, since he and Joseph Banks were very much running the Board by 1794. As for me, I guess it just tells me to remember to take the notes for my talk (it’s a kind of sermon, after all) and a change of clothes. I can probably manage without a money-weighing machine, but he’s right that cheese is always needed.
Of the many online sources now available, one that I looked at again quite recently was Old Bailey Online, which gives details of proceedings from 1674 to 1913. It’s an extraordinary resource that can come up with amazing snippets of information about people who wouldn’t normally appear in the historical record. It’s also useful for telling you how much things were worth.
In an idle moment, I did a search for longitude. This brought up some expected finds, including mention of stolen chronometers, but one item was really quite bizarre. This was the trial of John Glendon in 1692, accused of murdering Rupert Kempthorne. Apparently, they were at the Ship Tavern in Temple Bar, when ‘some difference arose between them about Latitude and Longitude, Mr. Kempthorne alledging that there was no such word as Longitude’. Swords were drawn and Kempthorne died in the resulting fight, with Glendon convicted of manslaughter. His punishment included being branded on the hand.
I’m not sure what to make of this sorry tale, other than to note that the passing of the Longitude Act in 1714 must have made longitude a more familiar word.