The project team have certainly been making the most of the conference scene recently. Last week saw some of us spending a thought-provoking two days at the National Maritime Museum, at their ‘Peopling the Past‘ conference scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new Sammy Ofer Wing.
Through five panels, and a wide range of papers the conference considered how we can use museum collections to tell engaging stories about the past. Two over-arching questions emerged for me. The first considered which people we should put in the past that we display. Inevitably, we have more objects and archives related to celebrity figures, but we increasingly want to tell the story of the ‘ordinary’ man, the silent voices of the past’s real lived experience. This theme raised further considerations over how we harness and portray community and global narratives from a potentially small object-base; how we balance the authority we want to put behind our displays with the more engaging personality that can emerge from engaging wider communities in the curatorial process. Likewise, how do we portray controversial voices, discussing issues which are now politically incorrect, controversial, or upsetting.
The second, related question, dealt with how museums can use new media to tell such stories. This allows them to engage with wider and different audiences, and to tell stories in potentially more engaging and complex ways, but also runs the risk of detracting from the objects which are the museum’s raison d’être. With increasingly complex technology there is the danger of museums becoming a more elaborate television programme. Papers considered crowd sourcing of information to tell stories for the ‘silent voices’ and engaging community groups to tell stories from personal perspectives. For me, this also raised the interesting idea of sourcing objects and archival material through new media, allowing, in fact, more ‘silent stories’ to be told. Particularly interesting papers, on both themes, considered projects at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum and Museum of London.
The questions raised also threw light on the NMM’s new ‘Voyagers‘ gallery in the Sammy Ofer wing which now acts as an introduction to the museum. It answers both questions raised by the conference particularly well I thought. Along the back wall of the gallery, a single long case uses key objects and characters to tell a story of maritime experience through seven emotions: joy, pride, sadness etc. It features both celebrities and lesser-known figures. In front of this, a huge wave construction weaves across the gallery, projected with key words in wave patterns, and with images from the archives. It is accompanied by sounds of the sea. I feel this gallery uses new media and ‘silent voices’ to particularly successful effect, and was the perfect complement to such a stimulating conference.
The Longitude Project blog will be hosting the 38th edition of the monthly history of science blog carnival, The Giant’s Shoulders, on 16 August. In keeping with the project, this edition will be a ‘Georgian Science’ special, focusing on science in the long eighteenth century.
Please write and look out for great history of science posts and submit them at the Blog Carnival site or to the project’s contact email address, shown on the side bar, by 15 August.
Posts on other periods and topics will, of course, also be accepted.
Last Saturday, Alexi, Sophie and I presented some of our research from the project at a session called ‘New Perspectives on the Board of Longitude’ at the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science. Our session and paper abstracts can be found here on my ‘other’ blog, where I also posted some thoughts on the conference as a whole.
I can say that the other two presented great papers, and that we had some good discussion in the session. Because of the interests of some of the audience, this particularly focused on the Board in the 19th century, with questions and comments about the political scene, ideologies of public service and the role of Humphry Davy (President of the Royal Society and, therefore, ex officio member of the Board).
Top marks for a beautiful PowerPoint presentation (plus authoritatively-presented evidence and argument) go to Alexi. Top marks for enthusiasm and first grown-up conference presentation to Sophie! And a special prize to Simon Naylor for chairing the session, having already enthused us with a paper on 19th-century meteorology and the Magnetic Crusade in the previous session.
More on Nevil Maskelyne, I’m afraid. Because I was doing another talk recently, I was looking again at one of the images we have of him, which was among some manuscripts that came to the Museum a couple of years ago.
The image appears to be for a medallion commemorating Maskelyne, although I’m not aware of one being produced. I’d love to hear of any that are known. Anyway, the moon appearing in the background seems fairly straightforward, given Maskelyne’s role in proving and promoting the lunar distance method, but I wasn’t so sure about the inscription – ‘MARE PRÆSTAT EUNTI’.
After some hunting (well, Google searches), I decided that it appears to be from Ovid’s Heroides (The Heroines), no. 15, Sapho to Phaon. This has the line, ‘Venus, orta mari, mare praestat eunti.’
The next problem was to come up with a good (or at least effective) translation. That’s one of the things I hate about Latin – too many possible meanings.
Looking at some previous attempts, I found Alexander Pope‘s version of 1717, which was reprinted into the 19th century, and runs, ‘Venus for thee shall smooth her native main’. A more modern translation by Florence Verducci in 1985 offers, ‘Venus, born from the sea, smoothes the waves for a lover’.
So I’d say the three words of the inscription could translate as something like ‘he smoothes the waves for them’, or ‘he smoothes the oceans’, again referring to Maskelyne’s navigational work. Given that it’s Latin, I’d be prepared to push it a bit further and exploit the ambiguity as to whether Maskelyne or the moon is the subject and say, ‘they guide them [i.e. sailors] across the oceans’. But if anyone’s got any better ideas, I’d love to hear some suggestions.
Incidentally, I also found Horace Walpole using the whole line in a letter to Mary Berry in 1796:
I rejoice at your bathing promising so well. If the beautiful fugitive from Brighthelmstone dips too, the waves will be still more salutary;–
Venus, orta Mari, mare praestat eunti. (The ‘beautiful fugitive’ being the Countess of Jersey, I gather)
Walpole’s letter has nothing to do with Maskelyne, as far as I’m aware, but I don’t like to waste the fruits of my research.
A week or so ago I was fortunate enough to be included in the annual Research Day at UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, where staff, students and Honorary Fellows get together to hear what everyone is up to. I presented a brief overview of some of the themes of our project (rather less adequately than Richard did at the Joseph Banks conference) but, more importantly, was inspired by some of the papers I heard.
One of these was from Matthew Paskins, who is a doctoral student working on ’The Society of Arts and cultures of invention and experiment’. His paper was called ‘Simple machines’, and highlighted the frequency with which machines and tools considered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (f. 1754) were praised for their simplicity. As Mat pointed out, the SoA demonstrates an alternative intellectual property regime to the one we’re familiar with for this period of industrial revolution, steam engines and patents, focusing as it did on small technologies for use in environments like workhouses, prisons and ships.
With its focus on the public good, and its offer of prizes, or premiums, for potential solutions to specified problems, there are fascinating parallels to be drawn with the Board of Longitude. There are numerous cross-overs, for example in the facts that John Harrison submitted a design to the SoA and that Captain Bligh’s Bounty voyage was given the BoL’s K2 timekeeper, while also hoping to win a SoA premium for the successful transplantation of breadfruit.
However, there are also interesting differences, and this issue of simplicity is one. Mat outlined the various meanings and contexts of this word for machines and technology at the SoA, and much of his list struck me as a polar opposite to what Harrison was producing as he laboured on his third sea timekeeper (or, indeed, the process of calculating lunar distances). The videos Jonathan Betts has done on the conservation of H3 (Pt 1, Pt 2, Pt 3, Pt 4, Pt 5 and Pt 6) show just how very, very complex it was – how unlikely to have been usable, adaptable, mendable and replicable by others, or even himself. Even the ‘winning’ design, H4, had to be adapted, simplified and redesigned by others before it became a practical device – and even then it required skilled users and the distribution of accurate time by astronomers. It was doing a different thing, of course, but Mat’s list of ‘simplicities’ certainly got me thinking:
1) Freedom from friction
This was a basic element of simplicity, and does invite comparison with Harrison’s use of the naturally lubricated wood lignum vitae in his clocks. However, this usage also includes the idea of freedom from obstruction, disorder and complexity within the design.
In this sense, the workings of the machine were understood to be open to view, easily explained by the maker and comprehensible to others. This was in line with the idea that the SoA offered premiums in lieu of patents, encouraging knowledge to be shared and improvements replicated. Harrison, of course, had to be pushed hard to ‘discover’, or reveal, the hidden workings of H4 to the BoL committee.
3) Natural resemblance
Linking with natural theological ideas, schemes and machines were viewed as more ‘simple’ if they worked in analogy to natural processes or productions. This made them more fit, more pleasing, less disruptive and more obviously beneficial, as following the example of the Creator.
The commendable simplicity of some of the ideas judged by the SoA was presented as making them usable in different ways and in a range of contexts and locations. The opposite of complex, specialised tools, fit for only one job, such machines were seen to be good value, obviously beneficial and easy to use.
5) Division of labour
Here, Mat was inspired by his readings of Adam Smith and Charles Babbage. Rather than deskilling, he noted that the simplicity of the tool or process was commended for making production more efficient and for allowing the individual using it to understand it thoroughly and, by this expertise, to have the opportunity to invent improvements, thus improving both the machine and, perhaps, make his name.
Machines that were cheap to build, cheap to replicate and less likely to break were seen as obviously good, in part because they would give greater independence to individuals who could now afford them.
The SoA’s secretary, Arthur Aikin, was much interested in antiquarianism and frequently gave addresses to the Society that linked it to manufacture and applied science. His theme was in part how technologies have aided human culture, improved lives, but also included laudatory comments on the simplicity of ancient machines. Perhaps linking back to the idea of natural resemblance, there was something to learn about machines of earlier, ‘simpler’, more ‘natural’ times.