As you’ve already seen in Richard’s post, four members of the project – Richard, Alexi, Sophie and I – spent last week at the annual symposium of the Scientific Instrument Commission in Kassel, Germany. The theme – Instruments, Images and Texts – seemed particularly pertinent to us, bringing together a wide range of our research and highlighting the work that we do pulling together the archives in Cambridge, the instruments in Greenwich, and a huge diversity of sources from elsewhere.
Alexi opened our panel session by looking at the different technologies encountered and employed by the Board of Longitude, how these were considered by both the Commissioners and the external ‘public,’ and how these became ‘black boxes.’ I then followed looking at the visual discussions of the longitude problem on paper – maps, diagrams, illustrations – and how these posed a visual problem in the early hunt for longitude. Richard brought his research right up to date, from his visit to Göttingen, talking about Tobias Mayer’s work on the lunar distance method, and how his tables and instruments changed and translated in the process of being considered by the Board. Finally, Sophie looked at the end of the Board, and how thinking of the Nautical Almanac as an instrument as well as a standardised text can help us to understand the relationships between the different players in the Board of Longitude’s demise. The panel went well and we were glad to meet some of our advisory board and get their feedback.
Elsewhere in the conference, I was struck by a similar concern with the questions of replication, translation and standardisation which had woven through our panel. Papers considered how historical actors have replicated and changed each other’s collections, the process of replicating and using historic instruments in a museum, and, in a more modern sense of replication, how to give these digital life through online databases and collections online programmes. One long panel considered how eighteenth-century cabinets of experimental philosophy translated and communicated the knowledge they created to a wider public, and other papers looked at how older scientific knowledge can be translated for a modern museum audience. Further speakers considered how texts and instruments changed and were re-interpreted between different users, raising problems of standard in both quality and parity and, coming back to databases, we began to think about how these could be brought back together across European boundaries.
Outside of the presentations, we had ample opportunity to make our own connections between instrument, image and text. The very first evening introduced us to the marvellous collections of the Landgraves of Kassel in both the Cabinet of Astronomy and Physics, and the stunning baroque Marble Bath. We saw planetarium shows, pendulums, mural quadrants and globes. We viewed the beautiful alchemical manuscript collections in the Murhard Library, were initiated into the history of the early university at Göttingen, saw modern astrophysicists at work, and happily investigated the stores of the Historical Museum of Frankfurt. Almost overwhelmed by the wealth of things to see and learn, the breaks provided the perfect chance to pick the brains of the many experts in attendance, and to think as a group about the Board of Longitude in its wider context. I, for one, think this conference will be ‘instrumental’ in taking our research forward. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.
To put your minds at rest, I have been attempting to do a bit of research on this trip too. This has included going to archives in Göttingen and Hannover to look at letters relating to the years of lobbying and negotiation – between Göttingen and London - that had to happen before Tobias Mayer, or rather his widow, was finally awarded £3,000 for his contribution towards making the lunar distance method possible at sea.
Funnily enough, most of the stuff I looked at was in German and pretty indecipherable (to me) due to the handwriting and my own lack of German skills, although I did come across some letters in English, French and Latin as well. I’ve ordered lots of copies, so we’ll have plenty to work on, but a couple of things caught my attention immediately.
One thing I’m still trying to piece together a bit more, for instance, is Christopher Irwin’s marine chair, and I’m pretty sure I saw it described in one letter as ‘Erwin’s Easy Chair’, which makes it sound even more marvelous. I hope I’m not disappointed when I look at the copy again.
Another letter (in French) was from Mayer’s widow, Marie Victoire, to Lord Grenville. It’s an attempt to persuade Grenville to help her get the reward her late husband’s work merited. The bit that caught my attention was a passage that seems to claim that a repeating circle of Mayer’s design was used for longitude determinations by lunar distance on a voyage to ‘Arabia’ begun in 1761 by Carsten Niebuhr. It is well known that Niebuhr carried out lunar distances, but the other evidence suggests that this was with an octant. It may well be that she was wrong about the instrument used. It is more likely, for instance, that she was thinking of the ‘astrolabium’, a circular surveying instrument based on Mayer’s repeating principle, with which Niebuhr made a few measurements (which was something Ivan Tafteberg Jakobsen talked about at the conference in Kassel). In any case, it’s got me wanting to check things out a bit more.
Richard is not the only one who has been travelling this week. I attended a colloquium in Paris looking at steps to getting more of Europe’s, and the world’s, observatories recognised as World Heritage sites (currently only a few observatories make the list, usually as part of a larger area: the Royal Observatory in Maritime Greenwich, Pulkovo Observatory in the St Petersburg inscription, Edinburgh’s old Royal Observatory falls within the Edinburgh Old and New Towns inscription, Jantar Mantar in Jaipur and some ancient archaeological sites). One proposal is to suggest a route or intinerary of observatories which, collectively, can be considered outstanding world heritage. Such transboundary, multiple-site inscriptions have already been made by UNESCO, for example in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route through France and Spain and, intruigingly, the Struve Geodetic Arc.
The meeting was held at the Institut Astrophysique de Paris, which is right next to the Paris Observatory. I stayed in the IAP for one night, and could see the historic observatory, and the sadly delapidated equatorial building, from my window. The main building dates back to 1667 and the institution, of course, has multiple links with Greenwich and the story of longitude on land and at sea. Perhaps most important were the attempts – by astronomical observations, trigonometical survey and rocket signals - to establish the exact difference in longitude between Greenwich and Paris, so allowing accurate comparisons of data from the two observatories and geodetic surveys by both nations.
Many of the characters we’ve met in this blog before were involved in these attempts. The 18th-century projects, led by Cassini de Thury, Joseph Banks, William Roy and the Board of Ordnance, can be read about in this article by Jean-Pierre Martin and Anita McConnell. These surveys were remeasured by François Arago and Henry Kater in the 1820s, and John Herschel and Edward Sabine used a chain of observing stations and visual signals (aka rockets) to establish the distance in 1825, on behalf of the Board of Longitude.
Reminders were thick on the ground around the observatory in Paris. The IAP is on Boulevard Arago, where an empty plinth commemorates the astronomer, and the Observatory’s entrance is accessed via Avenue de l’Observatoire and Rue Cassini (after Cassini I). Although I forgot to look for it, Paris has also marked the Paris Meridian with the Arago Medallions, exactly 9′ 6/10″ away from Greenwich’s meridian – according to Sabine, Herschel and the Board of Longitude.
Just imagine trying to create a Board of Longitude-themed trail! It would be a long trip.
Following on from my trip to Marbach to see Tobias Mayer’s birthplace, we’ve also just visited the University of Göttingen, where he was a professor from 1751 until his death in 1762. The Institute of Physics there has a good museum, which includes several Mayer-related items.
The largest is a mural quadrant by the London instrument-maker John Bird, which he personally installed at the University’s observatory in 1755-6. This was an instrument that Mayer used for his astronomical work relating to the Moon, which underpinned the tables for which he was posthumously awarded £3,000 by the Commissioners for Longitude.
Although staff at the Institute were quick to point out that the quadrant is now set up incorrectly (facing east-west rather than north-south), the opportunity for a team photo was too good to miss. From left to right, by the way, are: Alexi
, Sophie, me and Katy.
If we look relaxed, it’s because we’ve given our papers already!
A few months ago I did a blog on Tobias Mayer, and since I’m in Germany this week for the Scientific Instrument Symposium in Kassel, I’m trying to fit in as much Mayernalia (if that’s the word) as I can.
Yesterday, I took the train down to Marbach. This lovely town is where Mayer was born, in what is now the Tobias Mayer Museum. At the time of his birth in 1723, it was quite a new building, since the centre of Marbach had been destroyed in a fire thirty years earlier. As a result, the town now has lots of beautiful 18th-century architecture, of which the Mayer house is one of the more modest examples. It looks very picturesque today, but must have been rather cosy for a family, with his father’s working area (he was a wheelwright) taking up the ground floor. The museum itself is small, but I had an incredibly warm welcome and was allowed to look around the whole building (since they’re between tenants in the part they rent out) – so thanks and best wishes to all the staff and volunteers there.
With Marbach also being the birthplace of Friedrich Schiller, who dominates the town, it was a bit odd going there in search of someone much less well commemorated, but we history of science tourists must stick to our guns! So if you’re in Marbach (or Stuttgart, which is close by), do try to drop in – particularly next year when they’ll be commemorating the 250th anniversary of his premature death (a few days just after his 39th birthday). We’ll try to keep an eye on that and let you know what’s happening.
Matthew Paskins of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at UCL came to a project workshop last week and has written this guest post.
Last week’s Board of Longitude project workshop, ‘All a-Board’, raised several significant issues about the relationship between the eighteenth-century British state and expertise. Although it’s an unavoidable term, ‘expertise’ had to be said between gritted teeth: it is not always clear what was meant by this concept in this period. There are significant questions about what exactly is meant by expertise and how to relate it to broader bureaucratic structures. Etymological dictionaries suggest that English did not entertain ‘expertise’ as such, or a group of people called ‘experts’, until the mid 1820s at the earliest. The function may have existed, of course, without the precise modern term, but three questions remain: was the eighteenth-century ‘expert’ an outsider called in by the state for his special knowledge? Was this the only – or even the typical - form of ‘expertise’ in this period? And what, if anything, does this tell us about the relation between knowledge and the state?
According to recent work by the eighteenth-century historians Julian Hoppit and Joanna Innes, the answer to the first two questions is no, and the answer to the third is complicated. The main complication is Parliament. Hoppit argues that in attempts to standardise weights and measures - one case where we might expect outside expert knowledge to be brought in, early in the process, given the acknowledged need for an agreed set of standards - a relatively small number of activist Members of Parliament were the drivers behind both data collection and legislative reform. Data collection, he argues, aimed to reveal what practices were in place throughout the kingdom; he equates this with John Howard’s prison reform, the work of the Board of Agriculture, and Thomas Gilbert’s efforts to discover patterns of practice countrywide in pushing for new legislation to provide relief for the poor. In each case regional practice was believed to vary widely, but to be discoverable. To this we might add the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which from 1754 sought improvements from throughout the country - not in the belief that there was an expert constituency to which the Society had special access, but as a means of coordinating and encouraging regional work. Although by the 1820s Davies Gilbert - a typical committee man - could consider himself instrumental in the reform of weights and measures, and Henry Kater performed a number of important experiments at the behest of the Royal Society, this followed a long period of collecting and coordinating local knowledge, which did not involve anyone who could straightforwardly be defined as an expert.
In other words, there was a complicated relationship between Parliament at the centre and practice in the regions: local and central, and private and public, were not easy to distinguish, as they often mingled with each other in the legislation, lobbying and investigations of Parliament. Joanna Innes summarises the position as follows:
“The eighteenth-century British central executive was scarcely moribund: it demonstrated an impressive capacity to extract tax monies from British subjects, and to sustain global warfare. Ministers also kept an alert eye on home affairs, monitoring the pulse of the national economy, and noting, in order to contain or crush, signs of discontent or disaffection. But they did not pursue a programme of domestic improvement, nor attempt closely to monitor or direct the activities of local government in county or town, except in times of crisis. Local communities were left very much to their own initiative. The opportunity to obtain local legislation, authorizing actions that would not otherwise have been legal, or putting the coercive force of the law behind local projects, represented one of the most powerful resources available to those striving to exercise that initiative.”
That this also makes a significant difference to our picture of the expert can perhaps best be understood in terms of the nature of the expert’s authority. Activist MPs were not tied to particular roles, campaigns or precision practices. Instead, they were ‘charismatics’: campaigns around issues like weights or measures stood or fell with them rather than with the structures to which they belonged. This did change, but it is important not to impose a ‘separate spheres’ argument on eighteenth-century bureaucracy, or to interpret what was actually individual initiative simply in terms of augmenting bureaucracy and stabilised structures.
… ‘The Brick Moon‘, a short story by Edward Everett Hale. I’m telling you this because, although it was published in 1870-71, it contains a nice reference to the Board of Longitude.
Hale’s story is told as if found in the papers of a Captain Frederic Ingham, and describes the construction and accidental launch of an artificial moon – funnily enough, made of bricks. The longitude bit comes right at the start, when he describes why the brick moon was built. It all began, we learn, back at college 30 years earlier:
‘We came across this business of the longitude, and, as we talked, in the gloom and glamour of the old South Middle dining-hall, we had going the usual number of students’ stories about rewards offered by the Board of Longitude for discoveries in that matter, – stories, all of which, so far as I know, are lies. Like all boys, we had tried our hands at perpetual motion. For me, I was sure I could square the circle, if they would give me chalk enough. But as to this business of the longitude it was reserved for Q. [Ingham's brother] to make the happy hit and to explain it to the rest of us.’
The scheme Q. proposes is that they will launch artificial moons into orbits matching the meridians of Greenwich and New Orleans, allowing mariners to determine their longitude by measuring the apparent height of these satellites (and this is said to be the first fictional description of an artificial satellite). It’s sort of similar to finding latitude from the pole star, but a bit full of holes as an idea.
Of course, this is all just an excuse to, launch a group of people into space, in this case by accident. Read the story if you want to know more, though suffice to say it has a heavily moral overtone. But what interested me was finding a specific reference to the Board over 40 years after its demise.
Look forward to more chance finds in future blogs (occasionally).
Two recent posts on this blog have dealt with images of Nevil Maskelyne made during his lifetime or, possibly, made of other people who are now assumed to be Nevil Maskelyne (see Becky’s ‘Mystery Astronomer‘ and Richard’s ‘Ovidian Tribute to Nevil Maskelyne‘). This post relates the production of a bust of the Astronomer Royal some twenty years after his death, and the difficulties encountered when trying to match up the new object with previous pictures and memories. The reflections of one contemporary observer of this process have provided intriguing material for the historian about Maskelyne’s character and physical appearance, while raising even more possibly unresolvable queries. The letters and some of the images referred to are part of the recently acquired Maskelyne papers that I have been working with during my internship with the ROG this summer.
When Nevil Maskelyne passed away in February 1811, his family had a cast (or death mask) taken of him in order to have a bust made from it at an appropriate time. Though his daughter Margaret described him as looking “most beautiful after death,” it did not turn out to be helpful for its appointed task. The bust was made in 1830 by Robert William Sievier who produced more than 50 portrait busts and statues for the Royal Academy during his outstanding career. Sievier was given two images of Nevil Maskelyne and the cast to work from. But when the Rev John Prowett went to view the bust on behalf of Margaret, though praising Sievier’s skill, he declared the pictures and the cast unfit for purpose. In putting his thoughts down in writing, he also provided a very warm description of Maskelyne’s character and physical features:
“Mr Sievier is in a difficult situation as to producing a Bust that shall exhibit a just resemblance of Dr Maskelyne. He has two pictures to model after: neither of them affording a good guide. That which represents your father’s kind & benevolent, as well as cheerful expression, degrades the resemblance by coarseness of feature and complexion; the other is perhaps more like him, but the expression of it is by no means his, either as to sense or good-nature. The cast is still worse for a model.
“I think Mr Sievier’s performance in its present state, gives the idea of a much larger and taller man, than the reality was: if I remember right, Dr Maskelyne’s face was round, which together with a certain playfulness of manner, preserved an air of youth to a late period. This is comparatively long: the eyes are too large and the attitude should more correspond with that of the smaller picture. … if the artist were to give a representation of your father after either of the pictures, refining upon the coarseness of feature & complexion in the first, or giving openness, & strength of expression to the last, he would produce a good resemblance. The cast has no likeness whatever to the living original.”
It would have been unlikely for Prowett to emphasise any negative features (of character or physique) of Maskelyne’s when writing to his daughter, but having read through many of Maskelyne’s letters I noted an occasional ‘certain playfulness of manner’ in his tone, and thus tend to support the warmth of Prowett’s assessment as more than mere flattery. The assertion of Maskelyne’s kind and benevolent nature is a helpful balance to the ‘villainous’ depiction of him in Dava Sobel’s ‘Longitude’.
With regard to what Maskelyne actually looked like, the letter raises more questions than it answers. Prowett did not identify for us which two pictures Sievier was using out of the six possible images that were made during Maskelyne’s lifetime (or five, if the disputed John Downman 1779 portrait of Maskelyne is indeed of someone different.) So we are left to judge for ourselves which one shows the most kind and cheerful expression, and which one looked more like him even though the expression was not at all his. Though we possess the modern wonders of photoshop, we cannot cut and paste as Prowett suggests to produce a fitting resemblance.
The bust was finished and kept in the family home at Basset Down until at least 1897. It is credited in a short note, probably by Margaret Maskelyne, as “having hit off the eye and eye brow very well.” Its current whereabouts, if it still exists, are unknown to me, but I would love to know what it looked like and what happened to it. The cast, or ‘death mask’ would also be fascinating to see, and we have at least one clue as to what it looked like in this sketch:
RIP Nevil Maskelyne, 9 February 1811
 Margaret Maskelyne to her aunt, Lady Booth, 11 February 1811.
 Prowett is described as a ‘cousin’ of Maskelyne’s by Thereza Story-Maskelyne in 1897, though having examined the family tree it seems he must have been a very distant cousin, if one at all.
 J. Prowett to Mrs Storey (Margaret Maskelyne), 25 April 1830.
 Thereza Story-Maskelyne refers to it in her history of the life and work of her eminent grandfather-in-law for the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine (June 1897), 29, 126-37.