It seems that questions current to our project are active in my head all the time these days. You wouldn’t think that the new show curated by Grayson Perry at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, would have much to do with the problem of longitude, but it raised some interesting questions for me when I visited this weekend.
The show itself is surprisingly effective, charming and thought provoking. It presents Perry’s highly personal response to the British Museum through a combination of his own work and his selection of objects from the collections, with a personalised label commentary. It works around concepts of craftsmanship, culturally constructed meaning, and the sanctity of objects. This not only links nicely to questions that we’re considering in the ‘Things’ seminar in Cambridge this term (which you can follow on a separate blog), but also reminded me of ideas raised by Eoin in his fascinating paper, at the Exploring Empire conference in July at the National Maritime Museum, on the meaning of chronometers during the mutiny on the Bounty.
More specifically, two objects got me thinking. The first, Head of a Fallen Giant (2008) (which you can see in the photostream here) is described by Perry as his attempt to create an ‘English ethnographic object.’ Resembling a cross between a barnacle-encrusted skull and a corroded mine this is ‘the skull of a decaying maritime power.’ I was struck at the high proportion of technological objects that were included in the encrusting layer, as well as many images of coinage. What would a similar object for our period’s growing maritime superpower look like?
The second object was in the section on mapping, in which Perry’s point is how maps are culturally constructed, not just simple diagrams of reality. Of course, our entire project on longitude tells us that. Perry has included a large tapestry with a personal map of the British Museum surrounded by relevant London locations. This more specifically made me think of one of my most exciting finds to date, A New and Exact Map of Toryland, with the dangerous Rocks and Shoals of all the Jacobite Islands lying in the same Parallel nth ye Red Sea whose Latitude is 1688, and Longitude 1714 (1729), in the Bodleian Library. In this latitude and longitude were used as metaphors to navigate the eighteenth-century political landscape; a personal, cultural construction like Perry’s.
Thanks to Grayson Perry and the British Museum, for a very enjoyable visit which also got me thinking.
Is it odd that we talk so much about longitude without much reference to latitude? Indeed, the word has only occurred four times, in a year’s worth of posts on this blog. When I was accepted onto this project last year, a friend asked how I could be studying longitude without latitude, many jokes have been made about how much ‘latitude’ we take, or are given, in our study of longitude, and any of our talks to a non-specialist audience usually start with an explanation of latitude and longitude and why one is easier to find than the other.
I’ve been noticing that this was also the case in the eighteenth century. One of my favourite pamphlet contributors to the longitude debate was Jacob Rowe. In 1725 he published Navigation improved: In two books. Book 1 introduced ‘an exact description of the fluid quadrant for the latitude,’ and Book 2 ‘an essay on the discovery of the longitude, by a new invention of an everlasting Horometer.’ He devoted equal text and image space to both, and argued that accurate measurement of longitude was pointless without first making latitude measurements as accurate as possible.
Likewise, wordplay on latitude was used in relationship to longitude in our period. To give another favourite example, an anonymous poem entitled The Star-gazer: or Latitude for Longitude was published in 1739. This deserves a later blog post in its own right as it raises interesting relationships between gender and the longitude problem, like those Becky touched on in her last post. In the poem, an old natural philosopher is cuckolded by his young wife, while he obsessively searches for a solution to the longitude problem. Various phallic wordplay is made over ‘longitude’ and the wife taking much too much ‘latitude.’ She claims to find a solution to distract him from her misdemeanours, but he ends with the lines ‘tho’ you talk of LONGITUDE, I nothing find but – LATITUDE.’ Years later, in 1836, the comic artist George Cruikshank made similar play with length and breadth, and gender, in his illustration series A Comic Alphabet, where L is for Latitude and Longitude. You can see it here.
In my work on the cultural importance of the longitude problem, it’s useful to remember how much this was connected to latitude in the eighteenth-century mind, just as it is today.
Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which aims “to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire”. It is the excuse to devote science and history of science blog posts to women of the past, as well as to recall those who have given more direct inspiration to the writer. Sharon Howard has collected many of today’s posts on Tumblr.
Ada, Byron’s daughter and Countess of Lovelace, has a tenuous link to our theme in as much as she is credited with writing the first ‘computer programme’ for Charles Babbage‘s Analytical engine, which, like his Difference engine, aimed to automate the production of numerical tables, reducing human error. In particular, he was thinking of astronomical tables produced for longitude determination – the Nautical Almanac that had attracted so much recent criticism. It was this that caught the interest of government.
I’ll admit, though, that I’ve always found Ada Lovelace a slightly strange symbol for the achievements of women in science. While her mathematics tutor, Augustus De Morgan suggested, to her mother, that she might have the potential to be ”an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”, there is some doubt as to how much she actually achived (see Thony Christie on this point). It is likely that Babbage himself over-emphasised her role as a PR exercise for his machine, and Lovelace’s youth, attractiveness, fame and wealth may have been as important as her mathematical abilties. While she played a role, as many other women, in explaining scientific work to a wider audience, the programming idea seems to have been outlined to her by Babbage, who was inspired by the punchcards used for the Jacquard Loom.
Another irony is that, had Babbage’s Difference and Analytical engines come to fruition, they could have had the effect of actually reducing the vanishingly small number of women who made a living from scientific work in the 19th century. The aim was to replace the human computer, an area in which women were, at times, accepted, most famously in Harvard Observatory as ‘Pickering’s Harem’.
It is a female computer, then, rather than the putative female computer programmer, that is the real subject of this post. She is one of only a handful of women to have received money directly from the Board of Longitude, and only one of two to have done so in her own right, for the others were widows – of Tobias Mayer and Charles Mason – who were paid for their husband’s work and tables. She was Mary Edwards who has, fortunately, been researched and rescued for posterity in an article (£) by Mary Croarken (who will be speaking at Greenwich on Saturday 15 October as part of the Maskelyne Symposium).
Edwards did piecemeal work, from her home in Shropshire, doing computations for the Nautical Almanac. She might well have been lost to history, for the accounts list her husband, John Edwards, a clergyman, as receiving payment for work on 6 months-worth of each alamanac from 1773 to 1784. It was, however, Mary who had done most of the calcuations, thus doubling the family income. This was only revealed after her husband’s death in 1784, when Edwards asked Nevil Maskelyne if she could continue work in order to support herself and her daughters. He agreed, and the accounts move seamlessly from ‘John Edwards’ to ‘Mary Edwards’.
While the work was not mathematically advanced, and it was certainly tedious, Croarken notes that the underlying principles had to be understood: “Mary Edwards had both knowledge and experience and, by the early 19th century, is known to have played a role in teaching younger computers”. In addition, she was accurate and her rate of errors was “unusually low”. Working under her own name she also increased her workload, computing 12 months of each year’s Almanac, half of the whole computing power needed (each month is calculated twice and compared). The other half of the work was undertaken by three or four other individuals.
Edwards continued her work, bringing her daughters into the family trade, into the new century. There were no problems, although also no advancement, until Maskelyne’s death in 1811. On John Pond’s taking over the editing of the Nautical Almanac, she suddenly found her work being reduced, leading her to petition the Board and Parliament. Croarken writes that “The Board acknowledged that she had been a good and faithful worker for many years and allowed her to compute 8 months of the Nautical Almanac while being paid for almost 12 months’ work. Although this did largely relieve her financial difficulties, it did not reinstate her to the more prestigious position of Nautical Almanac comparer”, which she had briefly enjoyed over the last few years.
Mary Edwards died in 1815, her daughter Eliza continuing as a computer until 1832, when the work of the Nautical Alamanc was centralised, and computing ceased to be the cottage industry in which the Edwards had specialised. As in other fields in the 19th century, such women had their earning power removed. It was not reinstated until the very end of the century, when the idea of women leaving home to receive training or undertake work became a (rare) possibility.
Some time back, Adrian Teal was good enough to share a great quote with me, and it is high time that I got it up onto this blog. It is nice because it gives us a very different view of John Harrison, the humble carpenter from the provinces who dared to stand up to the scientific elite of the Royal Society and Board of Longitude.
The quote is from a biography of the aritist Thomas Gainsborough by his friend, Captain Philip Thicknesse, and reports the comments of Gainsborough’s brother John, known as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his wild and somewhat outrageous inventions.There was yet another Gainsborough brother, Humphrey, who achieved some success with both the Royal Society and the Society of Arts for inventions including a drill plough and tide mill, and was remembered by Thicknesse as “one of the most ingenious men that ever lived, and one of the best that ever died”. Jack, however, was much more in the mad inventor mould, being chiefly remembered for attempting to fly on copper wings and inventing a self-rocking cradle.
As a deluded inventor and schemer, Jack was, naturally, linked to the search for longitude: he is said to have worked on a timekeeper that he hoped would be effective at sea. Aparently he planned a trip to the East Indies to test his invention but died before embarking. Adrian told me that according to G.W. Fulcher (another Thomas Gainsborough biographer), “though the result did not fully answer his expectations, a sum of money was awarded him for his ingenuity”.
In his biography of Thomas, Thicknesse referred to the one time he had met Jack, around 1768 in Sudbury. The family was not well off, and Jack’s wife reported that all available money, mostly sent by Thomas, went on “brasswork to discover the longitude”. Jack showed Thicknesse his device, who wrote, “I could scarcely detect whether his deranged imagination or his wonderful ingenuity was most to be admired…”. Thicknesse went on:
“He informed me that he had visited Mr Harrison with his timepiece, ‘But,’ said he, ‘Harrison made no account of me in my shabby coat, for he had Lords and Dukes with him. After he had shown the Lords that a great motion of the machine would no ways affect its regularity, I whispered to him to give it a gentle motion, Harrison started, and in return whispered me to stay, as he wanted to speak to me after the rest of the company were gone.’”
No more is reported, sadly. Whatever the truth of Harrison’s apparent discomfort as a result of Jack Gainsborough’s question, and the image of Scheming Jack as a longitude martyr, it is fascinating to catch a glimpse of a rather different Harrison, who entertained the rich and powerful at his showroom and did not care to notice a provincial inventor in a shabby coat.