I too recently went to Edinburgh and was impressed by the reopened museum. As Katy says, the open vistas and object wall are a great introduction to the Museum’s space and collections. I also enjoyed the range of approaches in the galleries, where chronology was often treated fairly loosely. There were some fairly subtle themes, for example about particular collectors, which might be missed by a large portion of visitors but which gave those with more time another level of interpretation to engage with.
Like Katy, too, I was very happy to see astronomy, timekeeping and navigation represented, with a good dose of longitude. I was so excited, in fact, that I took this rather hazy photograph. It focuses on the labels rather than the objects, but it is always nice to see the Nautical Almanac taking its place in displays!
Richard and I will be back in Edinburgh next week, for a workshop on ‘Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration‘, so perhaps one of us could take a slightly more aesthetically pleasing picture then! In the mean time, here is the NMS’s page on this gallery, called ‘Earth in Space‘.
As you will see from their site, this gallery is part of the general ‘science bit’, set in a room beyond the stuff-animals-and-biology bit, and distinct from the industry-and-technology and the decorative-arts bits. The blurb goes:
What is out there? Where do we fit into the Universe? People have always been fascinated by what lies beyond our planet. Technology helps us investigate these big questions. Scientists use evidence from Earth and space to understand more about the Universe and the origins of life.
And, hence, the gallery includes not only medieval to 19th-century astronomical instruments, clocks and demonstration models, but also fossils, meteorites, films and interactive displays about modern astronomy and a model of DNA.
To me it seems a shame that these objects were thus removed from their historical context. During this project, and in thinking about future longitude-themed displays, we have been considering such instruments in connection with a whole range of themes: changing manufacturing processes, a developing consumer society, maritime trade and empire to name the most obvious. It seems a shame to hide these connections and to depersonalise the objects and the knowledge they helped produce or share. Finding longitude wasn’t (just) a scientific problem about knowing where we are, it was about practice, pragmatics, economics and politics.
Science and its material culture are, in fact, represented elsewhere in the museum. There are, for example, galleries on ‘Art and Industry‘ and ‘Inspired by Nature‘, and the Scottish galleries bring science and technology into a general account of Scotland’s history. Likewise, it is good to see some historical objects brought into the ‘Natural World‘ displays, of which the ‘Earth in Space’ gallery is part. However, a nagging feeling remains that there is an unnecessary divide created between (pure, objective, depersonalised) science and (human, contextualised) art, industry and culture. Or perhaps, for museums which aim to interest a whole range of groups and to create galleries that can link to aspects of the national curriculum, such divisions are unavoidable?
I have been in Edinburgh this weekend for an art history conference, presenting about madness in relationship to longitude in my usual plate from The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth. The conference was rewarding and stimulating, involving a range of papers that considered madness on the intersection between science and art. I learnt a lot and met some fascinating people.
This also gave me the chance to soak up some culture and atmosphere in the ‘Athens of the North,’ and my first port of call was, of course, the newly re-vamped National Museum of Scotland. It is stunning. From the grand gallery that resembles a Victorian bird-cage, vistas open up into the surrounding galleries on ‘Natural World,’ ‘World Cultures,’ ‘Art and Design’ and ‘Science and Technology.’ One whole wall of the grand gallery is also taken up by a brilliant ‘Window on the World’ which pulls together 800 objects as a snapshot on the collection. I loved the juxtaposition of bicycles with Isnik tiles.
But what was most exciting was to see an entire case devoted to navigation at sea within the ‘Earth in Space’ gallery! It’s good to see the problem of longitude given such prominence in a consideration of the relationship between the earth and the heavens. The case focuses on local hero Alexander Dalrymple and his work on mapping and hydrography for the East India Company, but it also includes all our old favourites in the instrument story. Backstaffs, precision chronometers, and the Nautical Almanac, sit happily in this gallery alongside rocks, minerals and a giant trilobite. Lets hope that interest in longitude lasts as long as the trilobite apparently will!
Katy Barrett and myself, after discussing the dearth of eighteenth century focused discussion in the HPS department here at Cambridge decided to put together a seminar series focused on two of our shared passions: the long eighteenth century and material culture. The result was “Things” which managed to secure funding as a Graduate Research Group from CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). There have been several great sessions already this term and the latest, on the Telescope, was given by two of the project team. This seminar saw us move away from discussions of museology, display and broken-things, themes that dominated the past two sessions; instead both the talks and discussion this week were more concerned with the historical importance of telescopes in the long-eighteenth century.
Dr Alexi Baker, despite a terrible cold, gave an insightful and inspiring talk on the variety of uses and symbolic roles the telescope held for a cross-section of European Society in the eighteenth century. From teaching, navigating and surveying to display and spectacle, Alexi’s talk gave great insight into the quite unexpected level of penetration the telescope had in European society in that period. With stunning pictures of instrument manufacturers’ trade cards, Alexi used the range of items for sale and of interested cliental in optical items to demonstrate the popularity and importance of the pastime and research as well as make insightful comments on the ubiquity of the telescope as a non-specialised item. Alexi was also keen to highlight that, despite many preconceived ideas, the telescope demonstrates that there is no need to divorce utility from aesthetics in eighteenth century ‘things’.
Dr Richard Dunn followed with a talk that contrasted Alexi’s perspectives effectively. Looking at the iconography, utility and technological development of the telescope and other optical devices, Richard gave insight into the eighteenth century concept of useful and moral knowledge and reminded us that in order to increase our historical understanding of the objects discussed by Alexi we must consider their contemporary interpretation and uses. One particularly interesting question was raised; to what extent did the increasing power of telescopes in the long eighteenth century factor in their consumption by society? Richard’s discussion of the iconography showed that the increasing enhancement of telescopic sight was certainly reflected in popular depictions of telescopes and would have therefore most likely factored in their consumption by gentlemen and men of science alike. Richard also simplified a lot of his specialised technical knowledge in order to highlight that an understanding of the technology behind telescopes is fundamental to our ability as historians to unpick the iconography and social importance of them and other lens-instruments in the long eighteenth century.
The discussion session was not dominated by any particular aspect of the talks, such was the diversity of the audience and their perspectives, but worked instead as an extension of the two talks. There was though some focus on the idea of morality and polite knowledge as contrasting with the production of scientific truth in the period. The concept of reading error and accuracy also entered into the debate with a reference to John Herschel’s warning to his fellow men of science that they should expect “masterpieces not miracles” form the instrument-makers workshop.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy listening for yourself: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1186872;jsessionid=D6524C94C9239F46B6FCD869DD4501B3
Today saw the announcement of the Queen Elizabeth Engineering Prize, offering £1 million for exceptional advances in engineering. It will be awarded biannually to individuals or teams of up to two people. Unsurprisingly, David Cameron, announcing the prize at the Science Museum today, compared it to the Longitude Prize – hinting at a glorious British past of science and engineering – as well as the Nobel Prize. Nick Clegg name-checked X Factor and the FA Cup.
Lord Rees, formerly President of the Royal Society and (still) Astronomer Royal, mentioned Longitude too today, in a Times article (paywall) headed ‘Isn’t it time to lure innovators with Longitude prizes?’. He opens,
We are repeatedly, and rightly, urged that the UK must channel more brainpower into innovation, jump-start new technologies, and enthuse young people towards careers in these fields. If we don’t get smarter, as a nation, we’ll surely get poorer…
before suggesting that ‘We can learn from a government initiative taken nearly 300 years ago – when Britain “ruled the waves”.’
In the article, Rees briefly reiterates the longitude story, via Sobel, and highlights the Harrison timekeepers as ‘the prime high-tech artifacts of the era’. He then goes on to describe various other ‘challenge prizes’:
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was set up to generate ideas for the Pentagon, but these often have commercial or social spin-offs. Darpa spends up to $10 million per year on challenges. For instance, there was a competition for driverless vehicles, challenged to navigate a 135-mile course across the Mojave Desert. In 2004, none of the 25 entrants succeeded; a year later, such was the improvement that five entrants completed the course.
Like the Longitude rewards, these are publicly financed, but Rees goes on to mention private initiatives, such as the California-based X Prize Foundation, ‘which oversees privately sponsored grand challenge prizes, with a typical value of $10 million’, ranging from for sub-orbital space flight to cheap but accurate genome sequencing, automated medical diagnosis to improved techniques for dealing with oil slicks. It’s strap-line is ‘Revolution through competition’. Rees notes:
Each prize unleashes investments from many competitors amounting to far more than the prize itself, and helps to focus competitive talent on an important challenge. Well-designed competitions are newsworthy enough to offer a much needed PR boost to the engineering profession. They raise the profile and esteem of innovators, and stimulate young people’s interest. For an individual or small company, the prize money is a significant incentive; if a big company wins, it’s the publicity that’s more important.
To be maximally worthwhile, a prize must address a theme that the public regard as important. It’s best if the contest can be followed as a “spectator sport” (robots, for instance). And this type of prize has other advantages over more conventional awards. The winner is decided objectively, as in athletics – and unlike Oscars and literary prizes. And they recognise and boost up-and-coming talent, unlike Nobel and similar prizes where the recognition may come only after decades.
Does this sound like the 18th-century experience of Longitude? More seriously, perhaps, are winners ever – then or now – decided objectively?
The piece ends with a call for such ‘challenge prizes’ in the UK. Rees does not mention the new engineering prize (unless the version of the article that I downloaded from Nexis is incomplete!), and so, obliquely, I presume that his point is that this prize, which doesn’t specify a particular challenge or set of challenges, is perhaps too open to get the kind of competitive spirit, financial investment and public interest he desires.
It is interesting, particularly in terms of the public interest we hope to generate in the theme of longitude with the various events and exhibitions at the NMM, to consider if the Board of Longitude’s rewards really do fit into the scheme that Rees has characterised. It was, of course, in origin a ‘challenge prize’ (and in 1818 it returned to a specific challenge with interest in the North West Passage) but it should be remembered that from the later 18th-century onward rewards were given for ideas, schemes and instrument that were general improvements in navigation and allied areas. Thus, while the X Prize – and, perhaps, Ken Livingstone’s £100,000 challenge to find a way of cooling the London Underground – are analogous to aspects of the Board’s remit, in some ways, the openness of this new QE Engineering Prize sits reasonably well with much of the Board’s history.
It’s always interesting to find longitude cropping up in spheres where you wouldn’t expect it, so I’ve been excited this week to find it mentioned in some unlikely correspondence. Horace Walpole, was one of the most prolific eighteenth-century correspondents. An antiquarian, art historian, man of letters, Whig politician and general bon viveur, he is probably best known for his extraordinary house, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham. The majority of his correspondence is now held in the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale, which has made the published Yale edition of these available and searchable online.
Looking for other material in the Lewis Walpole catalogue, I idly typed ‘longitude’ into the search field, thinking that it would be interesting to see how a man like Walpole, always discussed by historians of art and literature rather than of science, responded to the longitude problem. In a letter to Sir Horace Mann on 14th February 1753, he discussed his new role as a trustee of Sir Hans Sloane’s collections which would eventually become the British Museum: ‘We are a charming wise set, all philosophers, botanists, antiquarians and mathematicians; and adjourned our first meeting, because Lord Macclesfield, our chairman, was engaged to a party for finding out the longitude.’ Macclesfield was, of course, President of the Royal Society, and therefore an ex officio Commissioner of Longitude. However, the Board minutes only show a meeting on 17th July 1753. Perhaps it is significant that Walpole describes ‘a party for finding out the longitude’? He may be giving us a glimpse of the un-minuted, more social, discussions that went on outside of the official meetings.
But Walpole doesn’t only give us institutional interest. The following year on 20th November he wrote to Richard Bentley a ‘scolding letter’ about the fanciful schemes in which Bentley kept trying to get Walpole financially involved, commenting, ‘whenever you send me mighty cheap schemes for finding out longitudes and philosophers’ stones, you will excuse me if I only smile, and don’t order them to be examined by my council.’ What strikes me here is that Walpole is using a common throwaway reference to longitude as an impossible scheme, despite clearly being aware of the work of the Board of Longitude through his interactions with Macclesfield. By 1753 the Board had already met four times and had funded John Harrison to the tune of £1,500 to work on his time-keepers. So, we have the institutional considerations of the Board continuing to run alongside wider disparaging attitudes to the problem of longitude.
These are the kind of tantalising tit-bits of information that it’s such a joy to find in the most unlikely sources.
W.S. Lewis, The Yale Edition of Walpole’s Correspondence
Vol. 20, p.359
 Ibid. Vol.35, pp.190-1
Because last month’s Maskelyne Symposium, on 14-15 October, has now happened, the details have been taken off the NMM’s website. For posterity, therefore, I thought it would be wise to record details of the programme here. All-in-all, though, I thought the event went very well: many thanks to all the speakers, those who helped me organise things and to everyone who came to hear more.
On the afternoon of Friday 14 October, we began with a brief view of some of the Maskelyne-related objects that came to the National Maritime Museum in 2009. I began with a quick tour of the new instroductory gallery, Voyagers, which includes objects related to James Cook, John Harrison, Larcum Kendall and, of course, Maskelyne. These last included the pastel portrait attributed to John Russell, Maskelyne’s medal from the Institut Français on becoming one of their few Foreign Members and an orrery by William Jones that is said by the Maskelyne family to have belonged to Nevil’s daughter Margaret.
This was followed by two further session, one introducing the Maskelyne manuscript collection, led by Richard in the new Caird Library, and the other showing of Maskelyne’s observing suit (see picture in this post) and his wife’s wedding dress, led by Amy Miller.
The next day was the Symposium proper, with the following talks, after coffee and an introduction by Richard:
- Revisiting and Revising Maskelyne’s Reputation (Dr Rebekah Higgitt, NMM Curator of History of Science and Technology)
- Visualizing the Maskelynes (Dr Jenny Gaschke, NMM Curator of Fine Art)
- ‘The Rev. Mr. Nevil Maskelyne, F.R.S. and Myself’: the Mathematical Career of Maskelyne’s Sometime Assistant, Robert Waddington (Professor Jim Bennett, Director of the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford)
- Object talks by Rory McEvoy (NMM Curator of Horology) in the Royal Observatory’s Horology Workshop
- Calculating the Nautical Almanac: Maskelyne and his Human Computers (Dr Mary Croarken, independent scholar)
- The Maskelynes at Home (Dr Amy Miller, NMM Curator of Decorative Arts)
It was interesting that our ‘celebration’ of Maskelyne took a somewhat sideways view of the man, seen as much through the lives and work of his collaborators and colleagues or the eyes of biographers and artists as through his own writings. The man of science was discussed as a man at home, which is apt when home and work were so closely entwined at the Royal Observatory, and the physical remains of his life took as much pride of place as his intellectual heritage. Here was a man who was both “le dieu de l’astronomie” (to Delambre, according to Lalande), and who was short and stout with a penchant for dairy products.