Katy’s recent blog on clocks in novels reminded me of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in several parts between 1759 and 1767. Sterne’s novel also appeared in a recent Guardian list of clocks in books, which succinctly explains the timekeeper’s role in nearly preventing Tristram’s conception.
Referring to Tristram Shandy gives me an excuse to mention a couple of other quotes from this extraordinary work, which manages to refer to a bewildering array of topics, longitude included.
What’s interesting is that the novel’s publication dates span the various developments leading to the 1765 Longitude Act, which arose from the (largely) successful testing of two methods for finding longitude at sea – lunar distances and Harrison’s timekeeper (H4). Sterne’s brief references seem, however, to stem from an earlier period when the quest for longitude was considered one of the great imponderables.
In the first, Tristram’s uncle is in a quandary in his attempts to offer sympathy:
Before an affliction is digested – consolation ever comes too soon; – after it is digested – it comes too late: so that you see, madam, there is but a mark between these two, as fine almost as a a hair, for a comforter to take aim at: my uncle Toby was always either on this side, or on that of it, and would often say, he believed in his heart he could as soon hit the longitude…
The second is from Parson Yorick and needs little in the way of comment:
I think the procreation of children as beneficial to the world… as the finding out the longitude.
It’s easy to assume (or so I’d always assumed) that the adoption of new technologies is largely down to some assessment of the inherent qualities of the proposed innovations, so I always find it intriguing to come across instances where other factors are at work. I came across one example in writing a paper I gave about Tobias Mayer a few months ago.
It centres around the trials and adaptation of a circular instrument (a repeating circle) designed by Mayer and of which he sent a wooden model to London in 1755. The circularity of the instrument was crucial to Mayer’s claims that it could be used for accurate observations of lunar distances at sea, since by making repeated observations around the circle and then averaging them, you are taking advantage of the fact that a circle is always 360 degrees, so that even if you haven’t divided its scale evenly the differences cancel out. The circle by its nature guarantees the instrument’s accuracy.
But this principle was abandoned when the prototype came to Britain, where a brass version was made by one of London’s most trusted instrument makers, John Bird. Sea trials by Captain John Campbell showed the new instrument to be cumbersome, however, with only a third of the scale usable. The solution, James Bradley, the Astronomer Royal, later wrote, was that,
as the principal use of this [circular] construction is to obviate the inconvenience proceeding from the inaccurate division of instruments and as that might be sufficiently removed by the care and exactness with which Mr. Bird is known to execute those that he undertakes to make; a sextant of a radius, twice as long as that of the circular instrument, was made by him, and afterwards used by Capt. Campbell in taking several observations on board the Royal George in different cruises near Ushant in 1758 and 1759
This translation from circle to sextant meant discarding the mathematical certainty of the circle for the contingent guarantee of accuracy provided by the craftsmanship of one man, John Bird. To Bradley, Bird was so good that his name on the instrument was guarantee enough.
In later years Bird received a reward from the Board of Longitude for publishing an account of his method of dividing arcs by hand. Valuable hands indeed.
Portrait of John Bird (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, neg. PW3435)
Bird’s signature on an early marine sextant, c.1758 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, museum no. NAV1177)
It’s likely that few other people would tag this post as ‘longitude tourism’, but it was a momentous day for me on Sunday when I visited William Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, south London. This re-opened in November 2011 after a £400,000 redevelopment and refurbishment project which restored the structure to it’s former glory and has put in place a number of outreach and learning projects. After a checkered history, including neglect and bomb damage, the house is once again shining.
A statue of Hogarth and pug in Chiswick town centre
Hogarth's house and garden
Anyone to whom I have talked about my PhD over the last year will know that my project is based around the final plate from Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress in which an inmate of Bedlam tries to solve the longitude problem on the madhouse wall. I have therefore spent rather a lot of time on Hogarth recently who is on the way to becoming my hero. It was, consequently, a treat to see ‘my’ print on show at Hogarth’s House, alongside the rest of the Rake’s Progress, a complete set of A Harlot’s Progress, and The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Hogarth’s House suffers from the problem of many house museums in being an interesting historic building linked to an iconic figure, but with little original material from the house to display. The William Hogarth Trust have, however, collected an impressive range of objects to evoke Hogarth. The prints are joined by a copy of his theoretical text The Analysis of Beauty, an original engraving plate and his engraving tools, his official appointment document as Sergeant Painter to the King, and reproduction portraits; but also by careful replica furniture, period china and glassware, and finds from the house itself during the refurbishment. The domestic role of different areas is highlighted by appropriate cut-out figures from his engravings. It’s fun spotting ‘who’s who’! A small cupboard in one room houses child-size replicas of the clothes worn by Hogarth in a self-portrait, just one of the new elements to encourage family engagement.
Hogarth’s House is a simple but effective treatment of Hogarth as an artist and as an eighteenth-century man. My visit was rounded off by a visit to the nearby St. Nicholas Churchyard where Hogarth is buried, a peaceful English spot in the spring sunshine. He is immortalised by an epitaph from his friend the actor David Garrick as ‘great Painter of mankind … Whose pictur’d morals charm the mind.’ It is a shame that the house and churchyard are now separated by the busy cacophony of the Hogarth roundabout, but I feel this is a metropolitan contrast, and a modern urban tribute, of which Hogarth would have eminently approved.
This guest post is by Caitlin Homes, who did an internship on the NMM’s Maskelyne collections last summer. Her previous posts can be read here and here.
After spending five weeks last summer as an intern and immersing myself in the NMM’s collections relating to Nevil Maskelyne, I have found myself intrigued by the character of his relationship with Joseph Banks. A previous post on this blog highlighted two episodes in the forty or so years that they knew each other, one from 1775 revealing a confident friendship between them and a shared scientific curiosity, and the other painfully polite, written in highly stilted and formal language in the months following a major dispute in 1784. Further reading has shed more light on the latter incident, and I have found documents that reveal the depth of the schism between the two men at this time.
Maskelyne had been a high-ranking member of the ‘Mathematical Faction’ that took a stand against Banks’s leadership of the Royal Society between November 1783 and March 1784. Having opposed Banks’s motion in a Council meeting designed to remove Dr Charles Hutton, a fellow mathematician, from his role as Foreign Secretary, Maskelyne found himself removed from the Council the following week at the Society’s Anniversary meeting. The troubles escalated over the following months before support for Banks’s leadership was confirmed by a significant majority vote at two separate meetings in February. By the end of March all issues were decided in Banks’s favour, and the majority of the ‘Dissenters’ either resigned or quietly withdrew from the Royal Society.
Portrait of Nevil Maskelyne, John Russell, c.1776 (NMM ZBA4305)
Maskelyne, however, was not in a position to remove himself from close contact with Banks. As Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society respectively, their roles meant that Maskelyne was answerable to Banks as Chair of the Visitors to the Royal Observatory, and as they were both key members of the Board of Longitude there was no way for Maskelyne to avoid Banks without reneging on his responsibilities.
It was in fact the Board of Longitude that brought them face to face in the immediate aftermath of the disputes for a meeting on March 6, 1784, with six other commissioners present. In a letter sent later that day to Charles Blagden, Banks’s close friend, ally and soon-to-be appointed Secretary to the Royal Society, Banks describes a moment in this meeting: ‘… when I was revenging myself on the R Astronomer at the board of Longitude who was reduced to a compleat state of humiliation…’ A clue to just how Banks was doing this lies in his draft minutes of the meeting, which begin: ‘The Astronomer Royal, without the consent of the Committee certified Mr Bonds and Messrs Wright and Gill. The PRS signified his wish to be excused from acting any more on the Committee.’ It appears Maskelyne may have been severely reprimanded for taking action without the Committee’s permission, and that the President no longer wished to work with someone who would do such things.
Together these notes provide a rare glimpse into an unusually vindictive side of Banks’s character and show that he had been seriously provoked by the men who stood against his Presidency. But there is no sign of friction in a smaller Committee meeting just two weeks later, and as discussed in the previous post, within a few months Banks had arranged certain financial matters to Maskelyne’s benefit. Maskelyne was also reappointed to the Royal Society Council the following November and remained there until his death in 1811.
Portrait of Joseph Banks, c.1819 (NMM PAD3304)
I am still fascinated at how they rebuilt their relationship, having to work closely together for another 25 years after this incident, and by the nature of that friendship. Was it warm and trusting, or respectful, but cautious? One view, taken by several historians, is that whatever their disagreements may have been, ‘in society they appear to have enjoyed each other’s company and to have met as friends and intimates.’ I am inclined to question the level of enjoyment and the degree of intimacy in their friendship. To avoid each other was impossible, and so peaceful, public compromises had to be made, but what they thought of each other in private may have been quite different.
H.B. Carter, author of the most comprehensive biography of Banks, describes Maskelyne as ‘a difficult and uncertain man, with whom [Banks] kept an enduring friendship in spite of their many disagreements.’ This may reflect a more accurate version of how Banks thought of Maskelyne, but I would also query the ‘enduring’ aspect of their relationship. A second serious dispute between them concerning the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw peaked in 1806 and led to Banks’s non-attendance at Board of Longitude meetings until Maskelyne had passed away. I suspect holding their work relationship together was always a difficult task, but both men did so for as long as they did because of their commitment to science and willingness to accept the responsibilities of their respective positions.
I wonder if readers of this blog are aware of any documents that show evidence of ‘enjoyment’, ‘intimacy’ or otherwise between them after 1784 and then 1806? I would love to hear from you!
Joseph Banks to Charles Blagden, 6 March 1784, printed in Neil Chambers, Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, Volume 2
 MM/7/41 Royal Society Library. Draft minutes, in Banks’s handwriting, of Board of Longitude meeting. Messrs Wright and Gill were the partners of an eminent wholesale stationery company.
 Derek Howse, Nevil Maskelyne: the Seaman’s Astronomer, 1989, p160, following the comments of H.C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, KB, PRS: the Autocrat of the Philosophers, 1952, p.232.
 H.B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks, 1988, p319.
Since I have started working on longitude, I have noticed increasingly how often discussions of time and time-keepers appear in novels, creating an intrinsic link between narrative, human experience, time, and its mechanical keepers. I thought I would share here two of my favourites, so far, and continue to add examples as I find them.
The first, is set in our time period, from a magical little book by Elizabeth Goudge called The Dean’s Watch, which features a wizened old watchmaker in a fen-bound cathedral city who lives only through his clocks. It brings to life a forgotten tradition of watches, ‘Isaac laid the Dean’s watch down on his work-bench … and opening a drawer took out an envelope of watch papers neatly inscribed in his fine copperplate handwriting. The majority of horologists no longer used these but Isaac was attached to the old customs and liked to preserve them. In the previous century nearly every watch had had its watch pad or paper inserted in the outer case, either a circular piece of velvet or muslin delicately embroidered with the initials of the owner, or else the portrait of the giver, or a piece of paper inscribed with a motto or rhyme. Isaac had collected and written out many of these rhymes, and he would always slip a watch paper into the outer cases of the watches of the humbler folk, for their amusement and delight. He did not dare to do so with his aristocratic customers for he feared they would think him presumptuous.’ It nicely shows us the cultural aspects of owning and carrying a watch, how these could be personalised, and what this meant. It shows the changing traditions surrounding time-keepers and attitudes to ‘personal’ time. Elsewhere, it also discusses George Graham and Thomas Tompion.
The second is totally removed from the first in both time and space, coming from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence set in twentieth century Turkey (about which I have written more extensively over on my own blog). He discusses the middle-class family clock: ‘It was German-made, cased in wood and glass, with a pendulum and a chime. It hung on the wall right next to the door, and it was there not to measure time, but to be a constant reminder to the whole family of time’s continuity, and to bear witness to the “official” world outside. Because the television had taken over the job of keeping time in recent years, and did so more entertainingly than did the radio, this clock (like hundreds of thousands of other wall clocks in Istanbul) was … there to persuade us that nothing whatsoever had changed.’ Yet, this resonates with Goudge’s work set in the eighteenth century, showing the cultural role of the clock, and how it fitted into changing traditions.
The clock seems to represent stability in both of these and, ironically, a sort of timelessness. In other novels it plays different roles, as I’ll discuss in future posts.