I have just been reviewing a new book, The World of John Secker (1716–95), Quaker Mariner, for the Journal for Maritime Research. I came across some interesting passages in it that describe how seafarers navigated in the early eighteenth century but which also left me slightly puzzled.
One of them describes sailing in the 1730s:
After we had left Tercera & it was concluded to run for Madera we stood to the eastward till by the reckoning of the captain & mate we were in the longitude of Madera, then steering a south course to get into the latitude they expected to have fell in with the middle of the island. I keeping a journal my own self was pretty certain we had not run far enough to the eastward & told the captain & mate so, but they were too positive in their own accounts to give credit to my estimation till they found by sad experience it was too late for after we got into the latitude of the island, & could see nothing of it: they to their error concluded we were to the eastward of the island and notwithstanding all I could say to the contrary would stand to the westward in hopes of making the island.
Secker goes on to describe how they ran low on food and water during the prolonged search for their destination, but what struck me was that the process he describes is slightly different from what I was expecting. What we normally assume is that because navigators were less confident in their determinations of longitude, they would do something called ‘running down the latitude’. This involved sailing well to either the east or west of the destination until its latitude was reached, then sailing west or east (depending on which side they were) while maintaining the same latitude (which could be measured fairly well from the Sun or Pole Star) until the destination came into sight.
I’m slightly puzzled that Secker describes something that sounds more prone to error, in that they were trying to sail to the destination’s longitude, then sail directly towards it on a southward course.
I’d love to hear of other similar examples.
Will Thomas, Rebekah Higgitt and I began discussing the effect of international conflict upon the British search for the longitude in the comments after my last blog post. I’ll post about that subject as well in case other readers want to participate – it would be especially nice to hear about the effect of war or international competition upon other areas of early ‘science’ and technology – and in case other project members want to chime in, especially about the later decades of the Board’s history. Will asked whether we can trace the ebb and flow of foreign longitude visitors like La Condamine through peace and wartime, since for example the aging explorer and his fellow Frenchmen tried to attend the planned ‘discovery’ of John Harrison‘s timekeeper H4 (seen below) in 1763 directly after the Seven Years’ War. He also asked if there was any diplomatic significance or sense of threat attached to such visits, or whether it was mainly ‘business as usual’. Becky suggested that perhaps instead of national defense, ‘free trade was, in the end, seen as the most important thing to protect and champion, and that this included knowledge and the right of individuals to sell their products and ideas’.
This appears to me to have largely been the case at least during the eighteenth century. Many British longitude actors talked about the importance of knowing the longitude at sea to national security, as well as to trade and the safety of sea travel and sometimes to the good of all mankind. This was true from at least the seventeenth century on and in an increasingly formulaic manner after 1713-1714. Some of the actors who mentioned national security and defense clearly meant it, as we saw in Hannah’s recent post about Ralph Walker. However, in truth international communication and collaboration seldom seem to have been an issue in the eighteenth-century search for the longitude, even during and directly after war – and especially amongst the central individuals and institutions involved rather than amongst the wide array of individual projectors and commentators. The central actors continued to communicate and to collaborate with foreign correspondents such as the French during conflicts by letter and memorial and, once outright fighting had ended, through visits in person as well. Of course, the mechanics of postal communications were changed by war, as when letters had to take longer and more roundabout routes to their recipients, and French projectors could no longer use the British ambassadors or representatives in Paris as a route for initial contact.
There were some occasional expressions of institutional concern about foreigners and especially the French gaining access to British longitude innovations. For example, the Board of Longitude questioned Thomas Mudge (seen below) in 1767 because the clockmaker had discussed H4 with the Swiss-born clockmaker Ferdinand Berthoud while visiting and dining with the Saxon Minister, using said Count as a translator and making some ‘rude Sketches of some parts’ of the timekeeper in pencil. Berthoud had in fact returned in England in 1766 with the intent of learning the ‘secrets’ of H4 for the French and was told by James Short that Harrison would provide them for a large enough reward – which he could not offer. Mudge said that he had not been aware of that attempt, and that he had essentially been under the impression that those who attended the discovery in 1765 were supposed to spread knowledge of Harrison’s innovations to all nations as well as to English workmen. Berthoud apparently never made use of what he gleaned from Mudge, anyway. The foreign appropriation of British longitude innovations seems to have been more of a concern with technology, and especially with a more proven and long-esteemed technology like Harrison’s timekeepers, than it was with a method like the lunar-distance – over which the British often collaborated with their French counterparts and with other foreigners such as Tobias Mayer. This was partially down to the different lines of thought and legal protections which existed with respect to concepts for material objects rather than purely intellectual property during this period.
As different HST authors have described with respect to industrial spies like the Dane Jesper Bidstrup (1763–1802) – Alison Morrison-Low, Dan Christensen, Anita McConnell, etc. – there was actual legislation in place during different periods to try to prevent the knowledge of how to make British technologies from falling into foreign hands. On the side of the government, such actions was taken to protect British innovation, trade and in some cases national defense. On the side of individual craftsmen, the control of and profit from their personal inventions was typically of central importance. Whereas national and international communication about ‘science’ and about the uses and ‘amateur’ invention and adaptation of technology could be extremely open, full-time craftsmen understandably tended to keep their secrets close to the vest, whether they were a shop-owning instrument maker or a more unusual specialist maker like Harrison. With the personal ownership of ideas and inventions and the need for profit, longitude projectors could often vacillate when it came to national ‘loyalties’ – whether in earnest or more as a bargaining tool.
For example, William Whiston and Humphry Ditton threatened to take their new method of finding longitude to other countries when at first it did not look as if the British would establish their rewards in 1714, despite having previously emphasized the importance of it to the security and trade of their beloved nation. Although John Harrison made it clear at various times that he was proud to be an Englishman, his main motivation in keeping people like the French delegates from seeing the workings of his timekeepers was to preserve his sole right to the innovations therein – and he was willing to at least consider turning to other nations during the later decades when he didn’t feel that his own was willing to properly rewards his efforts. It wasn’t uncommon for projectors, and for newspaper commentators acting on behalf of projectors, to threaten the loss of an innovation to foreign hands when trying to push for a reward or other recognition.
In terms of diplomatic significance having been attributed to cases like the different visits of French intellectuals during the 1760s, they so far do not seem to have stirred up much of a reaction from the British despite having sometimes closely followed war between the two nations. For example, the Académie des Sciences sent their representatives to attend Harrison’s discovery in early 1763 even before the Treaty of Paris had been ratified! This relatively blasé attitude on the part of British authorities was presumably to the overall benefit of such foreign visitors, as some were acting with the support or outright direction of their government, sometimes covertly. In the 1763 case, it appears that the French thought they could send their own representatives to the planned ‘discovery’ of H4 because of communications with high-placed fellow astronomers and correspondents in Britain rather than because of an official invitation – a conflict between the interpersonal and institutional sides of international relations and of government during the early modern period. The Earl of Morton later told the mathematician Camus that he was not aware of such an invitation, but that he personally would have been pleased for the French delegates to attend.
As we can see in cases like this, conflict and competition between nations do not seem to have had that great of an effect upon foreign communications and contributions to the British search for the longitude, beyond blocking visits in person and changing the routes and presumably the delivery times of postal communications. They also do not seem to have much affected central actors’ views or treatment of individual foreign actors and of institutions like the Académie. As remarkable as it seems, given how often the longitude was touted as being of vital importance to national security, it was typically a swift return to ‘business as usual’ after the conclusion of war.
Image sources: H4 – National Maritime Museum, Mudge – Wikimedia Commons.
Following a previous guest post, Hannah Salisbury has sent us some further thoughts on Ralph Walker and the compass he submitted to the Board of Longitude:
The invention of his variation compass was just one episode in Walker’s busy and varied life; as well as being an inventor, he was a mariner, a Jamaica planter and in later life an engineer, working principally on the construction of London’s new wet docks. When I first began researching Walker’s life, these career changes all seemed rather sudden and disconnected, yet during my research, it became clear that there were common threads running through each of them.
Designing the West India Docks was Walker’s first engineering job, begun in 1795. They were the biggest project of their kind in the world at the time.
'An elevated view of the West India Docks', by William Daniell, 1802 (NMM PAI7124)
Improving navigation and the accommodation of shipping were by no means isolated pursuits for Walker. He keenly felt that in order to compete with other nations in trade and in war, Britain needed to have a strong navy and merchant fleet. Walker’s career at sea had given him an international scope, and he saw Britain within the context of international networks of war, trade and diplomacy. This understanding of Walker’s political worldview provides a backdrop to his work as an inventor and engineer.
Our best insight into Ralph’s political worldview comes from two letters he wrote to Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, then Secretary of State for War, in 1795 and 1796, the first of which was addressed from the Jamaica Coffee House, a haunt of West India merchants and captains. Walker was clearly a staunch supporter of the British system of monarchical government, which he described as ‘the pride of England, and the admiration of all Europe for Ages’. He had no time for the politics of the French Revolution, referring to them at different times as ‘pernicious principles’ and ‘the French Disorder’.
During the French Revolutionary Wars, Walker was clearly concerned to protect British interests. Walker feared that the French:
will soon become our superior on the Seas, and shut up our fleets in our Ports and sweep the Seas of our Commerce, Deprive us of our Colonies, and put a total stagnation to our Trade, which in a short time would turn the current of commerce into their Ports, and our manufacturers would be obliged to emigrate to a Country, where taxes and the price of living and labour low. Then adieu to the Trade of Great Britain, and the payment of the interest of the National Debt.
For Walker, the only way of avoiding this dire fate was to enhance Britain’s naval strength. Britain, he suggested, should withdraw land forces from the continent, and instead ‘strain every nerve to enable us to keep our superiority at Sea’.
It is not just Walker’s political views, but also his philosophical standpoint which is relevant to his efforts to improve navigation. His (flawed) theory that magnetism followed regular patterns was part of the Enlightenment attempt to discover ordered, harmonious rules governing the natural world. As he explained in his Treatise on Magnetism, presented to the Board of Longitude along with his compass, he believed that these laws were provided by God in order for man to make sense of the world. Once they had been discovered, they could be used to ‘colonize and carry on commerce for our benefit and happiness’.
Walker was clearly aware of the links between navigation, commerce and conquest, and he seems to have felt no disquiet about the colonisation of foreign lands, or about the use of slave labour. As a Jamaica planter, he seems to have been more concerned about the disruption caused by rebellious slaves rather than their living conditions. In his 1796 letter to Dundas, Walker complained about the problems caused by disruptive slaves, which had cost the white settlers over £300,000.
Although care needs to be taken in extrapolating too much from the fragmentary evidence available, a good deal can be understood about Walker’s political worldview, and he can be placed firmly within literate eighteenth-century coffee-house political culture. For Walker, Britain’s security and prosperity depended upon its navy and upon its commerce, and its commerce depended upon successful maritime navigation, an endeavour which Walker’s compass aimed to improve. The variation compass which Walker submitted to the Board of Longitude is, therefore, symbolic not only of technical advances in navigation, but of the political, economic and cultural forces driving those advances.
I’ve mentioned before how everything I do now seems to link back to Longitude. Alongside the Board of Longitude project, Alexi and I are both also members of the Digital Humanities Network at CRASSH, here in Cambridge, where we share with other researchers our interests in making traditional humanities scholarship available with modern digital tools. Often our sessions come back to the problems of using digital tools within the established academic environment. This got me thinking about my longitude pamphleteers, and how our situations are not dissimilar. It also links nicely into our new project with the Cambridge Digital Library (funded by JISC) to digitise the Board of Longitude archives, which Alexi and I have both already discussed on this blog. I have therefore followed up my previous article for the Cambridge University research website (which was on the riots and consumerism) with one about pamphlets, digital humanities and the Board of Longitude. Please have a look and see what you think.
I was intrigued when I recently came across the mention of a letter of 5 June 1763 from the antiquarian and journal editor Richard Gough to one of his authors Edward Haistwell, describing ‘an outrage inflicted at his lodging in Suffolk Street on Sieur de la Condamine who had come for some weeks with colleagues to make researches into longitude’. The aging explorer, mathematician and geographer Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701-1774) was one of the French intellectuals who travelled to London that summer with the stated intention of attending the ‘discovery’ (essentially a verbal and hands-on explanation) which the Board of Longitude was requiring John Harrison to make of his longitude timekeeper H4 before a selection of experts. Other such visitors included the mathematician Charles Étienne Louis Camus, the Swiss-born chronometer maker Ferdinand Berthoud, and the astronomer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande (who often collaborated with Nevil Maskelyne).
Although it was highly unlikely for many reasons, not least because Harrison was at one point said to be considering doing business with the French, I could not help imagining the ‘outrage’ inflicted upon La Condamine (shown below in his younger years) as having been a dramatic longitude-related scene like that which played out at a meeting of the Board almost precisely two years later – when Harrison responded to the Commissioners’ repeated request for ‘Experimental Exhibitions’ of his timekeeper technology by abruptly leaving the room and exclaiming ‘That he never would consent to it, so long as he had a drop of English Blood in his Body’!
However, our intrepid leader Simon Schaffer enlightened me that the La Condamine incident mentioned in the letter actually had nothing to do with the longitude but instead became somewhat of a (sex) scandal, as related in Lalande’s travel journal and in many publications. Upon arriving in London on 11 May 1763, La Condamine took a room in Suffolk Street adjoining Pall Mall, a popular neighbourhood on the western side of the metropolis (north of the Thames) which housed many well-heeled visitors and longer term inhabitants – although it was by this time also ‘greatly disfigured by several mean houses of the lowest mechanicks being interspersed in it in many places, and many of them joining to the most sumptuous edifices’ according to the Rev. George Reeves.
Horace Walpole — who did not much care for La Condamine, although he appreciated the man’s support for innoculation — wrote snidely to a friend that: ‘La Condamine, qui se donne pour philosophe. He walks about the streets, with his [hearing] trumpet and a map, his spectacles on, and hat under his arm. But, to give you some idea of his philosophy, he was on the scaffold to see Damien executed. His deafness was very inconvenient to his curiosity ; he pestered the confessor with questions to know what Damien said’. This was Robert-François Damiens, who had been drawn and quartered in Paris in 1757 after stabbing and attempting to kill King Louis XV and with whom Walpole rather sympathized.
La Condamine’s London scandal began on the evening of 27 May 1763. As Lalande (pictured below) succinctly recorded the next day in his journal, ‘constables were sent to Mr Condamine to compel him to leave the same evening. He gave them 2/- and they went away.’ (Two shillings was the same as the cost of a coach trip to Richmond Palace three days later.) La Condamine was able to quickly secure other lodgings in the same street, since by the 29th Lalande was visiting him in ‘Suffolk Street opposite the envoys of Algiers. Those of the Canadian natives lodge very close by in the same street.’
However, the entire episode publicly blew up when the Frenchman published a rather lengthy ‘Address to the English Nation’ in French and English which began appearing in the newspapers and periodicals by at least 30 May, relating that when he returned to his lodgings at 9 o’clock at night, two ‘shabbily drest’ men (one wielding a stick) had entered and threatened to imprison him unless he moved out. La Condamine initially refused and wrote to the French representative, but was encouraged by men of law to move rather than to take legal action. He accused his landlady, Mrs Strafford, of having orchestrated this so that she could let his room to someone else and wondered that he ‘should be exposed in the capital itself to an insult, which he never suffered amongst Barbarians’ during his travels.
The landlady was soon reported to have responded, as the newspapers gleefully recounted alongside the Frenchman’s letter, that in fact two constables had tried to serve a warrant to him because he had threatened a servant maid with his penknife the day before – and ‘he was found amusing himself with the philosophical society of two fair nymphs, who with more propriety might be styled two Graces rather than two Virtues‘, i.e. prostitutes. These conflicting public accounts produced periodic responses in print (often in both French and English) throughout June and until perhaps late July 1763, including both defenses and criticisms of La Condamine, for his perceived slight against the English as well as for the original episode. This was probably not the sort of publicity which the mathematician wanted to accompany the recent publication of his translated Journal of a Tour to Italy!
For example, the pseudonymous commentator Hospitais L’Anglois wrote a week later that surely the ‘Address to the English Nation’ had not actually been written by La Condamine, insulting the people as it did by ranking them lower than Barbarians. The author pointed out that such an episode, if it had in fact occurred, would turn out the same way in Paris as it did in London, since the mathematician could not name or produce the two men who had confronted him. He added that the much disliked French representative or negotiator ‘Monsieur Buffy’ had stayed in the same street and perhaps the very same house without experiencing any trouble.
Others came to the aging explorer’s defense, as when an anonymous commentator produced a note which was purportedly from the French representative to whom La Condamine had unsuccessfully tried to send a letter on the night in question. (The representative was the infamous Chevalier d’Eon, a sometimes cross-dressing diplomat, soldier and spy who convinced many that he was biologically female.) Whether or not he was influenced by this episode and the publicity, an anonymous poet also began publishing a poem in July which ‘imitated’ one that La Condamine had purportedly written to his wife, whom he married in 1756. The explorer had gotten a papal dispensation in order to marry his young niece, Charlotte Bouzia of Estouilly, and this ‘imitiation’ (which was published in books alongside the original for decades) emphasized the great age difference between them – whether more innocently or satirically, it is not entirely clear.
Despite all of this, La Condamine and his French compatriots continued their social rounds in London, often meeting and dining with intellectuals such as Fellows of the Royal Society and central longitude actors including the Astronomer Royal, John Harrison and key scientific instrument makers. (The Frenchmen were never actually able to view Harrison’s H4 or to receive its ‘secrets’, although the clockmaker showed them H1, H2 and H3 without taking them apart.) However, this episode near ritzy Pall Mall was at least an embarrassment to some of his associates and potential associates, if not to La Condamine himself. Walpole resorted to pretending that he was in the country in order to avoid meeting with him, as he wrote on 30 June:
‘MONSIEUR DE LA CONDAMINE will certainly have his letter ; but, my dear Sir, it is equally sure that I shall not deliver it myself. I have given it to my Lord Hertford for him, while I act being in the country. To tell you the truth, La Condamine is absurdity itself. He has had a quarrel with his landlady, whose lodgers being disturbed by La Condamine’s servant being obliged to bawl to him, as he is deaf, wanted to get rid of him. He would not budge : she dressed two chairmen for bailiffs to force him out. The next day he published an address to the people of England, in the newspaper, informing them that they are the most savage nation in or out of Europe. This is pretty near truth ; and yet I would never have abused the Iroquois to their faces in one of their own gazettes. [...] I wish humane men, or men of reflection, [...] would consider that the most desirable kind of understanding is the only kind that never aims at any particularity ; I mean common sense. This is not Monsieur de la Condamine’s kind ; and Count Lorenzi must excuse me if I avoid the acquaintance.’
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons.
It was difficult to know, when starting out on this blog, how much we should attempt to do some scene-setting and how much we should just attempt to reflect the research and activities coming out of the project. By and large, we plumped for the latter, although posts like Alexi’s on Maskelyne were a useful way of laying out some of the basics of our story. There does, however, seem to be a place for a post that lays out the reasons why we, as a group, will always refer to financial rewards from the Board of Longitude and not to the Longitude Prize.
I have felt the need for such a post as a result of recent discussions about challenge prizes in science and technology, which came up in my earlier post and in an interview I did for BBC Radio 4′s World Tonight (to be broadcast on 26 March). In addition, understanding this basic point is a very good way of seeing that the story of longitude in the 18th century is not only about John Harrison, and that timekeepers were not an instantaneously adopted and complete solution.
The immediate cause of this post is a discussion that developed on Twitter surrounding that old question: “Did Harrison win the longitude prize?”. The Museum has previously answered this, although this account, like the actual events, tends less to answer the question and more to raise debates about whether the Commissioners of Longitude were justified in withholding the largest payment until further conditions were fulfilled. This all boils down to interpretation of the original Act – in which the Commissioners were adjudicators of whether any trialled method was “practicable and useful at Sea” – and has been much discussed.
Although there are some fascinating issues to be explored, the question is a red herring: as my title suggests, there was no such thing as the Longitude Prize. From the beginning, as well as using the term “reward” not “prize”, the Longitude Act offered a range of sums depending on the accuracy achieved. Later on, with subsequent acts, the possible rewards proliferated, initially with the realisation that Harrison needed to be supported with ‘grants’ of money while developing his clocks and, by the 1770s, with knowledge that a handful of sea watches was not a complete solution and that benefit would be gained by offering further rewards for improvements to techniques and hardware.
Derek Howse’s article on the Finances of the Board of Longitude reveals what was spent by the Commissioners. Between 1714 and 1828, rewards accounted for only 33% of spending, while overheads (23%), expeditions (15%) and publications (29%) made up the rest. The total spent on rewards was £52,534, of which £22,000 went to Harrison. This sum was made up of a number of payments between 1737 and 1764 to improve and test his timekeepers, £7500 paid in 1765 (a further sum being on offer to take this up to a £20,000 reward if two more sea watches could be made, one by Harrison and one by another maker) and £8750 was awarded by an act of parliament in 1773.
It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether this process constitutes receiving the maximum reward. A number of the payments to Harrison had required additional acts (in 1762, 1754 and 1765) and, ultimately, all the money came from government as a result of the original Act of Parliament. However, the final payment did not appear in the Board’s accounts, which confirms the fact that this final move took place outside the Commissioners’ decision-making process.
More interesting to me is who received the other £30,534. Happily, Howse’s article lists all the reward recipients in an appendix. The bulk of the rewards post-date 1765, when the Board played its hand and divided out rewards between the two successful methods, timekeeping and lunar distances. While Harrison received his £7500 in October 1765, in May:
- Leonhard Euler was paid £300 “for Theorums furnished by him to assist Professor Mayer in the Construction of Lunar tables”
- Maria Mayer was paid £3000 as a posthumous reward to her husband Tobias “for his having constructed a Set of Lunar Tables” and to her for making them property of the Commissioners
- Catherine Price, Edmond Halley‘s daughter, was paid £100 for handing over several of Halley’s manuscripts, which the Commissioners believed “may lead to discoveries useful to navigation”.
While Harrison’s work was the cause of the Commissioners beginning to meet, keep minutes and spend money, there were other pre-1765 pay-outs. Christopher Irwin received £600 in 1762-3 for his marine chair (designed to allow observations of Jupiter’s satellites on board ship) and way back in 1741, William Whiston was paid £500 “For procuring a new Sett of Astronomical Instruments for finding out the Longitude on the Coasts of this Kingdom with the Variations of the Needle and for enabling him to make Observations with them”.
Harrison was certainly the biggest single beneficiary of the Longitude Acts, but balanced against that are the many involved in lunar distances. There are the rewards to Euler and Mayer, but 1765 also saw the beginning of investment in the computing work (£35,559 to 1828) and publication of the Nautical Almanac. There had already been expenditure on lunar-distance-related hardware, salaries for trials and expeditions and later sums were paid out for work on astronomical tables, for example £1537 between 1770-93 for Charles Mason‘s efforts and £1,200 to Josef de Mendoza y Rios for his longitude tables in 1814.
Post-1765 there were numerous rewards, mostly of tens or hundreds of pounds. The largest, after Harrison’s, was divvied up among the officers and crew of HMS Hecla and Griper in 1820, who received £5000 for reaching 110°W within the Article Circle, after discovery of the North West Passage became one of the Board’s interests in the 1818 Act. The Arctic voyages also led to Edward Sabine being given £1000 in 1826 for his pendulum experiments. Those who helped develop the chronometer as a commercial product, John Arnold, Thomas Earnshaw and Thomas Mudge, were each rewarded with £3000.
Although there was in the 18th-century a sense of competitiveness and occasional reference to a longitude prize (of which more in a later post), suggesting that there was a single pay-out that Harrison did or did not win misses both the richness of the history of the Board of Longitude and obscures the way that longitude solutions were developed and used.
We’ve recently been revisiting the 68 volumes in the RGO 14 collection of papers from the Board of Longitude which are now at the Cambridge University Library, as part of the new project to digitize these and other longitude-related documents. As has been a recurrent theme, these papers are far from complete or representative, being weighted towards the later decades and having been collected, reordered and bound by the Astronomer Royal George Airy thirty years after the abolition of the Board. However, they contain much valuable and interesting material, both from the lifetime of the Commissioners and — as Katy showed in a recent post — from Airy’s later sorting and binding of these records.
One of the interesting aspects of this collection to me is that it encompasses such a variety of types of materials including informal notes and calculations, letters and petitions, meeting minutes (draft as well as finalized) and other official documents, financial accounts, accounts of and records from astronomical events and sea voyages, and so on. I’ve recently been looking at some of the volumes of financial records (in total RGO 14/2 and 14/15-21), which also include some pocket expense books and ‘cheque books’ from key actors in the later history of the Board. These not only add to the information available to us today on the activities and financial dealings of the Board, but also reflect how much of both were tied up in interpersonal ties and communications, and in the actions and decision-making of key Commissioners and employees – especially the Astronomer Royal and the Secretary. Some of the small marbled books of accounts (like that shown above) are not signed but were presumably kept by the Secretary, who was a paid employee first requested by the Commissioners in 1762 and approved of by the King the following year.
Inscriptions in or on other pocket books and ‘cheque books’ specify that they belonged to key actors including the long-time Astronomer Royal and highly active Commissioner Nevil Maskelyne and the Secretary Thomas Young. Young served as the final Secretary of the Board but also as a Superintendent of the computing and publication of the annual Nautical Almanac, from the passage of the new longitude Act of 1818 until the abolition of the Board ten years later. As Sophie has mentioned, he was a successful ‘civil servant’ as well as being an enthusiast of Egyptology and optics and Foreign Secretary to the Royal Society – of which then-dominant Commissioner Joseph Banks was of course President.
In RGO 14/18 there are two of Maskelyne’s small marbled pocket books, one of which is pictured above. These are interesting because they record expenses which the Astronomer Royal incurred in posting and receiving correspondence relevant to the Board between 1783 and 1806, for which he was eventually reimbursed. (Until 1840, it was typically the recipient who had to pay to claim a letter!) These records reinforce the view provided by many other types of evidence of just how active in, and central to, the Board activities and financial transactions the Astronomer was during this period – and how much of this business was conducted betwixt individuals rather than at the periodic communal meetings.
There are various books related to Thomas Young as well including his small white leather pocket book for 1819 to 1828 in RGO 14/2, and his ‘cheque book’ (i.e. cheque stubs which Airy had mounted – as seen above) for 1819 to 1823 in RGO 14/8. The pocket book contains one other, somewhat poignant piece of evidence – handwritten minutes from the 1829 meeting of the ‘Members of the Committee of accounts of the late Board of Longitude’ to disperse the funds which still remained in the name of the Board after its official abolition.
Photo credits: Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library.