There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize

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There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize

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.

Rebekah Higgitt will be in conversation with Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees on 25 September discussing challenge prizes including Longitude Prize 2014.

3 Comments so far:

  1. […] am reposting part of this post from the Longitude Project blog, as a timely reminder, because there *is* now such a thing as the Longitude Prize. It is also on […]

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