It can be a bit surprising how long it takes people to spot mistakes. In looking through the publications of the Board of Longitude, for example, I recently found one that seems to have gone unnoticed for 136 years. This was in a copy of Charles Hutton’s Tables of the Products and Powers of Numbers (1781) that belonged to the Royal Observatory.
While Hutton’s tables are not, to be honest, a gripping read, it was important that they should be accurate. But it was only in 1917 that one of the Observatory’s staff added a note that some of the figures were wrong:
This helpful soul was, I think, Thomas Charlton Hudson, Assistant in the Nautical Almanac Office from 1893 to 1923, who also rightly crossed out the offending figures.
I’m rather intrigued by this. Had the tables been in regular use at the Observatory since 1781? If so, why did it take so long to spot the mistake? And had this led to errors in other calculations in the meantime? If not, what was going on in 1917 that finally brought it to light?
In any case, I am rather reassured that Hutton’s book was still in use so long after it was first published.
This guest post is by James Poskett, an MPhil student at the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. The air there is evidently so full of all things longitude, that James found his way, by accident or design, toward a sounding machine in the Whipple Museum made by Edward Massey, a man who had a number of dealings with the Board of Longitude.
“Could you, as far as your information of the depth of water enabled you to judge, have got near enough to those ships to have destroyed them?” It was on this question that the court martial of Lord Gambier depended. He was accused of failing to follow up an attack on the French fleet at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809. A number of French ships had run ashore and Gambier feared for the safety of the British fleet in following them too close to the shoals, HMS Imperieuse having run aground on the night of April 12th.
It’s easy to think of navigation as all about, well, navigation. But my current research picks up on incidents such as Lord Gambier’s court martial and considers other ways of thinking about the history of depth measurement at sea (or sounding, as it is known). My aim is to show how shifting approaches to naval discipline interacted with the introduction of mechanical sounding equipment.
To start with, I’ve been looking at a brass sounding machine patented by a Mr Edward Massey in 1802. It consists of two numbered dials, unmistakably the product of Massey’s watchmaking background, along with a rotor. This machine would have been attached to a line and thrown overboard, the rotor spinning the dials before locking at the seabed. On hauling in, the depth could be read off the dials as one would read a clock.
Massey’s wasn’t the first mechanical sounding design but it was the first to be widely adopted by the Royal Navy. In 1807, following a recommendation from the Board of Longitude, the Navy Board ordered 500 of Massey’s machines followed by another 1250 between 1808 and 1811. That’s at least one machine for every Royal Navy ship in commission during the Napoleonic Wars.
What’s intriguing about the adoption of Massey’s machine is how it both relied upon and reinforced new approaches to discipline developing within the Royal Navy at the time. To take one example, naval authorities felt that negligence was hard to identify given that navigational practices often happened out of sight. Prior to the introduction of Massey’s machine, sounding was a case in point. Groups of sailors arranged themselves on the outside of the ship with a lead and line (a simple coil of rope, knotted at set intervals, with a weight attached). This line would then be thrown overboard, out of sight of the officers on the quarterdeck. As the line was hauled in, one of the sailors would either observe or feel for the number of knots. The depth would then by relayed to an officer on deck in the form of a song, “by the mark ten” for ten fathoms and such.
All this changed with the introduction of Massey’s machine. The average sailor in the Royal Navy did not have experience in reading clock-like dials. For this reason, when Massey’s machine was hauled in, it would be taken to the quarterdeck so that an officer could read and record the depth measured. This simple change in practice made the results of sounding more visible to the officers; they no longer had to rely on a song emanating from out of sight. It also made sure that the officer on the quarterdeck took greater personal responsibility for the depths recorded, something the Admiralty considered crucial if they were to successfully court martial disobedient commanders. (Lord Gambier, incidentally, got off the hook.)
Over the summer, I’m going to be taking up a research internship at the National Maritime Museum, exploring in further detail how other sounding devices slotted in to early-nineteenth century naval discipline. At the time, indiscipline was also considered to be a problem related to travel, court martials citing ease of access to Caribbean rum as a cause of lawlessness in the Lesser Antilles. With this in mind, I’ll also be looking at how attempts to keep order in different regions influenced the adoption and use of different sounding machines. Which device faired best in the hands of a drunken sailor still remains to be seen.
[Images: E. Massey, Sounding Machine, NMM NAV0673; 'Measuring the depth of water from a frigate', Wikimedia Commons.]
Over a year ago I wrote a post ‘Sympathetic vibrations‘ that mentioned a 1688 pamphlet that included (as satire) a means of finding longitude by using a ‘Powder of Sympathy’. The idea was that this could be used to enduce an on-board dog to yelp at a pre-determined time at a known reference point, thus allowing a comparison with local time and, hence, a calculation of longitude. I noted there the fact that this story has often been presented as a genuine longitude scheme, probably because it is useful in getting across the basic point about time difference.
The other day I came across a genuine attempt to locate a longitudinal position that makes this time difference = longitude difference point just as forcefully. While it would today be discounted as pseudo-science, just as the powder of sympathy, it relates to real events and a story that has a number of nice resonances with ours, despite being a few decades later: Arctic exploration, magnetism (or mesmerism), and longitude.
I found this story in the recent edition of Wellcome History (available online PDF) in a ‘work in progress’ piece by Shane McCorristine on ‘The “Bolton Clairvoyante” and Arctic exploration’. This was on the attempt by some individuals, including Capt Alexander Maconochie, to use clairvoyance (what we might now call ESP) to aid the search for John Franklin, missing with his crew in the Arctic from 1845. Franklin had, of course, begun his Arctic career with an 1818 expedition heading for the north pole, at the same time as Ross and Parry were searching for the North West Passage (see Sophie’s post on Thomas Young’s role in the Board and its ‘Arctic turn’).
In September 1849 Maconochie, a naval officer, professor of geography and friend of Franklin’s, contacted a Lancashire surgeon-apothecary called Joseph W. Haddock, who had been carrying out mesmeric experiments on his patients and had discovered an apparent clairvoyante talent in his maid, ‘Emma L’. She was described by Haddock as of a “nervous-bilious temperament”, and by Harriet Martineau as “a vulgar girl, anything but handsome, and extremely ignorant”, but it was claimed that she could travel – virtually – across the globe in search of someone if she had a sample of their handwriting.
Maconochie provided the necessary sample and Emma apparently declared that Franklin was still alive, and “spoke of the snow, ice, &c, of the place where the writer was; said that many with him were dead, but that he was alive, and expected to get away in about nine months, but that she could not say whether he would be able to do so, but that it appeared to her he would get home again”. This was enough to prompt Maconochie to travel to Bolton and undergo several sittings with Haddock and Emma.
While the sittings gave further hope that Franklin was alive, locating him was, of course, the aim, and so Emma was also presented with maps of Northern America. While her ability to deal with maps, especially a detailed Admiralty Chart, was limited – she “appeared to have lost this instinctive sort of power to mark the place, and I found that no reliance could be placed on her in this respect” – Maconochie sensibly asked her to tell him the time of day during her visions. This naval officer knew well, of course, that time difference would provide longitude difference, although he had to assume that Emma’s visions were exactly concurrent with events in Bolton, and that she, or those she was visualising, knew the local time.
Apparently she did, more or less. It was reported to Lady Franklin that Emma suggested a time difference of six hours, placing the expedition somewhere between 85 and 90 degrees west and she had also pointed to Hudson’s Bay on a large-scale map (85 degrees). Perhaps Emma was not as ignorant as Haddock liked to suggest, for this did at least place the expedition somewhere near the relevant region, although it was considered unlikely. It turned out to be a little too far east, and much too late. Traces of the expedition were found on Beechey Island (91 degrees) in August 1850. Much later it was established that Terror and Erebus were trapped in ice off King William Island (97 degrees) in September 1846 and that Franklin had died there on 11 June 1847.
For McCorristine, this episode is useful for revealing the “interrelated histories of affectivity and Artic exploration”, the connections of intimate spaces, imagined regions and the public interest in Franklin’s fate. He writes, therefore, of “an emergent ‘polyvocal’ Arctic” that challenages “the dominance of imperial histories that focus too closely on the naval, scientific and biographical”. But my thanks too for drawing my attention not only to this intruiging episode in the history of Arctic exploration, but to this 19th-century attempt at establishing longitude-at-a-distance.