You may have noticed that I’m rather interested in the production and alteration of books. I think this comes from working in a museum – hence an emphasis on books as objects that are made and used.
One financial model for the production of books in the eighteenth century (and in other periods, of course) was by subscription, in which pre-payment from each subscriber, or at least the promise to buy a certain number of copies, ensured that setting and printing could go ahead.
Recently I discovered an annotated proposal and subscriber list for one of the Board of Longitude’s publications, Michael Taylor’s A Table of Logarithmic Sines and Tangents, which was exactly what it sounds like – although excitingly it also includes a table of the logarithms of every number from 1 to 100,000. It was, I suspect, unlikely to be a runaway bestseller – I think we’d call it a specialist work today.
The subscription proposal is dated 16 July 1789, but the work had clearly been in progress for a number of years by this time: the Board of Longitude awarded Taylor (who was a computer for the Nautical Almanac) £300 for his calculating efforts towards it in November 1783 and a public announcement was made in the Journal des Scavans [Sic.] in 1786.
The annotated proposal is interesting because it not only sets out what subscribers would get, but also shows something of how the list of names was changing in the years up to publication. For a payment of 3 Guineas (with the price to non-subscribers to be at least 4 Guineas), subscribers were promised a 480-page work on ‘superfine Elephant Paper, and in a beautiful new Type cast on purpose’. They could pay the subscription at one of about 25 named booksellers and ‘opticians’ in London and elsewehere, including well-known instrument makers such as P. & J. Dollond and J. Ramsden.
There then follows a list of subscribers from King George III, through libraries and observatories, Admirals, Professors and Fellows of the Royal Society, to a longer list of others not already named. This is where the changes over the years come to light in more detail. Charles Brown, M.D. of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, is noted as being dead.
Less morbidly, new additions to the list include John Crosley, Assistant at the Royal Observatory.
Taylor’s Table was successfully published in 1792 with the final list of subscribers included in the front matter, by which time further amendments included John Crosley noted to be ‘late Assistant at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich’ (late in the sense of no longer working there, I should add).
As we can see, the final list erased much of the process of assembling supporters for a work to help the ‘nice calculations’ of astronomy and navigation.
One of the myriad interesting life stories from the history of British seafaring is that of Robert Knox (1641-1720). Knox’s eventful life encompassed more than nineteen years of captivity in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and a popular published account thereof, service with the English East India Company and mercantile fleets, and a relatively affluent retirement dedicated to writing. Oh, and along the way Captain Knox introduced Europe to the wonders of cannabis and likely helped to inspire Daniel Defoe‘s famous novel Robinson Crusoe.
Robert Knox was born at Tower Hill in London and mostly raised in Surrey, being taught there in his youth by James Fleetwood, the future Bishop of Winchester. From the ages of fourteen to sixteen, Robert joined his sea captain father of the same name on the merchant ship Anne, bound for India. By the time the Knoxes returned to England, Oliver Cromwell had given the East India Company a monopoly over all trade to the East, so the ship and its crew had to enter the Company’s service. (The East India Company was later one of the key institutional actors in the ‘search for the longitude’, being keen to improve the safety and speed of navigation and typically adopting new technologies more swiftly than did the Navy.)
The Anne left for Persia and the Coromandel Coast of India in January 1658, but lost its mast in stormy weather near Masulipatam in November of the following year. The East India Company ordered the crew to stop at Kottiar Bay in Ceylon for repairs – whereupon the Knoxes’ storied troubles began. Upon arrival at Kottiar, Knox senior made the mistake of slighting the King of Kandy, Rajasinha II, by neglecting to send him a letter of introduction and a gift. The King ruled Ceylon but was in an unhappy alliance with the Dutch and imprisoned the Captain, his 19 year-old son and 14 crewmen in early 1660 in response to this latest European outrage. The Knoxes, held apart from their crewmen, suffered debilitating illnesses including malaria, and the elder died within a year. His son then spent the first two decades of his adult life in captivity, subsisting by working as a farmer, pedlar and moneylender as he was moved from place to place.
Knox finally escaped with a friend to the Dutch forces on Ceylon in 1680, and on the voyage home to England he wrote an account of his experiences. The directors of the East India Company encouraged him to turn it into a book, and the author was assisted in this by his cousin, the historian and biographer Reverend John Strype, and by Robert Hooke, the famous natural philosopher and polymath who was curator of experiments at the Royal Society. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East Indies, published in 1681 with a laudatory preface by Hooke and engaging engravings of the inhabitants of Ceylon, quickly made Knox famous. (Hooke quipped, ‘Read therefore the Book it self, and you will find your self taken Captive indeed, but used more kindly by the Author, than he himself was by the Natives.’)
The book was translated into at least French, German and Dutch and was still being reprinted and informing perceptions of Asian lands and their monarchs decades later (and historians’ understanding of historical Ceylon even today). For example, the London newspaper the Post-Master or Loyal Mercury reprinted excerpts from the book in 1721, and in that same year the eponymous ‘Cato’ cited the work in the London Journal while extolling British ‘Liberty’ as compared to life under Asian and African monarchs.
The East India Company supported Knox upon his return home and, after studying navigation, he captained the Tonqueen Merchant on four voyages to the East over thirteen years. However, he fell out with the Company over its withdrawing the traditional ‘indulgence’, whereby captains had previously been able to carry some additional stock to sell for their sole benefit. (The East India Company archives now at the British Library contain countless ‘indulgence’ requests. For example, on 9 October 1709, Captain Samuel Goodman of the ship Fort St. George asked Thomas Lewes, ‘Sr pray git me an order for one Case of small Looking glasses & Cuterley [sic] ware Cost ninety five pound & Eighte pound of Silver & gould thread cost 32 pound On ye 5 L Ct x Indugence Granted on ye 5 plent’.)
In 1694, Knox participated in a private venture to Surat, which was unsuccessful. When he returned to England in 1701 at the age of 60, he retired and largely spent the remaining 20 years of his life corresponding and writing about his experiences. His portrait below, which was painted in 1711 when Knox was 66, depicts the author attired in a natty brown silk gown and a waistcoat embroidered with red flowers, writing ‘Memoires of my owne life 1708′. Around him are many of the tools of his different trades: inkwell and pen; sword and pistols; and the maritime staples of anchor, quadrant and lodestone (used to magnify compass needles).
In addition to the other fabled chapters of Knox’s life, the captain introduced his friend Robert Hooke to exotic specimens gathered on his travels. (The two men were close enough that Knox was at Hooke’s deathbed in 1703 and organised the brilliant but difficult man’s burial.) These specimens famously included ‘a strange intoxicating herb like hemp’. Hooke spoke to the Royal Society of it in December 1689, resulting in the first detailed English description of cannabis. He suggested that it might have curative properties and reported that Knox ‘has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter’.
Finally, the captain’s experiences and writings may have influenced his contemporary Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel about a castaway, Robinson Crusoe, and his novel Captain Singleton of the following year (the same year that the real-life Captain of Ceylon died). Katherine Frank has written about the degree to which Knox may have influenced Defoe in her book Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth, although some critics have suggested that she overemphasizes the connection. Whatever the truth about the captain and the novelist, the characteristics of Knox’s own writing — clear idiomatic language, factual details, and a strong and self-sufficient ‘hero’ — are widely recognized to have contributed to the evolution of the English novel.
Image sources: Dutch East Indies map c 1666, and portrait of Knox – Royal Museums Greenwich.
In an only partially successful attempt to escape England’s weather, Katy, Sophie and I spent a week in April enjoying what should have been sunny California. This was for an interdisciplinary workshop that has spun off from the successful Things seminar series. Like the Cambridge events, the workshop was on ‘Material Cultures of the Long Eighteenth-Century’ and linked UK academics with the University of California’s ‘Material Cultures of Knowledge’ research group. The meeting took place at the lovely Huntington Library, which has wonderful gardens as well as fine library and arts collections, particularly of eighteenth-century material. I’m already looking forward to going back there in January for a conference we’re organising – more details in due course.
It was a rewarding week, although intellectually challenging, as we tried to grapple with the approaches and discourses of a number of different disciplines and covered a wide range of topics including authorship and re-authorship, authenticity, labour, production, collecting and control – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the topics we discussed was the selling and binding of books in the eighteenth century. Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out that many books would have been bought already bound from booksellers, not unbound as I’d previously assumed, although this did not apply equally to all types of book.
I was interested in this because it’s something I’ve come across while looking at books published by the Board of Longitude. For many of these mathematical works, it’s clear that while the copies we mostly see today are leather-bound, you could buy them with a simple blue paper covering. Among the Museum’s Nautical Almanacs, for instance, one volume with a coarse cloth cover and original blue wrapper stands out.
This also ties up with a letter from Nevil Maskelyne that I posted about previously, which talks about stitching the first edition in blue paper. Clearly, the practice continued.
Incidentally, there will be a second conference and workshop in Cambridge at the end of September – details to follow for that too – and ‘Things’ has secured funding to continue for another year from the autumn. We look forward to another interesting programme.
A number of us have commented in posts on this blog about interesting things which we have found while summarising the Board of Longitude archives for our JISC digitisation project (see for example). One of the aspects that always interests me is the sheer range of people who wrote to the Board, and the variety of places and backgrounds from which they hailed. In just one volume, that I looked at today, correspondents ranged from a barely literate old sailor to the Marquis of Buckingham, and wrote from places as varied as Bath and a French prison in Mauritius. We are always interested in how far printed discussions of the longitude problem disseminated outside of London, so it was striking to find a comment by this Bath correspondent that he did not have access to public libraries, and therefore to the sorts of mathematical and astronomical texts, to which Thomas Young, the secretary of the Board, was clearly accustomed in London.
But, it was the barely literate old sailor, James Straycock, who really caught my eye. I have also written before about William Hogarth’s print from A Rake’s Progress, in which an inmate of Bedlam, the eighteenth-century madhouse, tries to work out a solution to the longitude problem on the wall. One of his drawings is a projection of the world, showing latitude and longitude lines. I was therefore very excited to find the following poem at the end of Straycock’s letter from 1824, in which he proposed a means to draw a plain chart by geometrical rules. He also included an example diagram which you can see here.
Straycock ended poetically with,
So says a weather-beaten – worn out Tar
Who now unfit for sea – lays up in Port
And trys with Reason’s tackle – Winch or Bar
To draw fair Truth from the Profone of Thought.
Then beam a smile benign on the old lad:
And when you hear Brain-sweat runs through his cap
While spreading the Earth’s surface on a plane
Or fathom, off his lines for a true Map
Do not cry out — such labour is in vain
Nor fancy he is Foolish – Drunk – or Mad.
Straycock wrote almost one hundred years after Hogarth placed his figure of the longitude lunatic in Bedlam but unconsciously echoed so many of the themes on which Hogarth there sought to draw, and which I am trying to unravel in my PhD.
I thought I was having a few days away from the Board of Longitude at the end of May, with a trip to Cornwall for a meeting at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. I’d forgotten that I was staying in Penzance, where Humphry Davy was born and brought up.
Davy is obviously well remembered today for his role in the development of the Davy lamp and for his chemical researches. As President of the Royal Society from 1820 to 1827, however, he was also on the Board of Longitude in its final years before being wound up in 1828, and attended regularly between 1821 and 1826. This was a period when the Board’s role was changing considerably, with new activities including involvement in committees on ship tonnage and the improvement of glass, not to mention the foundation of the Cape Observatory.
This isn’t really what Davy is remembered for in Penzance, but remembered he certainly is. There’s a display in Penlee House Gallery and Museum, which commemorates him as a ‘scientist’, as does the large statue erected right in the centre of Penzance in 1872 (close to where he was born).
Of course, there are other ways than statues to celebrate local heroes:
You’ll be glad to know I raised a half in his memory.
Yesterday I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing some of our work make its way onto the stage. Some time ago, a couple of us from the Museum were asked for some advice by the Waxwings Theatre Company for a play called Tangent in which mathematics – including the problems of learning navigation in Nelson’s navy – is the focus.
I was impressed by how much they managed to work into the show, including lunar-distance theory, as well as the imaginative ways in which an early 19th-century naval vessel was evoked, in particular a pair of dividers standing in as a sextant. And you’ll be glad to hear that the midshipman’s use of lunars saves the day as his ship tries to get home from the Baltic.
There’s a couple of days left so do go and see it – you’ll believe trigonometry can be poetic!