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.
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.
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