Three members of the team (me, Katy and Alexi) are headed for the Three Societies meeting in Philadelphia to present papers at a session called ‘Defining the Instrumental: Navigation, Longitude and Science at Sea in the 18th Century’. Robert D. Hicks, of Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, has kindly agreed to act as commentator and chair. The full programme of the meeting (which is a quadrennial joint meeting of the History of Science Society, British Society for the History of Science and Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science) can be found here.
This is the session’s abstract:
During the 18th century, there were a number of developments which contributed to the improvement of navigation and to the conduct of science at sea and abroad. New instruments and the search for longitude at sea held promise for improving the safety and speed of ocean voyages, although many mariners continued to rely upon traditional tools and methods. Individuals and institutions also increasingly took to the sea to conduct waterborne and foreign observations and experiments, some of which involved multinational cooperation. This session considers the ways in which science, navigation and the use of technology, particularly precision instruments, were perceived and undertaken at sea in this period.
The speakers are working on a project on the history of the Board of Longitude, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and based at the University of Cambridge and National Maritime Museum (nmm.ac.uk/longitude). Their talks go beyond the Board itself to consider instruments, illustrations, language, lists and the role of individuals and wider public in the search for longitude and the use of technology at sea. The papers consider makers, users and commissioners of instruments; discuss the complex reality and idealized language of transporting and using scientific instruments at sea and overseas; and consider instruments as tools or objects of invention, investment, experimentation and authority. The commentator, Dr Robert D. Hicks, who has worked extensively on the history of navigation, scientific instruments and material culture, can offer perspective on the papers and this collaborative project between a university and a museum.
And here are the paper titles and abstracts:
Katy Barrett, ‘Longitude Inscrib’d: Early pamphlet solutions to the longitude problem’
The 1714 Act which founded the Board of Longitude initiated a flood of pamphlets proposing new methods of measuring longitude accurately at sea. These are one means of looking at how people thought about the ‘problem’ of longitude in the period before the first minuted Board meeting in 1737. A wide range of these pamphlets included an image to accompany the text. Frontispiece illustrations, geometrical diagrams, maps, and particularly illustrations of instruments all play specific roles within these pamphlets, and all might be said to act as ‘instruments’ for their owners visually to think through and demonstrate their solutions. This paper considers the function of the images that accompanied many of these early schemes, using Bruno Latour’s idea of ‘inscription’ with John Bender’s idea of ‘diagram.’ It looks at how illustrations of instruments acted as a means of communicating proposed designs to potential patrons, and a means of mobilising backers to get these instruments made and tested. Equally, new map projections allowed contributors to think about lines of longitude and latitude as themselves contested, but were also the instrument for testing other solutions. Such questions form the background to the discussions between the Board of Longitude and their most famous applicant, the clockmaker John Harrison, in the 1730s-60s. Inscribed lines – of cartography, of illustration, of print, and of mechanism – tied together the instruments, texts and images which collectively articulated possible solutions.
Alexi Baker, ’‘Precision’, ‘perfection’ and the reality of eighteenth-century instruments at sea’
During the 1700s, the quality and precision of British scientific instruments were often represented in relatively vague terms, such as their having been ‘brought to perfection’ or to an unspecified degree of precision, with little reference to the complications commonly experienced in trying to use them. The reality is that most Georgian instruments were far from precise in the modern sense of the word and were also temperamental, being particularly sensitive to their surroundings. Exposure to movement and to changing environmental conditions often shook parts out of alignment and made materials shrink or expand.
This tended to be even truer for instruments that travelled overseas and for their accoutrements and storage boxes, because of challenging conditions and because of being so distant from the tools’ original makers. The technology intended for use aboard ship faced the jarring motions of the waves and sometimes dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. This greatly hindered natural philosophical readings but also the use of navigational instruments and efforts to reliably ‘find the longitude’ at sea, whether by horological or astronomical means. Researchers and observers on scientific expeditions not only faced having their equipment disordered or broken en route by this environment but often faced arduous conditions once they reached their destinations as well, whether while on the move or at a temporary observatory or research station. As a result of these challenges, instrument usage constantly involved the making of adjustments and repairs and other compensatory practices – a pervasive ‘make do and mend’ culture.
Rebekah Higgitt, ‘Nevil Maskelyne and the instruments of scientific exploration, 1760-1800′
In the later 18th century, as voyages of exploration gained official sanction and state support, Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, frequently dictated what scientific instruments would or should be provided. His lists, drawn up for the Royal Society or the Board of Longitude, have clear resemblances and could be considered as defining the instruments of scientific exploration at this period. This was despite the fact that, although Maskelyne had first-hand experience of maritime navigation and observations in the field, he had never personally been involved in the exploration of new territory. It will be argued that, although the role of Astronomer Royal was key, Maskelyne’s experience of and interest in the use and management of instruments at sea and in the field pre-dated his appointment. It is possible to argue that Maskelyne, personally rather than ex officio¸ helped shape the scientific exploration carried out by Britain and its navy from the 1770s to the beginning of the new century.
As well as considering the genesis and content of Maskelyne’s lists of scientific instruments, this paper will highlight the related work he undertook, including selecting and improving instruments, writing scientific instructions, and choosing the expeditions’ observers. It will also reflect on how, depending on location and context, similar objects might be instruments of exploration, of experiment or of routine observation. Indeed, it was a defining characteristic of such voyages to include a range of scientific and strategic objectives, facilitated by, or involving the testing of, key sets of instruments.
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