Last week, five of us attended the workshop ‘British Sea Power: Authority, Expertise and the State, 1800-1950′ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Many of the speakers and attendees tried to define ‘expertise’ for the Georgian as well as the later periods, although the term was not employed as such until the later nineteenth century. We also discussed interrelated concepts which could contribute to the judgment and establishment of authority, such as a person’s ‘character’.
Something which has always interested me about the ways in which Georgian institutions such as the Board of Longitude defined acceptable experts or authorities for different purposes, is the degree to which what might be called ‘social’ considerations and connections played a role. It is clear from reading the surviving minutes, correspondence and related documents from over the decades that it was not just artisanal, practical or intellectual knowledge and skill which made a person a suitable Board expert or agent.
They needed to be acceptably conversant with the ways in which literate and respectable men communicated with each other to be fully taken seriously, and they almost always either held a certain degree of social and/or political standing in their own right or were recommended by such men. Sometimes individuals’ ‘social’ standing and esteem even helped to outweigh a dearth of specific knowledge or expertise when it came to the appointment of, for example, witnesses as in the cases of the different trials and discoveries of the clockmaker John Harrison.
Sophie Waring suggested at the workshop that these sorts of dynamics may have also played a role in the largely unproblematic reception of the suspiciously precise results of Edward Sabine‘s pendulum experiments. Few men except for Charles Babbage — whose reputation suffered somewhat for it — questioned the precision of Sabine’s results, perhaps in large part because of his high standing within circles such as those of the Board and of the Royal Society. It seems that it was the man, rather than his methods and results, who was being treated as being beyond reproach.
The incorporation of more socially oriented considerations into the process of choosing and recognising authorities in the search for the longitude was seldom a conscious and explicit decision, but more a result of the nature of society and of institutions in Georgian Britain. It was the common thing for people, and for officeholders such as Commissioners of the Longitude, to draw almost all of their associates from their wide-ranging webs of existing socio-economic connections. A personal association, or the recommendation of personal associates, could prove an even more valuable sign of trustworthiness and ability than candidates’ positions and publications alone.
This resulted in witnesses and collaborators typically being drawn from overlapping social circles and having at least basic skills in conducting the polite Georgian dance of patron / servant or of ‘friends’. (The term ‘friend’ was somewhat more expansive during the eighteenth century than it is today, as Naomi Tadmor says, encompassing ‘kinship ties, sentimental relationships, economic ties, occupational connections, intellectual and spiritual attachments, sociable networks, and political alliances’.)
One example, out of many, is the dealings of the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne with the Scottish astronomer Andrew Mackay from the late 1780s to the early 1800s. Mackay was then the unpaid head of the observatory at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He was partially or wholly self-taught in astronomy, navigation and mathematics and was respected for his abilities, receiving a number of honours. His notebook of routine observations made until 1789 survives, including estimates which he made of the longitude via observations of the Jovian moons. In 1793, the astronomer was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also published by subscription the first edition of his longitude book, in which he was said to have received the thanks of both the French and British longitude boards for his efforts.
Since Mackay was not paid for his observatory work, he sustained himself by publishing and by teaching diverse mathematics-oriented subjects, later also becoming the superintendent of the Aberdeen harbour. In 1802, he brought an unsuccessful action in the court of session against King’s College Aberdeen after having been passed over for the Professorship of Natural Philosophy there. He moved to London in 1804 and in addition to teaching there, was an examiner in mathematics for Trinity House, Christ’s Hospital and the East India Company.
The two astronomers’ association began when Mackay asked Maskelyne in the spring of 1787 to lay his ‘new method of finding the Longitude and Latitude of a Ship at Sea’ before the Board of Longitude – which he did on 8 December. The latter man was so impressed by the Scotsman’s treatise, position in Aberdeen, and apparent skills, that he suggested bringing him to Greenwich as an assistant. (The treatise in question was later published as ‘The Theory and Practice of finding the Longitude at Sea or on Land’, and various editions were dedicated to the Astronomer Royal, although the Board declined to give its author an award.)
Maskelyne, normally so adept at navigating the steps of Georgian social interaction, appears to have made a slight faux pas here by not having first considered Mackay’s connections higher up the social and collegiate ladder. The Astronomer Royal wrote in an ensuing letter that he would not want to steal the Scotsman away from his patrons at Marischal College and especially from a Professor Copley without their approval. While the two men discussed further details of the assistantship in ensuing letters, it ultimately did not come to pass.
During the ensuing years, Maskelyne and Mackay appear to have struck up one of the elder man’s common friendly-working relationships, exchanging greetings and astronomical and mathematical information, and at times boons from the elder to the younger man. On 2 August 1790, the former responded positively to the latter having attempted to visit him in Greenwich, while he was in England. Later in 1802, Maskelyne also tried to make his young friend the replacement astronomer on the Matthew Flinders voyage to Australia, despite confusion over the pay being offered by the Board of Longitude and stalling on the part of the supposed supplicant – who still hoped to win a professorship at King’s College.
The surviving letters show that at this time, Maskelyne was also keen on aiding his friend to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, provided he wanted to go to the significant expense involved. He offered to try to secure the support of President Joseph Banks, after which Mackay’s election would be practically assured. The two astronomers discussed possible co-signers for the election certificate, with the Astronomer Royal being sure of the Spanish-born Joseph de Mendoza y Rios but alerting Mackay that whomever else he has suggested had not attended the Society’s meetings since the famous blowup between Banks and a number of mathematical Fellows in the early 1780s. He also suggested the Scotsman’s friend Professor Abraham Robertson of Oxford and perhaps Lynn, William Herschel or Alexander Aubert.
Later in 1802, Maskelyne regretfully informed Mackay that he had chosen someone else to join the Flinders expedition, as it could not be put off any longer, and the Scotsman also would not have been able to go if his litigation were successful. However, he assured his counterpart that he would still support his election to the Royal Society and even that he would try to get his longitude book ‘advertised on the sheets of the nautical almanac‘. The Astronomer Royal also encouraged Mackay’s interest in naval architecture and asked to be put down as a subscriber to his new treatises on astronomy and navigation. In 1805, he was still discussing getting the Scotsman elected to the Royal Society, although this never happened, and communicating favourably about the third edition of his longitude book.
It’s clear in this correspondence and in so many other records related to the Board of Longitude, that it was the most common route taken, for acceptable authorities and assistants for the Commissioners’ work to be drawn from within the orbits of their existing socio-economic circles. This wasn’t cronyism or nepotism (or any other modern -ism) per se, as one might accuse today, but a prevalent means of trying to ensure capability and trustworthiness. This contributed to the frequency with which witnesses and collaborators became long-term associates of the Board — with the same names reappearing over and over in the extant records — and it often blurred or even erased the lines between employee and friend as well.
‘Expertise’ in the modern sense did not exist during the Georgian era, but there were similar concepts which could indicate a man’s worth as an authority or employee. In the case of the Board of Longitude and many other institutions, these appear to have included the possession of ’expert’ knowledge or skills but also factors including social standing, good character, and what is often termed ‘politeness’.
Image sources: Edward Sabine and Charles Babbage – National Portrait Gallery; Marischal College – Wikipedia; Correspondence – Richard Dunn / Royal Museums Greenwich.
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