Detail from RGO14/44
One of the opportunities that was open to members of the Board of Longitude project has been to get involved with producing written summaries of the content of all the Royal Greenwich Observatory Papers related to the Board of Longitude for the JISC Project “Navigating Eighteenth-Century Science and Technology: The Board of Longitude”.
In the mid eighteenth-century, Astronomer Royal George Airy organised the papers of the Board into volumes that were then bound. Each volumes covered different areas of the Board’s work from chronometer trials to meeting minutes to correspondence about squaring the circle. Together with additional collections from the papers of Nevil Maskelyne, John Pond and George Fisher as well as various ship logs, each volume has been summarised by a member of the project to accompany the digitised volume on the JISC project website.
The process of writing the summaries was something that the project team learnt together, exchanging ideas and problems as we progressed through the work. At first I took a great amount of time combing through each volume, double-checking facts and cross referencing names, but I soon got into the swing of being able to look through the volumes quite efficiently, developing the skill of skim-reading an archive to get a sense of the whole volume before going back over it in more detail and deciding what to prioritise for the volume’s summary. There are also the issues of incomprehensible handwriting, untitled sets of observations and tantalisingly anonymous scraps and notes. It was an interesting and satisfying process to start to learn to read the different handwritings of the various correspondents and the Board’s secretaries as well as to know a longitude reduction when you see one.
But in addition to the practical learning curves of dealing with such a vast amount of material, some of which is in dreadful handwriting, producing summaries for the Board of Longitude Papers changed the way that I understood the Board’s earlier exploits in the eighteenth-century as well as its actions and situation in the nineteenth-century.
What became most interesting are the gaps in the archive, the spaces undermine the typical narrative of the Board, Harrison and his chronometers in the search for longitude story. Instead we find a Board that considered more than just chronometers as a solution to the longitude problem spending nearly as much money on a variety of rewards as they did on publications, particularly when producing the annual Nautical Almanac from 1767. Also notable was the increasing level of bureaucracy over the Board’s lifespan. There is a much larger quantity of material towards the later half of the Board’s archive as it became an increasingly public-facing body, which helped to remind me of the political as well as scientific dimension of the history covered by the project.
I was lucky enough to discover several things that are pertinent to my PhD research and have affected the conclusions that I have come to in my thesis. To give one example there are several documents that discuss the transitions of the Board in 1828 into a Consultative Committee for the Admiralty that have shifted my conclusions about the end of the Board. But the exchange goes both ways; as well as harvesting the archive for sources to support our thesis work, writing summaries allows us to discuss the material that won’t make it into our theses.
Detail from RGO14/45
‘Summary’ is perhaps a misleading term for the pieces that we were asked to produce as they are much more opinion-pieces. Each summary is authored on the digital archive and is a useful platform for giving an opinion about the source material found in any particular volume with regard to its usefulness as historical material as well as what it can tell us about The Board, its associated actors or scientific instruments in Georgian and Regency metropolitan science and society.
I’ve also come across material that I hopefully will be writing up separately form my thesis, particularly a few things in the perpetual motion letters collected by the Board’s secretary Thomas Young, so watch this space!
Most significantly though, working for the JISC project has reminded me of the fun you can have going with an open mind to fresh material, not hoping to pull a certain thesis out of the source, but just observing, thinking and writing. The Board of Longitude archives are a massively rich resource; even after our project is finished there will be narratives to tell and insights to gain for future researchers, especially with access and introductions made easier by the JISC digitisation project and its summaries.
During my time helping to organising the seminar series “Things: Material Cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century” over the course of the last academic year, the idea of the ‘object’ as an important historical source has started to affect my own PhD work.
Recently I’ve been attempting to find out more about the Board of Longitude’s sponsorship of gravity research in various voyages of discovery in the post Napoleonic period. The instrument of choice for this research was the pendulum, as the frequency of its period would vary with the local strength of gravity. The pendulum as a scientific instrument underwent a transformation in this period. From a trusted source of time intervals in astronomical regulator clocks, as it ticked and tocked in the centre of observatories across the globe, into a more problematic instrument when used to measure gravity, encountering problems of air resistance and suspension. My research traces this adaption of the pendulum as they were, sometimes literally, removed from clock cases and swung to measure gravity variation, instead of constant time, and estimate the shape and density of the earth.
One particular instrument, a Shelton Regulator Clock, has jumped out as an object that effectively demonstrates this narrative of increasing complexity for the pendulum as a scientific instrument. There are five Shelton Regulator Clocks that are present in this period and they’ve all claimed to be the one taken with Cook to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. This confusion between where the five clocks were at different times and for different events is in part a result of an absence of proper cataloguing of instruments owned by the Royal Society and the Board of Longitude to which the clocks belonged. This problem is compounded by the fact that the clocks were stored in the 1780s in a warehouse shared by the two institutions and it would have been easy to confuse them with each other as they’re all similar in appearance. This confusion surround the clocks as a result of their similarity also reminds us that a key element of the 1769 transit of Venus was a lesson learnt from the 1761 expeditions: it was good scientific practise to ensure that your instruments were as identical as possible to ensure the results, taken from different locations across the globe, would be as comparable as possible.
Cook took with him one clock to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, on his subsequent voyages in 1772 and 1776 he took two: a clock from the Royal society and the one owned by the Board of Longitude. The clock that he took with him in 1768 had been previously used by Nevil Maskelyne to preform gravity experiments and observe the 1761 transit of Venus in St. Helena. This set of gravity experiment was the forerunner to many more experiments resulting in a peak of gravity research in the 1820s and 1830s. Maskelyne report from December 12th 1771 shows the pioneering nature of this early work – “when compared with the going of the Clock at Greenwich, will shew the difference of gravity from that at Greenwich, which is a very curious point in experimental Philosophy.”
After traveling with Cook the clock was back with Maskelyne, now Astronomer Royal, by 1774 and he took it to Perthshire in order to conduct an experiment to “weight the earth” by measuring the deflection of a plumb line caused by a nearby mountain mass. George Biddle Airy then took the clock and another from the Royal Society with him to measure the density of the earth at the top and bottom of a mine shaft in Cornwall with William Whewell in the spring of 1826. The next account of the whereabouts of this clock is in an inventory of the instruments owned by the Royal Society conducted between 1827 and 1834. The inventory includes three Shelton clocks listed as items 33, 34 and 35 that came with a note from Mr Simms, who conducted the survey, saying “The two last employed at the transit of Venus… and Professors Airy and Whewell.” This note tells us that the last two were used by Airy in Cornwall and that Mr Simm’s might not be confident of which, but one of these two clocks, was also the one that had gone with Cook to the Pacific in 1768.
The use of this clock for pioneering gravity experiments by Maskelyne, then traveling with Cook to observe the transit of Venus and finally being used by Airy in Cornwall is an insightful way to map the development of experimental work done with pendulums in both astronomy and gravitational research from the 1760s to the 1820s. The different uses that this clock has had are a fantastic demonstration of the core narrative that I’m attempting to tell as one part of my PhD. This object serves to remind us that it is not only written material that makes history tick, sometimes its clocks.
Katy Barrett and myself, after discussing the dearth of eighteenth century focused discussion in the HPS department here at Cambridge decided to put together a seminar series focused on two of our shared passions: the long eighteenth century and material culture. The result was “Things” which managed to secure funding as a Graduate Research Group from CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). There have been several great sessions already this term and the latest, on the Telescope, was given by two of the project team. This seminar saw us move away from discussions of museology, display and broken-things, themes that dominated the past two sessions; instead both the talks and discussion this week were more concerned with the historical importance of telescopes in the long-eighteenth century.
Dr Alexi Baker, despite a terrible cold, gave an insightful and inspiring talk on the variety of uses and symbolic roles the telescope held for a cross-section of European Society in the eighteenth century. From teaching, navigating and surveying to display and spectacle, Alexi’s talk gave great insight into the quite unexpected level of penetration the telescope had in European society in that period. With stunning pictures of instrument manufacturers’ trade cards, Alexi used the range of items for sale and of interested cliental in optical items to demonstrate the popularity and importance of the pastime and research as well as make insightful comments on the ubiquity of the telescope as a non-specialised item. Alexi was also keen to highlight that, despite many preconceived ideas, the telescope demonstrates that there is no need to divorce utility from aesthetics in eighteenth century ‘things’.
Dr Richard Dunn followed with a talk that contrasted Alexi’s perspectives effectively. Looking at the iconography, utility and technological development of the telescope and other optical devices, Richard gave insight into the eighteenth century concept of useful and moral knowledge and reminded us that in order to increase our historical understanding of the objects discussed by Alexi we must consider their contemporary interpretation and uses. One particularly interesting question was raised; to what extent did the increasing power of telescopes in the long eighteenth century factor in their consumption by society? Richard’s discussion of the iconography showed that the increasing enhancement of telescopic sight was certainly reflected in popular depictions of telescopes and would have therefore most likely factored in their consumption by gentlemen and men of science alike. Richard also simplified a lot of his specialised technical knowledge in order to highlight that an understanding of the technology behind telescopes is fundamental to our ability as historians to unpick the iconography and social importance of them and other lens-instruments in the long eighteenth century.
The discussion session was not dominated by any particular aspect of the talks, such was the diversity of the audience and their perspectives, but worked instead as an extension of the two talks. There was though some focus on the idea of morality and polite knowledge as contrasting with the production of scientific truth in the period. The concept of reading error and accuracy also entered into the debate with a reference to John Herschel’s warning to his fellow men of science that they should expect “masterpieces not miracles” form the instrument-makers workshop.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy listening for yourself: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1186872;jsessionid=D6524C94C9239F46B6FCD869DD4501B3
A quick glance at the official minutes of the Board of Longitude demonstrates the limited understanding we have of Thomas Young’s daily activities toward the end of his lifespan despite the huge amounts of research done on his life and intellectual work in that period.
Successful in so many endeavours some of Young’s achievements are inevitably going to be pushed to the side. Two of Young’s achievements in particular dominate work on him, from the memoir written just after his death by his good friend, Hudson Gurney, to the 2007 biography by Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything.
The first of Young’s achievements that has been concentrated on in biographical work was his contribution to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. Young’s work in Egyptology and hieroglyphics was done in his leisure time surrounding his Secretarial and Superintendent duties for the Admiralty and the Board of Longitude.
Shortly after his death Young’s role in the translation became a matter of national pride with a re-invention of Young and his achievements taking place in obituaries and biographies; a prominence was given to his linguistic work to claim the translation of the Rosetta Stone as a British triumph. The Rosetta Stone had been the focus of nationalistic rivalries ever since its transfer from French to British possession in the Napoleonic Wars. At the time of Young’s death he was embroiled in a very public disagreement over reforms of the Nautical Almanac and was hugely unpopular in certain quarters; yet he was quickly established as a great intellectual, a man that Britain could be proud of, for translating the secrets of the ancient Egyptians.
The Rosetta Stone is still remember in this way, situated in the British Museum as one of the key pieces of its collection. Today much of the credit for translation goes to the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion. Yet it is still claimed that Young’s discovery that cartouches around certain repeating sets of hieroglyphics are indicative of proper nouns, which could then be compared with the Greek and demotic texts, was the linchpin of any translation. In the 1970s French visitors to the British Museum complained that the portrait of Young was larger than the one of Champollion on the information panel for the Rosetta Stone; the portraits were actually the same size.
Secondly Young’s work on optics is a prominent feature in biographies and how we remember Young in this context is again shaped by the biographer’s ambition. George Peacock portrayed Young in his 1855 biography as the ‘father of the wave theory of light’ in an attempt to get it introduced into the Cambridge Tripos, which was dominated by Newtonian physics including his corpuscular theory of light. Yet with another re-imagining of Young, some slight exaggeration and embellishment, he and his wave theory could be represented as a continuation and expansion of Newton, rather than as opposition. Wave theory from a man who believed in Newtonian physics and ideals would help to get it included in the Tripos. Young was a conservative, gentlemen of science and famed for opposing change for changes sake in scientific thinking and administration; he had publicly clashed with Charles Babbage who had previously demanded change in the Mathematics Tripos during his time at Cambridge.
These manipulations of Young’s story result in his work as a civil servant being neglected. The last two decades of his life were spent working as Secretary to the Committee for Weights and Measures, Secretary to the Board of Longitude and the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. He helped the Admiralty and the Royal Society to accomplish achievements that were just as important to national pride as his work done on the translation of the Rosetta Stone and our understanding of light. The two most significant examples are the establishment of the Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope and the search for the North West Passage.
One of Young’s duties as Secretary of the Board of Longitude was to verify any claim for the £20,000 prize offered by the Board for the discovery of a North-West Passage. On the 27th November 1820, Lieutenants William Edward Parry, Henry Parkyns Hoppner and Matthew Liddon along with Captain Edward Sabine claimed that in the previous year they obtained a longitude of 110º West of Greenwich sailing within the Artic Circle. Young’s correspondence with Hudson Gurney tells us that this endeavour had economic as well as national significance, affected the domestic supply of whale oil used in lamps and wool combing: “And here is the polar expedition arrived, whom I am to examine on their oaths to get them the £5000, which it seems will be spent in lowering the price of oil, by the information they have given the whalers.”
Young was a man of many great achievements; John Herschel called him a “truly original genius” and his time spent helping to co-ordinate the establishment of the Observatory is not well documented but this endeavour was regarded as much more important that his work on hieroglyphics by his contemporaries. When Sir Joseph Banks seconding Davies Gilbert‘s proposal of a Cape Observatory, he declared that ‘nothing could more essentially promote the glory of this country, than to be foremost in such an undertaking.’
Young’s expanse of work is a challenge to any historian, so we must allow for the neglect of some aspects of his endeavours. Yet hopefully from the Board of Longitude archives a new historical understanding of Thomas Young as Secretary and Civil Servant will emerge, to complement his already well documented work in linguistics and optics. We hope to find yet another side to Thomas Young.
Picture credits: Print of Thomas Young, after Thomas Lawrence, c. 1810, Science and Society Picture Library; Rosetta Stone, Wikimedia Commons; The Crews of the H.M.S Hecla and Griper Cutting into Winter Harbour, Sept. 26th, 1819, Wikimedia Commons.