I recently did a brief talk for some of the staff at Nesta, including their Centre for Challenge Prizes, on our project and outcomes of our research. During the discussion, someone asked what is, particularly for them, a very pertinent question: “Did the Longitude Act speed up the arrival of a solution?”.
My answer was something along the lines of “sort of, possibly, probably no…”. It is not the kind of question that we historians are necessarily very good at answering, involving as it does the counter-factual world in which no such Act was ever passed by the British parliament. Still, it’s an interesting idea to play around with.
All the things that first came to my mind were the reasons why it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference. For a start, it was not the only potential reward available for whoever should come up with a viable longitude solution. As well as the earlier Spanish reward system, the Dutch version was still on-going, as were prizes on offer from the French Académie des Sciences. Had there not been the 1714 Act in Britain there might have been another one or initiatives organised through private individuals or institutions like the Royal Society.
Even without these schemes, plausible navigation-related ideas were always a potential means of gaining patronage and, if successful, could lead to honours, rewards, customers and a viable business. While the Longitude Act held out the possibility of a very large reward, it was certainly not the only or – for most people – the most likely way to make new ideas around longitude pay.
The question of “speed” is an interesting one. It is impossible to predict how long new ideas should take to develop, but when we consider that it is two decades before the Commissioners of Longitude met as a group, and another three before serious money was dispensed, it doesn’t sound particularly speedy. The 1714 Act had looked for a “practicable and useful” solution for the public, but there wasn’t anything widely available until a century later.
Something else that disrupts the idea of a prize having a quick and direct impact is the very international and collaborative nature of the potential solutions. The astronomical knowledge and mathematical tools required to make the lunar distance method workable were the product of many minds, in several countries. It was a process that might have been sped up by much larger sums of money being thrown at observatories to employ many more astronomers, but probably not by the possibility of a future prize.
The timekeeping method was also more international and collaborative than is often remembered. While a single clock can seem obviously the work of an individual, it incorporates the skills of many piece-workers and collaborators, knowledge of predecessors and availability of particular materials. These things are specific to time and place, meaning that new technologies only become possible in those circumstances. If the time was ripe for Harrison, so too was it for Ferdinand Berthoud and Pierre Le Roy in Paris and (possibly, or in time) for Thomas Mudge, Larcum Kendall and John Arnold in London.
However, it is certainly true that the Longitude Act gained lots of attention and provoked lots of interest. It would also seem that the key players in the story – like John Harrison, John Hadley and Tobias Mayer – were, it not directly inspired to look at the problem as a result of the Act, certainly quickly interested in making contact with the Commissioners. Over time, their work was also to become of greater public interest and, therefore, better known as a result of the fame of the Act and all those involved in it.
It is probably also fair to say that Harrison would not have had the time or money to dedicate so much of his life to the problem without the financial assistance of the Board. I would also argue that investment in the later 18th century in the two methods – through the Nautical Almanac and other publications, trials, further rewards, training and so on – probably did speed up or at least allow their wider adoption. This, however, was only through new Acts and a changing understanding of the Board’s purpose.
All in all, my view is that had the 1714 Act, Harrison, Hadley and Mayer not existed, others would very probably have (and sometimes did) come up with similar solutions to the problems they tackled within somewhere around the same time frame. However, this is not necessarily a conclusion that I would claim for the progress of all reward schemes and challenge prizes. Things would be different should a prize, for example, highlight an issue people were unlikely otherwise to be working on or in a period with a much larger and more professionalised workforce than in the 18th century.
But that is only my view and, like all counter-factuals, probably begs to be shot down. I’d love to know what others think.*
*NB I am aware that the comments on this blog aren’t working properly at the moment. If anyone has thoughts and would like to share them please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and I will put them up for you.
Last week I spent a pleasant couple of days in the Netherlands, taking in Amsterdam, Leiden and The Hague, mainly looking at items we hope to borrow for the exhibition we are planning for next year.
The Netherlands is an obvious place to go, of course, since it has such an extraordinarily rich maritime history going back way before 1714. Coming to the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, you are left in no doubt why seafaring countries were searching for ways of improving navigation generally.
The replica of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship, the Amsterdam, which began long-distance voyages in 1749, shows vividly just how much valuable cargo could be lost if the ship went astray.
As the Scheepvaartmuseum displays remind you, however, the Dutch Golden Age was in the 17th century, and it was some of the attempts to develop effective methods of determining longitude in that period that I was particularly keen to have a look at. Some are in the Scheepvaartmuseum, of course, including a fine collection of navigational instruments, but I was also able to get into the newly reopened and very impressive Rijksmuseum (Tip: get there early), where there’s a lot of material relating to the VOC and Dutch activities overseas. As far as longitude matters are concerned, the most intriguing is a group of instruments found at Nova Zembla, which include an astrolabium catholicum and a copper plate believed to have been used for determining longitude by magnetic variation. I was also rather surprised to come across a pocket nocturnal and astrolabe belonging to René Descartes.
The rest of the trip was focused on Christiaan Huygens (of whom Descartes was a family friend, incidentally), whose groundbreaking horological work included many attempts to perfect timekeepers for determining longitude at sea. I was lucky enough to look at some original manuscripts at Leiden University Library, which holds a huge number of his letters and other writings, as well as visiting the Museum Boerhaave, for whom Huygens is naturally an important figure. They have a very nice 1930s reconstruction of one of his marine clocks, as well as an 18th century longitude timekeeper designed by Lotharius Zumbag de Koesfelt and later made by his son.
In fact, the reconstructed Huygens sea clock is currently in a special exhibition about Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens in The Hague (where they are buried), as is a very fine portrait of Christiaan by Caspar Netscher. The exhibition has some nice ideas, in particular in trying to get across how well-connected Constantijn and Christiaan were and a digital ‘Wall of Plenty’ that allows you to explore the amazing diversity of Huygens’ scientific and technical interests. Nonetheless, I did feel that the exhibition could have had a bit more substance, a bit less design. It did, however, give me the frightening experience of remembering what I looked like with hair:
Not one for the faint-hearted!
Filming in progress with John Gallagher
In the last couple of months, I’ve been incredibly lucky and honoured to be involved in a series of video casts showcasing PhD research, produced by fellow students John Gallagher and Richard Blakemore in partnership with Ruth Rushworth at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). The first season features 6 PhDs, with many more to come they hope.
The idea is to give interdisciplinary students a chance to talk about their research with an eye to public engagement and making their ideas fun and interesting to a broad audience. I’ve really enjoyed the process of thinking through, recording and then publicising the film, and think it looks and sounds pretty good! My film is the second in the series ‘it’s not longitude that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts‘, and launched today, with a page of associated links and references. You can watch the film or listen as a podcast on iTunes. I’m excited to see what readers of this blog think of it.
I have recently been moonlighting somewhat, and taking my blogging focus to The H Word at the Guardian. I have not, though, been neglecting longitude but have, rather, been finding that it can be relevant to today’s discussions.
Way back last October, when the Nobel Prizes were in the news, I put up a post that looked at the difference between recognition prizes (like the Nobels or Royal Society medals), reward prizes and challenge prizes. The latter were certainly a feature of 18th-century scientific societies, and in many ways recent enthusiasm for them seems to herald a return to an older model. The Longitude Act in fact seems to sit between several of these stools. It specified a challenge but offered rewards that made up for time and money already spent rather than a prize. Nevertheless, it is clear that for John Harrison, the recognition element – of being acknowledged as a winner of the top reward – became ever-more important.
Last month, on the occasion of the arrival of a new Chief Scientific Advisor, I wrote about the possible relevance of the longitude tale to current science policy – in particular the notion of using the Longitude Act as a kind of emblem for today’s Challenge Prizes. This was within a piece written with James Wilson, of the University of Sussex’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, that called for informed history of science to have a greater role in the process of making science policy.
Today, with reactions to the Chief Scientific Advisor’s first public pronouncement of some advice (in the FT on bees and neonicotinoid pesticides), I found myself thinking of how our Longitude Commissioners could get flack from all sides. Having also recently been writing about Newton’s evidence to Parliament in 1714, I also recalled that Newton’s role has often been criticised by much more recent writers. It has often been suggested that Newton’s faith in astronomy over clockwork was misplaced, and unnecessarily set back the longitude search. I therefore asked whether Isaac Newton really did get it wrong.
Next week I will be talking to some of the people at the Centre for Challenge Prizes, which I hope will be interesting on both sides. For the exhibition we are particularly interested in finding the issues of today that either perplex or excite people today in the way that longitude could in the 18th century, or pinpointing today’s technical challenges that might be tackled in this kind of high-profile, one-off way. I hope that we can give a sense of this story still being relevant to us today.
Lucy Worsley, head curator at Historic Royal Palaces, has just finished presenting a series on BBC 1 called ‘Fit to Rule.’ In this she is considering the medical strengths and weaknesses of the British royal families as intrinsic to the success or failure of their reigns. The various royal palaces provide a lively backdrop for these discussions. In the second episode she investigated the health of the Hanoverians, paying particular attention to the ‘madness’ of George III. This is best known from the play and film by Alan Bennett, but is also told beautifully in the displays at Kew Palace, where George III was kept during his ‘mad’ periods.
Bennett’s play used the fashionable theory that George’s ‘madness’ was in fact a symptom of the physical, genetic blood disease porphyria, which famously turns the patient’s urine blue. But, Lucy Worsley’s programme discussed new ideas being developed by a research project at St George’s, University of London. This has pointed out that gentian was often used to treat mental disorders in the eighteenth century, and that this could account for George’s blue urine. Furthermore, researchers Dr Peter Garrard and Dr Vassiliki Rentoumi have been analysing George’s handwritten letters from his periods of illness, and are using them to argue that he was, in fact, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. They highlight how much longer and more disordered George’s sentences became during periods of illness, and how his vocabulary became much broader and more colourful. Likewise, his attendants reported that he became increasingly verbose and incoherent, sometimes talking incessantly until he foamed at the mouth. These are all symptoms which modern medicine ascribes to the manic phase of psychiatric illness.
I pricked up my ears at these arguments, because it is just such characteristics that I have been identifying in the speech and writings of John Harrison, our famous longitude clockmaker. His communication was sufficiently disordered, verbose and colourful, I want to argue, that the Commissioners of Longitude were worried that he too was going mad. Such features are clearly shown in the pamphlet which Harrison published in 1775 entitled A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or true mensuration of time. It is more than three times longer than any of his (probably ghost-written) other publications, it rants and rails at the commissioners and regularly gets lost in its own sentences. These run over multiple pages, and feature layers of footnotes and sub footnotes. The work opens, for instance, thus:
‘As first, or rather as here at the first [viz. as without the taking any Notice of the great or chief Matter, viz. of what pertains to different Vibrations, or rather, as more properly speaking, of what Advantage pertains to, or accrues from, the Largeness of a Vibration] the bare Length of a Pendulum can be no otherwise rightly considered or esteemed, but as only to what it bears, or may [as according to the common Application] bear in Proportion to the Length of the Pallats, and as together with such improper Powers or Circumstances thereunto belonging, or may, as farther thereunto belong; i.e. in other Words, [and as still in the first Place] …’
and we have not yet reached the end of the sentence! Likewise, in a later footnote, Harrison referenced a well-known scatological ode satirising Whiston and Ditton which is thought to have been written by one of the Scriblerian group. This ode opens:
The Longitude mist on
By wicked Will. Whiston.u
And not better hit on
By good Master Ditton.
So Ditton and Whiston
May both be bep-st on;
And Whiston and Ditton
May both be besh-it on.
Harrison’s footnote commented that, ‘Whiston was pissed on, and Ditton shit on, but surely these Men [the Commisioners] ought to be besmear’d or bespatter’d with both.’ Given such examples, it is unsurprising to find the Commissioners getting exasperated and irritated by their interactions with Harrison. In one meeting Lord Morton described a letter from Harrison as ‘such a confused, piece of Jargon as I believe you never have heard before, and you will see from it that whoever drew it up cannot express their own minds.’
Historians like Roy Porter and Clement Hawes have discussed just such features as characteristic of mad writing in the eighteenth century, and as key to physicians’ theories around it. Lucy Worsley doesn’t need to go to a modern medical research project, the same discussions are right there in the period! One wonders if, perhaps, George III recognised such characteristics of Harrison as latent in himself when the two men met in the 1760s, encouraging the king to help to ‘see Harrison righted’ by an award from parliament.
One of the nice things about working in a museum with huge collections is that from time to time you come across things you didn’t even know you were looking for. This happened to me the other day when I unexpectedly came across a 1773 painting of Drakes Island, Plymouth, of which this is a detail:
I must have walked past it many times, but it caught my eye because I’ve been looking again at William Wales’s log from Cook’s second voyage as part of the digitisation project in which we are involved.
It’s no surprise to learn that the island was named after Sir Francis Drake, who departed from there in 1577 at the start of his famous circumnavigation. This hasn’t always been the island’s name, however: it was previously St Nicholas’s island, after a chapel there.
This takes us from one circumnavigation to another. As far as the Cook voyage is concerned, Drake’s Island had a role in the long-distance testing (proposed by Nevil Maskelyne in 1771) of four new marine timekeepers – K1 by Larcum Kendall and three by John Arnold. Not long before the voyage’s departure, Wales recorded in his log (3 July 1772) that he:
Went on shore to Mr Bayley at Drake’s Island, where I found he had got up his Clock and Quadrant and was employed making Equal Altitudes for the Time & Zenith distances for the Latitude of the Place. In the morning got on shore the Transit Instrument with intent, if possible to observe a few transits of the [moon] over the Meridian for to find the Longit[ude] of the Place from whence we are to take our Departure by the Watches. Cloudy with Rain at times.
So Drake’s Island was the starting point for the testing of the four sea watches. By the time the ships returned in 1775, of course, only Kendall’s timekeeper had proved successful.
As a final aside, I was also intrigued to learn that the first recorded submarine fatality occurred north of Drake’s Island just two years after Cook’s departure, when a carpenter named John Day died while testing a wooden diving chamber.
This weekend was the tenth anniversary of the superb online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, which has provided many early modern historians with vital clues and contextual flavour for their research. It has been an invaluable resource for my own study of longitude and navigation during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and on instrument makers in early modern London.
Navigational practices including the finding of longitude pop up in many trials, since so many deal with events on British Naval and merchant ships. However, the earliest specific mention of longitude involved an event which took place not at sea but, appropriately enough, at the Ship-Tavern at Temple-Bar. On 7 December 1692, John Glendon was convicted of the Manslaughter of Rupert Kempthorne, for which he was to be branded on the thumb in the courtroom:
‘some difference arose between them about Latitude and Longitude; Mr. Kempthorne alledging that there was no such word as Longitude; after that, further angry words arose, and Mr. Glendon would give him a 5 l. Piece for a bite of his Thumb; but that past off for a little time; but immediately after they drew their Swords, and fought, and the said Kempthorne received the wound, &c. The Prisoner alledged that Mr. Kempthorne was very severe upon him, and threatned him, and drew his Sword first but no Witness could confirm that; and as for a bite of the Thumb, he said it was a word that he commonly used in a jesting way.’
Nicholas Pocock's 'The East Indiaman, Rockingham, being floated off a shoal in the Red Sea, on the night of 8 June 1801'
Other cases shed light on the methods and technologies used in navigation and in finding the longitude at sea, either when mentioned during the recounting of shipboard events or through the theft of technology. For example, on 13 January 1796 23 year-old Jonathan Layton was sentenced to transportation for having stolen items from the East-Indiaman Rockingham. This included a ‘small chronometer’ with silver casing which Captain Hugh Lindsay used in determining the longitude. Testimony reveals that the timekeeper was kept in a mahogany box and guarded by the first or second mate in the ship’s roundhouse (cabin) alongside ‘very considerable property’ including ‘a great quantity of diamonds’. This reflects how valuable the chronometer was considered, in both the material and utilitarian senses.
Some cases mention the specific monetary value of navigational instruments. On 7 December 1826 18 year-old George Hall was sentenced to death with a recommendation of mercy for having stolen a chronometer worth £50 (and a waistcoat worth five shillings) from Captain Edward William Corry Astley of the Royal Navy. While it is hard to estimate the true worth of historical sums in modern money, the National Archives currency calculator equates the value of the timekeeper to £1700 or more today – or the equivalent value of other goods mentioned in court that decade including ten pairs of pistols, two good horses, or a large quantity of cloth. The captain testified that he had commissioned it from the well-known maker Thomas Earnshaw ten years before, for ascertaining the longitude during his service. He kept it at home locked in a drawer with his confidential papers, and it was marked with one of Earnshaw’s identifying serial numbers.
Painting of Thomas Earnshaw c. 1808 by Martin Archer Shee
Timekeepers and navigational methods including dead reckoning are mentioned in other cases at the Old Bailey which dealt with the behavior of those serving on ships. On 1 March 1842, 29 year-old Patrick Maxwell Stewart Wallace was sentenced to transportation for life for having caused the destruction of the brig Dryad near Cuba in order to defraud the marine assurance companies and underwriters. The master of another vessel testified that he had seen the Dryad appear to sail straight into well-known local reefs, despite his having fired a gun signal to her and then sent his pilot aboard. The brig’s experienced first mate testified that they were never provided with a proper logline, and that the Captain never allowed him to see the purported ship’s chronometer in order to know the longitude. It had to instead be kept by dead-reckoning, although it was said that ‘vessels of that sort do not frequently go by dead-reckoning, probably some do it, but not at the present day’.
Similarly, when Captain George Johnston missed both St. Helena and Ascension for re-provisioning during a voyage between Liverpool and Hong Kong on the Tory in 1845 and apparently drank heavily, he told crewmen that ‘he expected his chronometers were wrong, and he was out of his longitude’. (On 2 February 1846 the Captain was found Not Guilty despite having bayoneted a crewman to death because of ‘being of unsound mind at the time of committing the act’ – whether because of the drink or mental illness.)
'The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court', 1808
The records of the Old Bailey also shed light on the working practices of some of the well-known London instrument makers who worked with the Board of Longitude and many of its associates. This included Edward Nairne of Cornhill near the Royal Exchange who accused one of his workmen on 28 June 1758 of stealing brass to make and sell his own instruments (although here his surname is transcribed as Navine). Six years later, his workman Peter Ritchie was sentenced to transportation on 12 December 1764 for having stolen eight pounds of brass. Nairne recognised in the stolen metal ‘a rough brass foot to a reflecting telescope [that] evidently appeared to be cast from my patterns’ and cleverly had his foreman start putting a ‘private mark’ on his brass so that he could more easily identify stolen materials. He also showed the court part of an air pump handle which the workman had made.
The large size of the workshop of Jesse Ramsden, frequent collaborator of and recipient of a reward from the Board, is mentioned in a case of 13 January 1779. Workman Peter Kelly was whipped for stealing from the shop two quadrant glasses, three steel arbors, three steel broaches, a steel countersink, two steel files, a brass and steel center, a steel chamsering tool, and a pair of steel dyes. Ramsden testified that he employed a ‘great many workmen’, each with a private locked drawer for the tools he gave them. A number of these men testified against Kelly in court, although some former employees supported his claim that workmen also brought their own tools to the shop.
Finally, details are revealed about the workspaces and security measures of the famous mathematical instrument making brothers John and Edward Troughton, who kept a home and retail business at No. 136 Fleet Street and another house in Peterborough Court that contained workshops and warehouse space. 28 year-old William Bean was condemned to death with a recommendation of mercy on 17 February 1802 for having broken into Peterborough Court. Edward Troughton rather thrillingly testified that:
Watch House of St. Mary Le Bone (Marylebone), 1810
‘my niece being wakeful, told me there were men walking about the rooms with a light, and that the street door was open; I put on my coat, took a bayonet in my hand, and went down; I then called a watchman, and we went up the court to the door; one of the men rushed out, and I believe that is the man, but am not certain, as the man shewed a disposition to hide his face; I told him he must not pass till he gave me an account of what he had been doing; he struck me in the face, and I returned it by a push with the bayonet, but do not think that I wounded him; he pushed past me, and made to the gate at the end of the court, and at that instant two other men came rushing down the court, in a direction from the house, but I did not see them come out of it; the first man got out of the gate, and drew it after him, in consequence of which the other two and myself were shut in; they were on the opening side of the gate, and had the power of opening it, which, I endeavoured to prevent, but could not; I stabbed at them, as I did at the first, with the bayonet, but I am afraid with as little effect; the watchman then sprung his rattle, and the men were pursued by the watchmen;’
‘I went back to the house, and found a pair of eliptical compasses at the door, the box open, and the instruments scattered about on the inside of the door; we then picked up one of the men’s coats, and a large turn bench, an Hadley’s sextant, and upon the stairs was the brass work of a reflecting telescope. In the shop there is but one drawer kept locked, in which I generally keep small valuable articles, and which had been wrenched from the bench; about this time they brought the prisoner to ask if I knew him; I found the watchman pushing up his face forcibly for me to see it; I called him inadvertently by a wrong name, but finding I knew him, he went down upon his knees, and begged I would forgive him; I would not hear him, but ordered them to carry him to the watch-house; he had been in my service five or six months, and had quitted it about a month or five weeks; he knew the house near as well as I did’.
Image credits: Rockingham painting – WikiGallery; Earnshaw painting – National Maritime Museum; Old Bailey & Watch House – Wikimedia.
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.
Tracey Gooch, who has been helping with our digitisation project, has been looking at the story of Captain Bligh and the Bounty mutiny:
On the morning of 28 April 1789 William Bligh stood on the deck of his ship the Bounty surrounded by mutineers and staring down the wrong end of Fletcher Christian’s bayonet while being ushered into a small boat overloaded with 18 other men. As he was about to be set loose in the middle of the ocean the loss of a watch was perhaps not at the top of his list of worries. But over a year later the Board of Longitude read out a letter Bligh had diligently written reporting the loss of a timekeeper they had lent him.
On 8 December 1787 the Board of Longitude had noted that Kendall’s second timekeeper, an artificial horizon and a mercurial thermometer were to be lent to Bligh for use on the “Bounty Armed Ship” and here we see Bligh’s note acknowledging his receipt of these objects:
But on 4 December 1790 the Board of Longitude,
Read a letter from Captain Bligh, late of the Bounty Storeship acquainting the Board of his having lost the Timekeeper that was lent him when the pirates seized the Vessel.
This ‘Timekeeper’ was the second watch to be made by Larcum Kendall for the Board of Longitude. Now known as K2, it was commissioned by the Board to be a simplified and cheaper version of John Harrison’s fourth marine timekeeper (H4) and used as a means to help calculate longitude at sea. It was made in 1771 and had already been on several voyages, including Constantine Phipps’ voyage towards the North Pole in 1773, before being taken by the mutineers before they made their way to Pitcairn Island.
The watch has made its way to Royal Museums Greenwich via an intriguing route since being exchanged in 1808 by John Adams (one of the original mutineers) on Pitcairn Island, apparently for a silk handkerchief. It was taken off its new owners who were imprisoned in Spain and later sold in Chile for three doubloons before being purchased by a navy officer in 1840 and handed back to the authorities (you can hear about this at the Museum’s Gallery Favourites Online).
Meanwhile, Bligh’s experience, discipline and knowledge of navigational techniques enabled him to return to safe lands. After stopping off at the nearby island of Tafoa, he and his 18 companions set off with meagre rations for what would become a 48-day journey of nearly 4,000 miles to Timor. With no watch for the journey some of the men who had stayed loyal to him learnt to count seconds accurately so that a log line could be set up and used for dead reckoning navigation. Bligh continued to log the journey diligently.
The importance of navigational instruments has also found its way into film dramatisations of the mutiny. The focus is often on the turbulent relationships on board the ship, with the overbearing, strict and cruel Bligh pitted against the dashing and fair-minded Fletcher Christian. But it is notable that in the 1962 version of Mutiny on The Bounty, Marlon Brando’s Fletcher Christian is killed when he runs back onto the burning Bounty to rescue his sextant, declaring that ‘we will never leave here without it’ – highlighting how this would be his most important possession if he were ever to leave the island.
So while facing the prospect of endlessly drifting at sea Bligh would have taken much comfort in the fact he had a sextant with him, but with little in the way of other navigational tools, the loss of this watch may actually have been pretty high up on Bligh’s list of worries.
Tracey also has her own blog, Please Don’t Touch the Dinosaurs.
Richard blogged about his tourist trips to sites in Germany associated with Tobias Mayer back in 2011, so I thought it only fair to give John Harrison his turn in the spotlight. Last week I braved the snow in Yorkshire to head over to the neighbouring villages of Nostell and Foulby, where Harrison started life.
The plaque on the house where Harrison was born in Foulby, Yorkshire
First up on the visit, was the site of the house where Harrison was born. Sadly the house itself was demolished years ago, but a blue plaque on its replacement commemorates Harrison. It mentions his baptism in the local church, and his childhood in Foulby. I was interested in the nuanced language of the way it recounts Harrison’s work on longitude: ‘the inventor of the marine chronometer which first allowed the location of longitude at sea by mechanical means.’ Nice recognition that he wasn’t the only person involved, and that the chronometer wasn’t the only method in play.
This house is on the road just next to the walls of the Nostell Priory estate. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Nostell belonged to the Winn family from the 1650s until the 1950s, and is most famous for its glorious Adam interiors and the best-archived and largest collection of Chippendale furniture in the country. All of the furniture was designed for Nostell, to work with the Adam interiors. Along with the painter Antonio Zucchi, these three were the dream team. The house also features one of the first longcase clocks made by Harrison, in 1717, with an almost entirely wooden mechanism. Seeing it alongside these iconic neo-classical, rococo, and chinoiserie interiors, is an apt reminder of how Harrison’s work developed alongside these changing fashions. Both Harrison and Chippendale started work at Nostell, before moving to London. It is tantalising to think that they might have known each other.
The face of Harrison's longcase clock at Nostell Priory.
The case of the Harrison clock is a Victorian replacement but the face and workings are original, and visible through glass panels in the sides. It is a prime piece at Nostell, which the room guides discuss with evident pride. Interestingly, though, I learnt that it has not always been at Nostell, as I had assumed, but was brought by the then Lord St Oswald (Rowland Winn was created 1st Baron St Oswald in 1885), in a sale in the nineteenth century and returned to its former home. This helps to remind us of the changing fortunes of Harrison’s timepieces, not always the beautifully conserved and cherished pieces that we expect today.