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.
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.
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.
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.
Today it seems appropriate to highlight the millennia-long connection between astronomy – so central to the story of the longitude at sea – and Christianity. This arose in large part thanks to the debate over how to set an annual date for the celebration of Easter, since the precise day of the resurrection had not been recorded. Some early Christians followed lunar precedents from the Old Testament related to Passover, which were based on the Hebrew calendar.
In 325, the First Council of Nicaea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I sought to separate the timing of the festival from the Jewish calendar, and it was ultimately decreed that it would always take place on the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox (the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere). However, it was centuries before the different means of determining this date were better consolidated. After the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, Catholics and Protestants in the West used a different method of date determination than did most of the Eastern Orthodox churches, which still based their calculations on the Julian calendar.
It has always seemed to me that one of the more interesting results of this intersection of astronomy and religion in search of the ‘true’ date of Easter was the embedding of large astronomical instruments in Catholic cathedrals and duomos during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries – since annual and predictive calculations required knowledge of the equinoxes and the length of the solar year. This was discussed in John Heilbron‘s The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (2001) and was revisited by Alistair Kwan in his Ph.D. dissertation Architectures of astronomical observation: from Sternwarte Kassel (circa 1560) to the Radcliffe Observatory (1772) (Yale University, 2010).
The brass meridian line and obelisk gnomon of St. Sulpice in Paris, requested in 1727 by priest Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy. Its utility reportedly protected it from destruction during the French Revolution.
In effect, these religious buildings were turned into solar observatories for calendrical purposes. A graduated north-south meridian line (often of brass) would be run across the floor of the church and then up a gnomon facing the position of the sun at noon, such as the sculptural obelisk in the distance in the photo above of St. Sulpice in Paris. Sunlight was focused through a glassed oculus on a south wall. As Dr. Kwan points out, there were many difficulties in trying to turn a cathedral into such a solar observatory:
‘While not everyone who wants to build a meridional camera obscura needs to make it both very long and very tall, the opportunities to build one are constrained by both the existence of existing architecture and the possibility of modifying it. For example, north-south naves are relatively rare; obviously only a subset of these will be both long and tall enough for high-precision equinoctial and winter meridian line measurements. Next, the astronomer has to be in the area or able to go there. Third, he needs access privileges for interventions to the fabric, and also for interruptions to liturgical activities spanning months, if not years.’
However, as the late Professor Curtis Wilson pointed out, it was also true that ‘for a century and more, a carefully constructed meridiana in a cathedral could outdo other instruments in the precise determination of angles. Telescopic sights were first applied to graduated arcs in the 1660s, but the available lenses blurred the image, a defect overcome only with the introduction of achromatic lenses around 1760. Graduating arcs accurately was another problem. Only in the 1780s, with the advent of the circle-dividing machine, did divided-arc instruments win secure primacy over meridiane.’
The meridian which the astronomer Cassini had built in the Basilica San Petronio in Bologna during the mid-seventeenth century was a model for many others and is reportedly the longest in the world. (Giovanni Domenico Cassini was also one of the early pioneers of the method of finding longitude by observations of the moons of Jupiter.) Below are photographs of the extant working meridian at Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome, which Pope Clement XI commissioned from Francesco Bianchini in the early eighteenth century in part to match Cassini’s accomplishment.
The meridian in Rome was also intended to help predict the date of Easter and check the accuracy of Gregorian calendar reform. Bianchini added more holes in the ceiling through which he could make telescopic observations to determine the right ascensions and declinations of the stars Polaris, Arcturus and Sirius as well. And since the church was housed in the former baths of Diocletian, these instrumental installations could further represent Christianity’s calendrical victory over the pagans…!
Francesco Bianchini's meridian
Sunlight on the meridian just before solar noon
Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande was the editor of the French Connaissance des Temps and a friend and collaborator of Nevil Maskelyne and other English longitude actors. Recently I noticed that in Lalande’s diary from his 1763 visit to England – during which he viewed the marine timekeepers of John Harrison – he recounted an unusual comment made about one of his colleagues.
On Easter Saturday 1763, Lalande recorded that the Astronomer Royal Nathaniel Bliss said ‘that Mr Lemonnier attached the wire to his quadrant with wax from his ears, that he went to Oxford with his sword broken, and that his observations agree less well with those of Mr Bevis than those of Caille.’ Pierre Charles Lemonnier or Le Monnier was a talented French astronomer 17 years Lalande’s senior who had a penchant for British instruments and astronomical methods and was a member of the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences. His quadrant was made by Jonathan Sisson, a well-known London instrument maker whose son Jeremiah made Christopher Irwin’s marine chair in the late 1750s and unsuccessfully sought a reward from the Board of Longitude in the late 1760s.
Are the statements attributed to Bliss a neutral record of Lemonnier’s characteristics and of his approach to using instruments – with the earwax method just being another of the ways in which individuals worked out how to use or adapt or repair their instruments? Or was the entire statement intended as a slam against the older astronomer’s abilities but also his gentility? A sword was an important symbol for an early modern ‘gentleman’ – even if by 1727 César de Saussure said that the label was ‘usually given to any well-dressed person wearing a sword’ in England – and Lemonnier’s was said to be broken.
Although Lemonnier had helped to launch Lalande’s astronomical career, the two astronomers fell out for years – either over the former’s temper or over the latter’s indiscreet manner of correcting his colleague’s errors, according to different sources. It would be fascinating to know – perhaps someone out there can help? – whether this was just another round in their disagreement or whether Lemonnier really did incorporate his earwax into his astronomy.
Fig. 40, 'Tidens naturlære', Poul la Cour, 1903 - Wikimedia.
Last summer, despite the rain, our national life was enlivened not only by the Olympics, but also by the Queen’s jubilee. One of the things that struck me during the many events was the prominence accorded to the Thames. One of the major events of the Jubilee was the Thames pageant, in self-conscious reference to Canaletto; the river hosted the Olympic rowing and acted as a stunning backdrop for views of the equestrian events at Greenwich; and the Paralympic opening ceremony had a decidedly watery theme. The Thames has always been, and remains central to the physical and conceptual life of the capital. And yet, given that it’s a big, navigable waterway it seldom appears in the story of the longitude problem. One notable exception would be the Harrisons’ complaint in 1767 that Nevil Maskelyne had transported their timekeepers by land to Greenwich, rather than by boat, causing them to be ‘broke to Pieces.’
Such questions about the physical negotiation of metropolitan space in solving the longitude problem are something that I’m going to consider when I take up the Caird Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum next year. I was given a helping hand recently when I accompanied my undergraduate students on a walking tour of eighteenth-century London with Dr Larry Klein. We were lucky enough to be given access to the Royal Society of Arts which still inhabits its original Adam building by Embankment. The Great Room at the RSA is decorated with murals by James Barry which show The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture (all of which you can see online thanks to the ‘Your Paintings‘ project). Barry started these in 1777 and they were first exhibited in 1783. The series features six murals showing the progress from Orpheus to Elysium, or the State of Final Retribution. I was excited to see that Barry’s pantheon of ‘great and good men of all ages’ includes Hogarth and Swift among many others.
More interestingly, though, the penultimate painting in the series Commerce, or the Triumph of the Thames, shows Father Thames steering his path to commercial triumph with the rudder in one hand and compass in the other. His bark is carried by ‘the great navigators’: Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Sebastian Cabot, and our own longitude proponent Captain James Cook (his portrait is clearly copied from the Nathaniel Dance-Holland portrait now at the NMM). Given that Cook had only returned from his first voyage on the Resolution the year before Barry was given the commission, and the Endeavour voyage had only returned in 1771 this shows the speed with which Cook’s skills at navigating, aided notably by Kendal’s copy (K1) of Harrison’s timekeeper, quickly made him a recognised ‘national treasure.’
Looking up at Cook, I was reminded of another painted paean to national maritime success further down the river: the Painted Hall at Greenwich Old Royal Naval College, completed by Sir James Thornhill in 1714 (also a notable date for longitude as we know). Richard Johns pointed out to me that the figures behind the balustrade over the entrance to the lower hall include Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed observing the sky through his telescope to create the infamous star catalogues Historia coelestis necessary to establish the lunar distance method of finding longitude. The move over 70 years from Thornhill’s Flamsteed in Greenwich to Barry’s Cook by Embankment shows us not only the slow embedding of accurate chronometers as a rival solution to celestial observation for finding longitude at sea, but also the way that the problem and its proponents moved from royally patronised baroque Greenwich to the commercial, sublime environs of the RSA in the West End. The Thames is there in the story, but perhaps not in the way we would expect.
John Harrison, Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by the Rev. Mr Maskelyne, under the Authority of the Board of Longitude
(London, 1767), pp.22-3