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.
On 25-26 January, several members of the Longitude Project team were in California for our conference at the Huntington Library, Oceanic Enterprise: Location, Longitude, and Maritime Cultures 1770-1830. It was an extremely enjoyable and interesting meeting. I attempted to summarise the papers before the final discussion, so here are some thoughts about what we heard.
The conference largely focused on the elite scientific voyages of exploration of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as “the Enlightenment symbol of technological and scientific modernity” (a phrase borrowed from Nick Dew’s opening paper). In characterising these expeditions, two themes came up repeatedly:
- They were hybrid enterprises, with diverse, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional aims
- There was a pluralistic approach to navigation. While contingent on access to particular instruments, texts, skills or locations, any and all methods were used in complementary ways.
The use of maritime voyages for a combination of goals, including a variety of scientific projects as well as trade or military objectives, clearly had a longer history than that tackled in the conference. Nick Dew illustrated this by outlining some late 17th and early 18th-century French expeditions, and I was reminded of the fact that the Royal Society and other national academies made it their business from the outset to instruct those travelling to collect and bring back all kinds of information.
Papers by John Gascoigne, Simon Werrett, Ilya Vinkovetsky and Neil Safier were useful to the project team in providing different national contexts for these themes: French, Russian and Spanish. It was clear that the activities and perceived successes of one nation would encourage another to take action – with Cook’s voyages being a spur, for example, to the Russian expeditions – but another recurring theme was international cooperation, or even a cosmopolitan approach to sharing knowledge and resources. Russian cadets trained with the Royal Navy, Baltic Germans in Russia encouraged Hanoverians to communicate with English diplomats, French writings inspired the projects of the British Astronomer Royal, and so on.
Together, all the papers complicated the well-known form of the longitude story, adding wider geographical, social and temporal frames. In addition, several papers gave attention to the complexity of creating and using navigational tools, particularly the apparently self-contained timekeeper. David Miller reminded us that the timekeeping method relied on wide networks, including the use of astronomical observations to find local time at sea and land-based observatories for rating and provision of reference time. Eoin Phillips emphaised the problems surrounding the early use of timekeepers, which stopped and broke and were “more trouble than any real use”.
Throughout the conference, there was an emphasis on the need to recover details of practice and experience at sea. Richard Dunn used the correspondence of William Gooch to good effect in capturing the novelities, frailties and inexactitude of what aimed to be the production of precise knowledge. Joyce Chaplain provided a picture of how many people on board ships were there unwillingly, even though attitudes to the reliability of information provided by captives changed dramatically around the start of our period, reflecting moral debates about slavery and new approaches to Euro-Indian diplomacy in the Americas.
Another theme emerging from the papers was the way in which context and experience changes the meaning of objects. Adriana Craciun showed this through the relics of the La Perouse voyage, researched in the 21st century through the prism of 19th-century attitudes to the 18th. Phillips discussed the changing meaning of chronometers for makers, different classes on board ship and for historians. Vinkovetsky showed how views of eastern Russia depended on whether western Russians reached it by land or sea. Safier discussed how precision was laid on top of old and imaginary views of the Torrid Zone.
In his paper, Miller had, somewhat playfully, identified the ‘hardware’ (instruments etc), ‘software’ (books, charts, logs etc) and ‘wetware’ (people) that were necessary to the deployment of navigational regimes. It was clear in discussion that these tags and concepts could be moved around. Were books not hardware? Can people be instruments? Might change of perspective act as ‘software’ that reprogrammes understandings of ‘hardware’? There was plenty of food for thought, with important questions about practice, negotiation, trust and control to be explored, and the extent to which the period under discussion was one of change or continuity, and whether the scientific voyages can be characterised as a project of precision or (/and) one of opportunism.
Food was obviously on the mind of one participant, which is unsurprising given the wonderful hospitality extended by the Huntington. Simon Werrett penned his “Huntington Oceanic Enterprise conference dinner menu” on the flight home:
Harris on toast, with dip, or
Beef Bougainville or Lamb Pérouse
Chocolate log (& line) with Michael Topping
Coastal sorbet (Cook’s speciality) or Dava Sorbet (may leave slightly bitter taste)
Cheese board of longitude
To drink: (lunar) table wine
Jumping off of Becky’s recent blog post for the Guardian online about Thomas Jefferson having been a science enthusiast – it bears mentioning that the American President and diplomat was also a long-time longitude enthusiast. He was a keen proponent of the lunar-distance method of finding longitude at sea as well as for mapping the breadth of the United States, writing in 1816 that it is only by ‘interrogating the sun, moon, and stars’ that we can know the ‘relative position of two places on the earth’.
This decades-long interest is reflected in the contents of Jefferson’s library, which were sold to the nation in 1815 after the British burned the Library of Congress. Among what he deemed the ‘Astronomical’ texts in his collection were not only a variety of relevant navigational and astronomical volumes — including the Connaissance des Temps for 23 years and the Nautical Almanac for 27 years plus associated tables — but also some publications by projectors. These publications included the two-volume treatise The Theory and Practice of finding the Longitude at Sea or on Land by the Scottish astronomer Andrew Mackay, whom I discussed in my last blog post.
Thomas Jefferson in 1791, while he was Secretary of State
Many American longitude projectors also approached Jefferson as an expert on the subject and as a potential patron for their work. This recalls the ways in which most British projectors approached influential and mathematically or astronomically oriented individuals, from the Astronomers Royal to statesmen and royalty. Jefferson was also viewed as a potential source of financial relief for projectors in dire straits, as was true of the many British longitude actors and institutions. One such man told the politician about his stay in an asylum and addiction to opium and was in turn given fifty dollars and the advice to focus on ‘the comfort of your family’ rather than on the longitude.
Jefferson apparently rued his status as an unofficial scientific clearing house, writing to a friend after a longitude projector approached him in the street that his ‘false reputation [...] has made me a kind of Vortex into which the projects of our country are very much emptied’. Although he responded considerately to most supplicants, he feared ‘the sacrifice of the remains of my life in the investigation for others of projects which very often require a great deal of consideration, much research, and sometimes elaborate calculations’. The Astronomer Royal was probably the British official treated most like this, by projectors and other officials alike.
Staff at Jefferson’s renowned home, Monticello, compare the longitude letters among his papers to those about perpetual motion, although there are far more of the former than of the latter. This comparison doesn’t really hold water, although it was often made in the past as well as in the present. Longitude projectors included learned and earnest men as well as the delusional, dishonest or sorely uninformed individuals who tend to dominate modern perceptions of them.
A number of the American projectors who corresponded with the Board of Longitude during this period also consulted Jefferson, including John Churchman and Captain Matthew Groves. Churchman, a Philadelphia surveyor, wrote to the Board about a magnetic variation scheme from 1787 to 1804. (Magnetic variation continued to arouse interest throughout the eighteenth century.) His Magnetic Atlas of 1790, a copy of which he sent to the British Commissioners, listed Jefferson among its illustrious subscribers. The first letter in the book’s appendix of supporting correspondence was also from the diplomat, then the American Minister and Plenipotentiary to the Court of France, who had introduced Churchman’s method to the Parisian Royal Academy of Sciences.
In the letter, written in 1787, Jefferson alerted the projector to two things he would likely need to bring his scheme to fruition:
‘As far as we can conjecture, we imagine you make a table of variations of the needle, for all the different meridians whatever. To apply this table to use, in a voyage between America and Europe,–suppose the variation to increase a degree in 160 miles,–two difficulties occur: lst, a ready and accurate method of finding the variation of the place; 2d, an instrument, so perfect as that (though the degree on it shall represent 160 miles) it shall give the parts of the degree, so minutely as to answer the purposes of the navigator [...]‘
During his presidency, Jefferson also corresponded to some degree with Captain Matthew Groves of Massachusetts. In 1803, Groves wrote to Joseph Banks, a Commissioner as well as the President of the Royal Society, about his method and patented astronomical quadrant for finding longitude at sea by observations of Jupiter’s moons. (The Jovian moons were another approach which had not been entirely abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century.) The Captain said that he had contacted the American President about his invention and had reportedly obtained his approval for it. He then asked the Board of Longitude to fund his development and sea trials of it, since the money he had raised for that purpose by subscription in Boston had since run out.
The conclusion of Matthew Groves's handbill of 1803 seeking funding to travel to London to perfect his astronomical quadrant and to put it into general use. Groves promised to return the money if he secured one of the large rewards overseen by the British board of Longitude or a comparable foreign reward.
As we can see through cases like these, Thomas Jefferson belonged to an international circle of actors who were considered experts on and potential patrons of the search for the longitude at sea. Despite his reluctance to engage as frequently as he often did with other projectors, his known interest in the subject and renowned intellect combined with his high political and socio-economic profile to make him seem an ideal contact to cultivate. As a result, many of the American projectors who corresponded with the British Board of Longitude also tried to or succeeded at consulting this revered ‘Founding Father‘ about their schemes, fostering additional interconnections between the networks of individuals who were tackling the issue on both sides of the Atantic from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries.
Image sources: Jefferson and Monticello – Wikipedia; correspondence – Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library.
Last week, five of us attended the workshop ‘British Sea Power: Authority, Expertise and the State, 1800-1950′ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Many of the speakers and attendees tried to define ‘expertise’ for the Georgian as well as the later periods, although the term was not employed as such until the later nineteenth century. We also discussed interrelated concepts which could contribute to the judgment and establishment of authority, such as a person’s ‘character’.
Something which has always interested me about the ways in which Georgian institutions such as the Board of Longitude defined acceptable experts or authorities for different purposes, is the degree to which what might be called ‘social’ considerations and connections played a role. It is clear from reading the surviving minutes, correspondence and related documents from over the decades that it was not just artisanal, practical or intellectual knowledge and skill which made a person a suitable Board expert or agent.
They needed to be acceptably conversant with the ways in which literate and respectable men communicated with each other to be fully taken seriously, and they almost always either held a certain degree of social and/or political standing in their own right or were recommended by such men. Sometimes individuals’ ‘social’ standing and esteem even helped to outweigh a dearth of specific knowledge or expertise when it came to the appointment of, for example, witnesses as in the cases of the different trials and discoveries of the clockmaker John Harrison.
Edward Sabine in 1850
Charles Babbage in 1833
Sophie Waring suggested at the workshop that these sorts of dynamics may have also played a role in the largely unproblematic reception of the suspiciously precise results of Edward Sabine‘s pendulum experiments. Few men except for Charles Babbage — whose reputation suffered somewhat for it — questioned the precision of Sabine’s results, perhaps in large part because of his high standing within circles such as those of the Board and of the Royal Society. It seems that it was the man, rather than his methods and results, who was being treated as being beyond reproach.
The incorporation of more socially oriented considerations into the process of choosing and recognising authorities in the search for the longitude was seldom a conscious and explicit decision, but more a result of the nature of society and of institutions in Georgian Britain. It was the common thing for people, and for officeholders such as Commissioners of the Longitude, to draw almost all of their associates from their wide-ranging webs of existing socio-economic connections. A personal association, or the recommendation of personal associates, could prove an even more valuable sign of trustworthiness and ability than candidates’ positions and publications alone.
This resulted in witnesses and collaborators typically being drawn from overlapping social circles and having at least basic skills in conducting the polite Georgian dance of patron / servant or of ‘friends’. (The term ‘friend’ was somewhat more expansive during the eighteenth century than it is today, as Naomi Tadmor says, encompassing ‘kinship ties, sentimental relationships, economic ties, occupational connections, intellectual and spiritual attachments, sociable networks, and political alliances’.)
Marischal College in Aberdeen in circa 1900
One example, out of many, is the dealings of the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne with the Scottish astronomer Andrew Mackay from the late 1780s to the early 1800s. Mackay was then the unpaid head of the observatory at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He was partially or wholly self-taught in astronomy, navigation and mathematics and was respected for his abilities, receiving a number of honours. His notebook of routine observations made until 1789 survives, including estimates which he made of the longitude via observations of the Jovian moons. In 1793, the astronomer was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also published by subscription the first edition of his longitude book, in which he was said to have received the thanks of both the French and British longitude boards for his efforts.
Since Mackay was not paid for his observatory work, he sustained himself by publishing and by teaching diverse mathematics-oriented subjects, later also becoming the superintendent of the Aberdeen harbour. In 1802, he brought an unsuccessful action in the court of session against King’s College Aberdeen after having been passed over for the Professorship of Natural Philosophy there. He moved to London in 1804 and in addition to teaching there, was an examiner in mathematics for Trinity House, Christ’s Hospital and the East India Company.
The two astronomers’ association began when Mackay asked Maskelyne in the spring of 1787 to lay his ‘new method of finding the Longitude and Latitude of a Ship at Sea’ before the Board of Longitude – which he did on 8 December. The latter man was so impressed by the Scotsman’s treatise, position in Aberdeen, and apparent skills, that he suggested bringing him to Greenwich as an assistant. (The treatise in question was later published as ‘The Theory and Practice of finding the Longitude at Sea or on Land’, and various editions were dedicated to the Astronomer Royal, although the Board declined to give its author an award.)
Letter from Nevil Maskelyne to Andrew Mackay of 26 May 1787, in which Maskelyne expresses concern about offending Mackay's patrons.
Maskelyne, normally so adept at navigating the steps of Georgian social interaction, appears to have made a slight faux pas here by not having first considered Mackay’s connections higher up the social and collegiate ladder. The Astronomer Royal wrote in an ensuing letter that he would not want to steal the Scotsman away from his patrons at Marischal College and especially from a Professor Copley without their approval. While the two men discussed further details of the assistantship in ensuing letters, it ultimately did not come to pass.
During the ensuing years, Maskelyne and Mackay appear to have struck up one of the elder man’s common friendly-working relationships, exchanging greetings and astronomical and mathematical information, and at times boons from the elder to the younger man. On 2 August 1790, the former responded positively to the latter having attempted to visit him in Greenwich, while he was in England. Later in 1802, Maskelyne also tried to make his young friend the replacement astronomer on the Matthew Flinders voyage to Australia, despite confusion over the pay being offered by the Board of Longitude and stalling on the part of the supposed supplicant – who still hoped to win a professorship at King’s College.
The surviving letters show that at this time, Maskelyne was also keen on aiding his friend to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, provided he wanted to go to the significant expense involved. He offered to try to secure the support of President Joseph Banks, after which Mackay’s election would be practically assured. The two astronomers discussed possible co-signers for the election certificate, with the Astronomer Royal being sure of the Spanish-born Joseph de Mendoza y Rios but alerting Mackay that whomever else he has suggested had not attended the Society’s meetings since the famous blowup between Banks and a number of mathematical Fellows in the early 1780s. He also suggested the Scotsman’s friend Professor Abraham Robertson of Oxford and perhaps Lynn, William Herschel or Alexander Aubert.
Letter from Nevil Maskelyne to Andrew Mackay of 15 June 1802, in which Maskelyne inquires about the Scotsman's planned participation in the Matthew Flinders expedition to 'New Holland'.
Later in 1802, Maskelyne regretfully informed Mackay that he had chosen someone else to join the Flinders expedition, as it could not be put off any longer, and the Scotsman also would not have been able to go if his litigation were successful. However, he assured his counterpart that he would still support his election to the Royal Society and even that he would try to get his longitude book ‘advertised on the sheets of the nautical almanac‘. The Astronomer Royal also encouraged Mackay’s interest in naval architecture and asked to be put down as a subscriber to his new treatises on astronomy and navigation. In 1805, he was still discussing getting the Scotsman elected to the Royal Society, although this never happened, and communicating favourably about the third edition of his longitude book.
It’s clear in this correspondence and in so many other records related to the Board of Longitude, that it was the most common route taken, for acceptable authorities and assistants for the Commissioners’ work to be drawn from within the orbits of their existing socio-economic circles. This wasn’t cronyism or nepotism (or any other modern -ism) per se, as one might accuse today, but a prevalent means of trying to ensure capability and trustworthiness. This contributed to the frequency with which witnesses and collaborators became long-term associates of the Board — with the same names reappearing over and over in the extant records — and it often blurred or even erased the lines between employee and friend as well.
‘Expertise’ in the modern sense did not exist during the Georgian era, but there were similar concepts which could indicate a man’s worth as an authority or employee. In the case of the Board of Longitude and many other institutions, these appear to have included the possession of ’expert’ knowledge or skills but also factors including social standing, good character, and what is often termed ‘politeness’.
Image sources: Edward Sabine and Charles Babbage – National Portrait Gallery; Marischal College – Wikipedia; Correspondence – Richard Dunn / Royal Museums Greenwich.
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.
Many documents now at Greenwich and Cambridge shed light on the life and work of the long-serving Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who was an active and widely esteemed figure in early modern European ‘science’, mathematics and navigation. Maskelyne was also vital to institutionalising and increasing the stature of the Board of Longitude from the 1760s until his death in 1811. He was often the single most active and proactive, and the highest-profile, Commissioner on the Board during this period. His interests, activities and ties to other institutions from the Royal Society to learned dining clubs, greatly shaped and empowered the Board. The Maskelyne sources at Greenwich and Cambridge additionally shed light on the workings of the astronomer’s mind — as he scribbled thoughts and calculations and diagrams across any papers which he had to hand — and on the inextricable links between his so-called ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ lives.
I’ve just been looking at the volume RGO 4/187 at Cambridge, which consists of 48 letters sent to Maskelyne from 1765 (the year before he became Astronomer Royal) to 1809 (two years before his death). These letters, while limited in number, provide a sort of cross-section of the astronomer’s many interests, activities, and intersecting relationships and institutional ties. Many are also overlaid with later notes on his darting thoughts. The letters hail from around the globe and touch upon Maskelyne’s work on astronomy (at home and for expeditions), the Board’s publication of the annual Nautical Almanac and other texts, the lunar-distance and Jovian moon methods of finding longitude at sea and on land, specific longitude projectors, and the use and complications of instruments such as the sextant.
Others are announcements seeking Maskelyne’s presence at many of the institutions with which he was involved, as when Lord Sandwich (yes, that Sandwich!) requested that he attend the election of a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge in 1772 in the hope of swinging the vote towards a candidate from their alma mater, Trinity College. There are also a number of announcements of meetings of the Royal Society, of which the astronomer had been elected a Fellow in 1758, such as that above from 1793. All of these documents were later covered in Maskelyne’s calculations and geometric sketches. Some letters involve the purchase of a pocket globe and a telescope with a six-foot focal length from George and Peter Dollond in 1807 and 1808. A small number of letters address the workings of the Board of Longitude or the Royal Observatory, such as the Board’s oversight committee including Joseph Banks reviewing accounts in 1798, an upcoming official visitation of the Royal Society to the Observatory in 1801, and samples of papers under consideration for use in publications in 1804.
Other letters in this volume mainly revolve around the astronomer’s personal life, which complements the personal manuscripts including diaries and correspondence which are now held at the National Maritime Museum. Such interpersonal relationships and expressions of good will commonly greased the cogs of Georgian society, business and institutions. For example, in 1795 James Stuart Mackenzie, the Lord Privy Seal of Scotland (then retired from politics) and amateur astronomer, invited Maskelyne to dinner and addressed him as ‘My Dear Tycho’ in reference to the astronomer Tycho Brahe. He had originally sent the invitation to the Royal Society, but it missed its recipient. The same year, Mr Rowed of the Globe Tavern in Fleet Street in London wrote about an upcoming club meeting at the astronomer’s house. In a letter of 1785, Charles Hutton, professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, also mentioned a meeting of the club when he wrote about various subjects including A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary upon which he was working. Hutton had been foreign secretary of the Royal Society until Joseph Banks organised his ouster in 1783, which eventually led to the resignation of he and other mathematicians from the Society. Again, this letter has been covered, back and front, with calculations and sketches.
In 1799, William Manwaring of Paddington in London wrote about sending Maskelyne and his wife and daughters presents of pears and a pair of pigeons which he had bred (below). Dr. Layard, in an undated note, sought Maskelyne’s vote for a candidate at the British Lying-in Hospital and thanked him for having obtained the proxy votes of his in-laws, the Ladies Clive (his sister Margaret having married Robert Clive). This was presumably Daniel Peter Layard, a successful man-midwife and physician. Other correspondents paid their compliments, some as friends seeking a meeting and some as strangers. As an example of the latter, William Marsden wrote from Fort Marlborough in Bengkulu in Indonesia in 1772 (the letter only reaching Greenwich eights months later) apologising for approaching the astronomer without an introduction and then praising his British Mariner’s Guide and method of finding longitude, and relating his own observations made with the Captain’s sextant. Marsden concluded that, ‘Any Service in my power on this Coast will be a pleasure to me to Perform you’.
Correspondents sometime also introduced others to Maskelyne, as when at the end of his letter of 1799, Thomas Wright wrote: ‘I beg leave to introduce Mr. Webber to the honor of your correspondence;- He is a person of Merit and of great application to the objects of his profession’. This was the American astronomer Samuel Webber, who had recently assisted Wright, the surveyor general of the colony of St. John’s Island, in taking accurate sightings to establish the positions of the various rivers then claimed to be the border between New Brunswick and the District of Maine in Massachusetts. The correspondents represented in this volume are mainly British, including those posted or travelling abroad, but include a small number of contacts from foreign nations as well. The Britons mainly included astronomers and computers, and members of the government and Naval and military establishments (including the soon-to-be-deposed Governor William Bligh of New South Wales, of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ infamy).
Most of these correspondents were male, with Mary Edwards of Ludlow being a notable exception. As Mary Croarken has written about in different articles, Edwards was a highly unusual female contributor to the ‘search for the longitude’, having been a long-serving ‘computer’ (calculator) for the annual Nautical Almanac. Edwards first assisted her husband John, whom the Board of Longitude awarded £20 and £200 in 1778 and 1780 for his work on the metals for reflecting telescope mirrors, and then entirely replaced him as computer when he died in 1784. A year later, she wrote to direct and to thank Maskelyne for assisting with settling her late husband’s accounts with renowned London instrument makers including Edward Troughton and Edward Nairne and in transporting her husband’s instruments back and forth for sale. Again, the back of Edwards’s letter is covered in notes and sketches.
On the foreign side, two officers of the War Ministry in Madrid in Napoleonic Spain conveyed observations of a solar eclipse made by Ali-Beik Abd-Allah at Tangier in 1803. Three years later, Julian Canelas wrote from an observatory on the Isla de León (between the city of Cádiz and the Spanish peninsula) to ask for observations of a recent solar eclipse and of the occultations of Antares to compare with his own. Gian Giuseppe Barzellini sent a paper about his calculation of the altitude of pole of the Austrian Habsburg city of Gorizia for a solar clock in 1774. Barzellini, whose papers and books are now held at the theological seminary in Gorizia, was the first director of its insurance bank, worked with the local agrarian reform society, and conducted a land survey of the province. He says in the letter that he taught himself mathematics, astronomy and instrument design by studying publications. Four years after this, he constructed a meridian line on the exterior wall of the cathedral. It was not unusual for such partially or wholly self-taught enthusiasts to contact Maskelyne for his opinion or to try to contribute to larger astronomical efforts.
Of perhaps the greatest interest to aficionados of the longitude and of the story of the great clockmaker John Harrison is an undated draft letter (above) of c. 1765 from Maskelyne to ‘My Lord’. In it, the Astronomer Royal first responds to Harrison’s applications to the Board of Longitude and to Parliament to get a second £10,000 in reward money for his marine timekeepers – despite refusing to produce two more watches and to otherwise submit to the trials required by the legislation of 1765. The astronomer then asks to provide his correspondent with an abstract and explanation of the Act of 1714, which he had at first intended ‘as an introduction to an answer to Mr. Harrison’s scandalous [originally written as 'abusive'] pamphlet on my trial of his watch at the Royal Observatory; tho I afterwards dropt the design of publishing the same thinking such abuse thrown out without probability or proof required no refutation’. Maskelyne never responded in published form to the slights from John and his son William, put forth in the 1765 pamphlet A Narrative of the Proceedings relative to the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea and in other media including newspapers and journals – although anonymous supporters of his or the Board’s cause did rally in the media.
While my photos of these illuminating resources are not of the best quality, it shouldn’t be that many more months before the project to digitise these records posts high-resolution images and complementary materials online!
Image sources: Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library.
Although the longitude story is typically dominated by the development of marine timekeepers and the lunar distance method, we need to spare a thought for good old dead reckoning – estimating a ship’s position by regularly noting its speed and heading – which, even today, is part of the routine. This was certainly also true in the 18th and 19th centuries and so improvements to dead reckoning were of interest to the Board of Longitude, particularly once its remit expanded in 1774 to include general improvements in navigation. Among its archive, therefore, are quite a number of proposals to improve this most traditional form of wayfinding.
What’s a bit less common, however, is to have a surviving instrument, in particular relating to a proposal that was not taken up in any great way.
This one, from our collections at Royal Museums Greenwich (museum number NAV0730), is a log recorder – ‘Higginson’s Log’, as it says on the side – intended to record a ship’s speed by measuring the pull (against a spring) of a rope attached to a chip-log trailed behind the ship.
What’s nice is that we can link this instrument to a proposal from 1828 that survives in the Board of Longitude archive. The proposer, Francis Higginson, describes himself as the ‘inventor of a variety of instruments and the author of Manderville, Moubray, Waterloo etc.’. Of these, the only one I’ve identified so far is Manderville; or, The Hibernian Chiliarch, on the title page of which he also describes himself as ‘Late Commander of His Majesty’s Cutter Lynx’. This also tells us that he had been an insolvent debtor in 1825, when his petition was heard at the Court for Insolvent Debtors in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London on 29 July.
Novelist he may have been, but I have to say that his proposal to the Board of Longitude manages to be both cryptic and tediously long-winded – in part, I think, in his attempt to intrigue the Board without giving his secrets away. What he wants, he says, is to show his device in person. The one bit I did rather like was his point that dead reckoning is essential around the British coast, ‘considering, the nature of our climate; as in fact, cloudy weather, accompanied by dense fogs, may almost be deemed, one of the prognostics attending, an approach, to the British Channel, during the winter season’. It’s the sort of weather in which observations to determine local time from the sun (which you need to do even with a chronometer) would be impossible, and so an additional way of determining one’s position would be essential.
Sadly, the Board was not impressed enough to take Higginson’s ideas further and (coincidentally) was wound up the same year.
Becky, Katy and I had a wonderful time at the Three Societies meeting in Philadelphia, which just concluded. Many thanks to Robert Hicks of the Mütter Museum for doing a superior job as our chair and commentator, and to all of the delegates who attended our session and provided useful questions and comments!
I spoke about the reality of trying to transport, use, maintain and repair all types of early modern instruments including marine timekeepers at sea and on expeditions – in changeable and sometimes harsh environments and often far from specialist repairers. While most of the published and otherwise propagated textual and visual representations of instruments depicted them as idealised and unproblematic precision technologies which would work ‘out of the box’, they were not only far from precise in the modern sense of the word and far from easy to operate but were also often disordered or broken by movement and by changes in conditions such as temperature and humidity.
Their usage at sea and abroad — whether in astronomy, natural philosophy, navigation or surveying — was often further hindered by complications including movement, poor weather and visibility, and difficult and uncharted terrain. As a result, instrument users almost constantly had to adjust, to adapt or to overhaul their equipment in order to try to overcome these obstacles – hence the ‘make do and mend‘ culture. The stories of their constant negotiations between technology and environment often come out in private correspondence and unpublished records rather than in the broader public dialogue.
Such issues also popped up in other instrument-oriented talks during the conference. For example, they were central to discussions of the operation, judgement and communication of the diverse technologies described in each talk in the session ‘Instruments and Measurement’ – a unifier which was fleshed out more during the concluding questions. Yuto Ishibashi of Imperial College London spoke about ‘The Accuracy of the Timeball and the Development of Electrical Timekeeping in Liverpool, 1850-1870′, Daniel Mitchell of the University of Hong Kong discussed ‘Controlling the Atmosphere: Discipline and Protocol in the Installation of the Kew Divided-Ring Electrometer’, and Kjell Ericson of Princeton University concluded with ‘The Universe of Light in the Kingdom of the Pearl: The Gem Test and the Spread of Machine-Mediated Appraisal, c. 1920-1935′.
As we can see through such research, the roles played by damage, flux and other complications in transporting and using technology were of course not restricted to the early modern period or to the European experience. Even today, while we expect so many technologies to work the minute we plug them in, it is still common for scientists and techies and the like to have to fiddle with their tools and toys in order to operate or to optimise them in different environments. Our Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer recently cited, most aptly, the corrective ‘spectacles’ which had to be added to the flawed mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1993. Below, you can see a comparison of images of M100 taken before and after the HST optics were corrected.
An example from the earlier twentieth century which has always stuck with me, is when a vital switch broke on the control panel of the first lunar lander on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969 – in fact the switch which would power up the engine so that the astronauts could return home! Not to worry, however, as Buzz Aldrin was able to replace the missing toggle with an ink pen, and he and Neil Armstrong started the engine and went on their merry way.
Images: Greenwich timeball: Royal Museums Greenwich; Hubble and Apollo 11 photos: NASA.
This guest post is by James Poskett, an MPhil student at the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. The air there is evidently so full of all things longitude, that James found his way, by accident or design, toward a sounding machine in the Whipple Museum made by Edward Massey, a man who had a number of dealings with the Board of Longitude.
“Could you, as far as your information of the depth of water enabled you to judge, have got near enough to those ships to have destroyed them?” It was on this question that the court martial of Lord Gambier depended. He was accused of failing to follow up an attack on the French fleet at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809. A number of French ships had run ashore and Gambier feared for the safety of the British fleet in following them too close to the shoals, HMS Imperieuse having run aground on the night of April 12th.
It’s easy to think of navigation as all about, well, navigation. But my current research picks up on incidents such as Lord Gambier’s court martial and considers other ways of thinking about the history of depth measurement at sea (or sounding, as it is known). My aim is to show how shifting approaches to naval discipline interacted with the introduction of mechanical sounding equipment.
To start with, I’ve been looking at a brass sounding machine patented by a Mr Edward Massey in 1802. It consists of two numbered dials, unmistakably the product of Massey’s watchmaking background, along with a rotor. This machine would have been attached to a line and thrown overboard, the rotor spinning the dials before locking at the seabed. On hauling in, the depth could be read off the dials as one would read a clock.
Massey’s wasn’t the first mechanical sounding design but it was the first to be widely adopted by the Royal Navy. In 1807, following a recommendation from the Board of Longitude, the Navy Board ordered 500 of Massey’s machines followed by another 1250 between 1808 and 1811. That’s at least one machine for every Royal Navy ship in commission during the Napoleonic Wars.
What’s intriguing about the adoption of Massey’s machine is how it both relied upon and reinforced new approaches to discipline developing within the Royal Navy at the time. To take one example, naval authorities felt that negligence was hard to identify given that navigational practices often happened out of sight. Prior to the introduction of Massey’s machine, sounding was a case in point. Groups of sailors arranged themselves on the outside of the ship with a lead and line (a simple coil of rope, knotted at set intervals, with a weight attached). This line would then be thrown overboard, out of sight of the officers on the quarterdeck. As the line was hauled in, one of the sailors would either observe or feel for the number of knots. The depth would then by relayed to an officer on deck in the form of a song, “by the mark ten” for ten fathoms and such.
All this changed with the introduction of Massey’s machine. The average sailor in the Royal Navy did not have experience in reading clock-like dials. For this reason, when Massey’s machine was hauled in, it would be taken to the quarterdeck so that an officer could read and record the depth measured. This simple change in practice made the results of sounding more visible to the officers; they no longer had to rely on a song emanating from out of sight. It also made sure that the officer on the quarterdeck took greater personal responsibility for the depths recorded, something the Admiralty considered crucial if they were to successfully court martial disobedient commanders. (Lord Gambier, incidentally, got off the hook.)
Over the summer, I’m going to be taking up a research internship at the National Maritime Museum, exploring in further detail how other sounding devices slotted in to early-nineteenth century naval discipline. At the time, indiscipline was also considered to be a problem related to travel, court martials citing ease of access to Caribbean rum as a cause of lawlessness in the Lesser Antilles. With this in mind, I’ll also be looking at how attempts to keep order in different regions influenced the adoption and use of different sounding machines. Which device faired best in the hands of a drunken sailor still remains to be seen.
[Images: E. Massey, Sounding Machine, NMM NAV0673; 'Measuring the depth of water from a frigate', Wikimedia Commons.]
Over a year ago I wrote a post ‘Sympathetic vibrations‘ that mentioned a 1688 pamphlet that included (as satire) a means of finding longitude by using a ‘Powder of Sympathy’. The idea was that this could be used to enduce an on-board dog to yelp at a pre-determined time at a known reference point, thus allowing a comparison with local time and, hence, a calculation of longitude. I noted there the fact that this story has often been presented as a genuine longitude scheme, probably because it is useful in getting across the basic point about time difference.
The other day I came across a genuine attempt to locate a longitudinal position that makes this time difference = longitude difference point just as forcefully. While it would today be discounted as pseudo-science, just as the powder of sympathy, it relates to real events and a story that has a number of nice resonances with ours, despite being a few decades later: Arctic exploration, magnetism (or mesmerism), and longitude.
I found this story in the recent edition of Wellcome History (available online PDF) in a ‘work in progress’ piece by Shane McCorristine on ‘The “Bolton Clairvoyante” and Arctic exploration’. This was on the attempt by some individuals, including Capt Alexander Maconochie, to use clairvoyance (what we might now call ESP) to aid the search for John Franklin, missing with his crew in the Arctic from 1845. Franklin had, of course, begun his Arctic career with an 1818 expedition heading for the north pole, at the same time as Ross and Parry were searching for the North West Passage (see Sophie’s post on Thomas Young’s role in the Board and its ‘Arctic turn’).
In September 1849 Maconochie, a naval officer, professor of geography and friend of Franklin’s, contacted a Lancashire surgeon-apothecary called Joseph W. Haddock, who had been carrying out mesmeric experiments on his patients and had discovered an apparent clairvoyante talent in his maid, ‘Emma L’. She was described by Haddock as of a “nervous-bilious temperament”, and by Harriet Martineau as “a vulgar girl, anything but handsome, and extremely ignorant”, but it was claimed that she could travel – virtually – across the globe in search of someone if she had a sample of their handwriting.
Maconochie provided the necessary sample and Emma apparently declared that Franklin was still alive, and “spoke of the snow, ice, &c, of the place where the writer was; said that many with him were dead, but that he was alive, and expected to get away in about nine months, but that she could not say whether he would be able to do so, but that it appeared to her he would get home again”. This was enough to prompt Maconochie to travel to Bolton and undergo several sittings with Haddock and Emma.
While the sittings gave further hope that Franklin was alive, locating him was, of course, the aim, and so Emma was also presented with maps of Northern America. While her ability to deal with maps, especially a detailed Admiralty Chart, was limited – she “appeared to have lost this instinctive sort of power to mark the place, and I found that no reliance could be placed on her in this respect” – Maconochie sensibly asked her to tell him the time of day during her visions. This naval officer knew well, of course, that time difference would provide longitude difference, although he had to assume that Emma’s visions were exactly concurrent with events in Bolton, and that she, or those she was visualising, knew the local time.
Apparently she did, more or less. It was reported to Lady Franklin that Emma suggested a time difference of six hours, placing the expedition somewhere between 85 and 90 degrees west and she had also pointed to Hudson’s Bay on a large-scale map (85 degrees). Perhaps Emma was not as ignorant as Haddock liked to suggest, for this did at least place the expedition somewhere near the relevant region, although it was considered unlikely. It turned out to be a little too far east, and much too late. Traces of the expedition were found on Beechey Island (91 degrees) in August 1850. Much later it was established that Terror and Erebus were trapped in ice off King William Island (97 degrees) in September 1846 and that Franklin had died there on 11 June 1847.
For McCorristine, this episode is useful for revealing the “interrelated histories of affectivity and Artic exploration”, the connections of intimate spaces, imagined regions and the public interest in Franklin’s fate. He writes, therefore, of “an emergent ‘polyvocal’ Arctic” that challenages “the dominance of imperial histories that focus too closely on the naval, scientific and biographical”. But my thanks too for drawing my attention not only to this intruiging episode in the history of Arctic exploration, but to this 19th-century attempt at establishing longitude-at-a-distance.