Last week I spent a pleasant couple of days in the Netherlands, taking in Amsterdam, Leiden and The Hague, mainly looking at items we hope to borrow for the exhibition we are planning for next year.
The Netherlands is an obvious place to go, of course, since it has such an extraordinarily rich maritime history going back way before 1714. Coming to the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, you are left in no doubt why seafaring countries were searching for ways of improving navigation generally.
The replica of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship, the Amsterdam, which began long-distance voyages in 1749, shows vividly just how much valuable cargo could be lost if the ship went astray.
As the Scheepvaartmuseum displays remind you, however, the Dutch Golden Age was in the 17th century, and it was some of the attempts to develop effective methods of determining longitude in that period that I was particularly keen to have a look at. Some are in the Scheepvaartmuseum, of course, including a fine collection of navigational instruments, but I was also able to get into the newly reopened and very impressive Rijksmuseum (Tip: get there early), where there’s a lot of material relating to the VOC and Dutch activities overseas. As far as longitude matters are concerned, the most intriguing is a group of instruments found at Nova Zembla, which include an astrolabium catholicum and a copper plate believed to have been used for determining longitude by magnetic variation. I was also rather surprised to come across a pocket nocturnal and astrolabe belonging to René Descartes.
The rest of the trip was focused on Christiaan Huygens (of whom Descartes was a family friend, incidentally), whose groundbreaking horological work included many attempts to perfect timekeepers for determining longitude at sea. I was lucky enough to look at some original manuscripts at Leiden University Library, which holds a huge number of his letters and other writings, as well as visiting the Museum Boerhaave, for whom Huygens is naturally an important figure. They have a very nice 1930s reconstruction of one of his marine clocks, as well as an 18th century longitude timekeeper designed by Lotharius Zumbag de Koesfelt and later made by his son.
In fact, the reconstructed Huygens sea clock is currently in a special exhibition about Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens in The Hague (where they are buried), as is a very fine portrait of Christiaan by Caspar Netscher. The exhibition has some nice ideas, in particular in trying to get across how well-connected Constantijn and Christiaan were and a digital ‘Wall of Plenty’ that allows you to explore the amazing diversity of Huygens’ scientific and technical interests. Nonetheless, I did feel that the exhibition could have had a bit more substance, a bit less design. It did, however, give me the frightening experience of remembering what I looked like with hair:
Not one for the faint-hearted!
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.
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
A few days ago, I attended an interesting talk by HPS doctoral student Michelle Wallis about medical handbill advertisements in seventeenth-century England. These were one-sheet advertisements of varying sizes, many including images as well as text, which were handed out and posted in different locations in order to sell medical elixirs and services. One thing which struck me was how Michelle (quite rightly) suggested that it may not be worthwhile to label the bulk of the medical practitioners who employed these handbills as ‘quacks’, despite their often flamboyant approach to advertising and unlikely promises. Dismissing the majority as quacks distorts and oversimplifies the reality and contemporary perceptions of the early modern medical landscape. It also tends to reflect a certain prejudice against practitioners who appealed to and operated in a more public sphere than did the fraction of their fellows who were lucky enough to be able to subsist off of private wealthy patrons.
This issue has parallels in the history of longitude – something which our Katy Barrett will no doubt touch upon when she speaks alongside Michelle at BSECS – and in the broader history of early modern ‘science’ and technology. Just as Michelle’s medical wheeler-dealers have often been treated dismissively, modern commentators have often judged longitude projectors more negatively if they publicly advertised their ideas and wares and services and especially if they employed common advertising tropes while touting themselves and their ‘products’. Their advertising could take a variety of forms including handbills, newspaper and periodical advertisements and pieces, pamphlets and books, and public lectures and spectacles.
Select projectors such as the well-known clockmaker John Harrison have usually been given a pass because they have been judged less showmen or tradesmen than high-minded inventors. In fact, the vast majority of projectors including Harrison and others who drew the attention and patronage of the Board, employed the exact same sorts of strategies and modes of communication as did their fellows. For example, the famous clockmaker showed off his inventions to the public, and he and his friends employed an array of printed media to lobby for funding and rewards and to present their case against the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne and other individuals.
A trade card for the well-known London instrument maker Edward Nairne which, much like earlier medical handbills, could have been posted in different locations as well as handed out and inserted into shop purchases.
In the early modern period as well, there was still somewhat of a prejudice against actors who were involved in and motivated by trade or by other financial concerns. This led some longitude projectors to pretend in print that they were not seeking compensation for their ideas, and often that ‘friends’ or knowledgeable authorities had pushed them to overcome their natural gentlemanliness in order to make those ideas known for the benefit of the public. Other projectors concealed their hand in advertising or in print lobbying including at least some of the laudatory news items and letters-to-the-editor which appeared on them in the newspapers and periodicals. Examples include again Harrison and his friends as well as the Irishman Christopher Irwin, who invented a marine chair for stable astronomical viewing aboard ship and was able to drum up public and governmental interest for it at least in part through through strategic print coverage. Similar dynamics and ploys were at play in early modern ‘science’ and, as I researched during my doctorate, in the trades in scientific instruments and other technologies.
Almost all instrument makers and the majority of longitude projectors were concerned with money, whether in terms of making a living through their daily trade or craft or in seeking to be recompensed and rewarded for specific innovations. Despite this and despite the dramatic rise of advertisements in media such as newspapers over the course of the eighteenth century, there remained a lingering feeling that it was poor form for at least certain types of people to seek money or to ‘puff’ themselves up too openly – something which sometimes creeps into modern judgements of early modern actors as well. As a result, many of these actors pretended to more gentlemanly motivations and behaviour. It was in fact a rare participant in early ‘science’ and technology and specifically in the search for the longitude who could afford to ignore financial considerations and to refrain from championing themselves to the broader public, such as some of the noble-born participants in these activities and Maskelyne as the long-reigning Astronomer Royal.
Image sources: Trade card – Science Museum / SSP.
Down here in Rio for the XXXI Symposium of the Scientific Instrument Commission, there’s quite a bit to interest those with a longitude bent.
Yesterday, we heard an excellent keynote paper from Maria Portuondo about attempts in the 1570s and 1580s to establish the exact geographical positions of places around the Spanish Empire to improve the confidential maps and charts held at the Council of the Indies. The scheme, under the guidance of Juan Lopez de Vasco, first Royal Cosmographer to the Council of the Indies, relied on the use of local Spanish officials, who were generally not trained in mathematics or observation. It was necessary therefore to devise a simple, standardised procedure for operatives to follow.
What Velasco came up with was a set of instructions for making and using a device, called the ‘instrument of the Indies’, with which to record the beginning and end of lunar eclipses, from which longitude could be determined. This is a one-third scale model that Maria has made:
Essentially it’s a moon dial that can be made very easily on the spot. Once it was correctly aligned, the observer simply marked on the semicircular line the place of the moon’s shadow when the eclipse began and again when it ended. They were then to copy the marks onto paper and send these results (along with information about the length of the Sun’s shadow at noon) back to Spain to be analysed and the longitude determined.
As far as keeping strategically important cartographic information secret was concerned, this was ideal, since it prevented useful knowledge being produced, and possibly leaked, locally. The downside was that the calculations needed to deduce longitudes from the marked papers were extremely complex. There were also, of course, many sources of error, but, as Maria pointed out, there had to be some compromise between precision and simplicity in this ambitious attempt at co-ordinated mapping on a worldwide scale.
For the bold historical explorer, there’s more detail in Maria’s paper, ‘Lunar eclipses, longitude and the New World’, Journal of the History of Astronomy, 40 (2009), pp. 249-276.
One of the myriad interesting life stories from the history of British seafaring is that of Robert Knox (1641-1720). Knox’s eventful life encompassed more than nineteen years of captivity in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and a popular published account thereof, service with the English East India Company and mercantile fleets, and a relatively affluent retirement dedicated to writing. Oh, and along the way Captain Knox introduced Europe to the wonders of cannabis and likely helped to inspire Daniel Defoe‘s famous novel Robinson Crusoe.
Robert Knox was born at Tower Hill in London and mostly raised in Surrey, being taught there in his youth by James Fleetwood, the future Bishop of Winchester. From the ages of fourteen to sixteen, Robert joined his sea captain father of the same name on the merchant ship Anne, bound for India. By the time the Knoxes returned to England, Oliver Cromwell had given the East India Company a monopoly over all trade to the East, so the ship and its crew had to enter the Company’s service. (The East India Company was later one of the key institutional actors in the ‘search for the longitude’, being keen to improve the safety and speed of navigation and typically adopting new technologies more swiftly than did the Navy.)
The Anne left for Persia and the Coromandel Coast of India in January 1658, but lost its mast in stormy weather near Masulipatam in November of the following year. The East India Company ordered the crew to stop at Kottiar Bay in Ceylon for repairs – whereupon the Knoxes’ storied troubles began. Upon arrival at Kottiar, Knox senior made the mistake of slighting the King of Kandy, Rajasinha II, by neglecting to send him a letter of introduction and a gift. The King ruled Ceylon but was in an unhappy alliance with the Dutch and imprisoned the Captain, his 19 year-old son and 14 crewmen in early 1660 in response to this latest European outrage. The Knoxes, held apart from their crewmen, suffered debilitating illnesses including malaria, and the elder died within a year. His son then spent the first two decades of his adult life in captivity, subsisting by working as a farmer, pedlar and moneylender as he was moved from place to place.
Knox finally escaped with a friend to the Dutch forces on Ceylon in 1680, and on the voyage home to England he wrote an account of his experiences. The directors of the East India Company encouraged him to turn it into a book, and the author was assisted in this by his cousin, the historian and biographer Reverend John Strype, and by Robert Hooke, the famous natural philosopher and polymath who was curator of experiments at the Royal Society. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, in the East Indies, published in 1681 with a laudatory preface by Hooke and engaging engravings of the inhabitants of Ceylon, quickly made Knox famous. (Hooke quipped, ‘Read therefore the Book it self, and you will find your self taken Captive indeed, but used more kindly by the Author, than he himself was by the Natives.’)
The book was translated into at least French, German and Dutch and was still being reprinted and informing perceptions of Asian lands and their monarchs decades later (and historians’ understanding of historical Ceylon even today). For example, the London newspaper the Post-Master or Loyal Mercury reprinted excerpts from the book in 1721, and in that same year the eponymous ‘Cato’ cited the work in the London Journal while extolling British ‘Liberty’ as compared to life under Asian and African monarchs.
The East India Company supported Knox upon his return home and, after studying navigation, he captained the Tonqueen Merchant on four voyages to the East over thirteen years. However, he fell out with the Company over its withdrawing the traditional ‘indulgence’, whereby captains had previously been able to carry some additional stock to sell for their sole benefit. (The East India Company archives now at the British Library contain countless ‘indulgence’ requests. For example, on 9 October 1709, Captain Samuel Goodman of the ship Fort St. George asked Thomas Lewes, ‘Sr pray git me an order for one Case of small Looking glasses & Cuterley [sic] ware Cost ninety five pound & Eighte pound of Silver & gould thread cost 32 pound On ye 5 L Ct x Indugence Granted on ye 5 plent’.)
In 1694, Knox participated in a private venture to Surat, which was unsuccessful. When he returned to England in 1701 at the age of 60, he retired and largely spent the remaining 20 years of his life corresponding and writing about his experiences. His portrait below, which was painted in 1711 when Knox was 66, depicts the author attired in a natty brown silk gown and a waistcoat embroidered with red flowers, writing ‘Memoires of my owne life 1708′. Around him are many of the tools of his different trades: inkwell and pen; sword and pistols; and the maritime staples of anchor, quadrant and lodestone (used to magnify compass needles).
In addition to the other fabled chapters of Knox’s life, the captain introduced his friend Robert Hooke to exotic specimens gathered on his travels. (The two men were close enough that Knox was at Hooke’s deathbed in 1703 and organised the brilliant but difficult man’s burial.) These specimens famously included ‘a strange intoxicating herb like hemp’. Hooke spoke to the Royal Society of it in December 1689, resulting in the first detailed English description of cannabis. He suggested that it might have curative properties and reported that Knox ‘has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter’.
Finally, the captain’s experiences and writings may have influenced his contemporary Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel about a castaway, Robinson Crusoe, and his novel Captain Singleton of the following year (the same year that the real-life Captain of Ceylon died). Katherine Frank has written about the degree to which Knox may have influenced Defoe in her book Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth, although some critics have suggested that she overemphasizes the connection. Whatever the truth about the captain and the novelist, the characteristics of Knox’s own writing — clear idiomatic language, factual details, and a strong and self-sufficient ‘hero’ — are widely recognized to have contributed to the evolution of the English novel.
Image sources: Dutch East Indies map c 1666, and portrait of Knox – Royal Museums Greenwich.
It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it’s just me getting pedantic.
If you look at the title page of the first Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris, you’ll see that it’s dated MDCCLXVI, i.e. 1766. Nothing unusual there and one would normally assume that this was indeed the year of publication of the astronomical tables for the following year (and published only just in time to be of any use, it seems).
Among our manuscripts at the NMM, however, we have a letter from Nevil Maskelyne to John Nourse, one of the London booksellers licensed to sell the new work. The letter is dated 3 January 1767 and this is what Maskelyne has to say:
I send you by the bearer your licence from the Board of Longitude to publish the Nautical Almanack & annexed tables. Mess. Richardson & Clarke in Salisbury Court Fleet Street will send you 100 copies in a day or two for present sale; be pleased to have them stitched up in blue paper; or if you think of any properer covering not expensive let me know, that I may acquaint Mess. Mount & Page to make theirs the same. Advertise the ephemeris for the day you shall be ready to publish, & let Mess. Mount & Page know the day that they may be ready at the same time.
Of course, this only matters because the process of getting the book printed and on public sale took things into the next year, but it does mean that we should really take the publication date of the first Nautical Almanac as 1767. Some people have noticed this in the past, I think, but more often than not 1766 is the given date (as most library catalogues will agree).
Now, of course, I’m wondering how many other books weren’t published when they say they were.
Following Becky’s trip across the pond three months ago, I spent last week on another journey to discuss possible overseas venues for the longitude exhibition we are planning.
My trip included the very splendid Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) in Sydney, where there are great links to our project. This was clear from the moment the plane approached the airport, which is in Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook landed in 1770 during his first circumnavigation on HMS Endeavour. Whether you consider what followed as European settlement or colonisation, it was certainly a significant moment in Australian history, and determined where the First Fleet would land in 1788.
Not surprisingly, Cook and the First Fleet feature in the ANMM’s displays, which include material from the Cook voyage and from HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, which was then wrecked off Norfolk Island in 1790. For our project, the First Fleet’s voyage is significant because it was one of several supported by the Board of Longitude. On this occasion they employed William Dawes as astronomer and lent many instruments to the expedition, including Larcum Kendall’s marine timekeeper K1, which had previously gone with Cook.
I could go on and on with these links: Matthew Flinders, Captain Bligh and the Bounty, for instance, are all important stories in Sydney and to us. But there are also some other less obvious avenues we are exploring in thinking about the exhibition. One of these concerns VOC voyages to the Dutch East Indies in the seventeenth century. To get to their destination, the Dutch ships would sail east from the Cape of Good Hope until they reckoned it was time to head north to what is now Indonesia. The problem came in estimating that east-west position, which is where some came to grief, most famously the Batavia, which was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia – the beginning of a long and sorry tale. Its story would make a good introduction to the importance of knowing your longitude and to why people were making long voyages in unfamiliar waters.
You can probably tell I’m brimming with ideas from the trip, so let’s hope an Australian leg of the tour does come about. Much planning to do before then, though!
Image: material from HMS Sirius on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum. By the way, the anchor is huge!
Today’s historians have an embarassment of riches when it comes to easy-access sources, thanks to digitization and the Internet. In earlier decades, if a scholar wanted to find the items relevant to their research in large, scattered and often poorly catalogued archives, then they frequently had to to trawl through them by hand and to travel great distances to access them all.
For example John R. Millburn, the respected biographer of scientific instrument makers such as Benjamin Martin and the George Adamses, dedicated much time and effort to paging through early newspapers in search of references to those individuals and even accumulated a small collection of newspapers himself (now at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford). This makes the scholarly achievements of earlier authors such as Millburn even more impressive but begs the question of how much more they could have discovered and accomplished today!
Some people bemoan the loss of the full experience when one is conducting research through computers rather than handling the original documents, but surely no one can deny that this allows scholars to delve through large and sometimes distant corpora of materials in far more manageable amounts of time than before. This is especially vital for a project such as ours, which in reality references many centuries and nations beyond just eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. For example, digitization and the Internet allow me to identify, view and analyze thousands of London newspapers that mentioned longitude from the mid-seventeenth century onwards through the British Museum’s Burney Collection online.
There are of course some dangers and drawbacks to using these resources. Their search engines tend not to work perfectly – often failing to recognize faded, blurred or poorly spaced words and in my experience occasionally turning up different numbers and combinations of results at different times for no obvious reason. Some students and scholars may also be tempted to use such search engines as a crutch – presenting scads of archival findings but without a properly rigorous application of analysis and contextual knowledge or consideration of the nature and limitations of the source type. However, there are similar limitations and the possibility of ‘weak’ scholarship with any body of sources.
Newspapers specifically represent a very rich, but in some ways problematic, resource for early modern scholars. The first English newspapers were single pages published during the 1600s, and by the next century some increased in length to four pages and contained perhaps one essay and one to two pages each of advertisements and news. From about the mid-1700s onward, some were printed in eight smaller pages and ran more varied articles. The lapse of the restrictive Printing Act in 1695 allowed for the appearance of many new titles and for their more frequent publication, including daily and in the evenings, with the Daily Courant becoming the first English daily newspaper in 1702. Judging by Stamp Act figures, their circulation numbers grew from at least 2.4 million copies in 1713, to at least 16 million copies by the end of the 1700s.
These popular publications have proved extremely helpful in constructing a timeline for, and understanding the nature of, longitude-related events and perceptions thereof in England and Europe from at least the 1660s onwards. Some mentions have led us to projectors, publications and even political developments at home and abroad of which we were not yet aware. As is always true in historical research, we must consider these findings alongside those made from other types of documents, however, in order to understand them in context but also to fact-check as much as is possible.
Early modern newspapers were quite different from those which we read today despite some striking superficial similarities, for example with the ideals of accuracy and objectivity not yet being associated with them. Tidbits of news were collected from sources including local hearsay, letters from the provinces and abroad, and other domestic and foreign publications. Sometimes newspapers repeated news items from their sister or competing publications verbatim or with some summarization or elaboration – some of which was clearly innacurate, as if the information had been distorted by playing a game of ‘telephone’.
For example, while the London Evening Post and the London Gazetteer reported in 1749 that a Jewish mathematician of Hanover named ‘Raphael Levi’ or ‘Levy’ was to present his longitude invention to the British Commissioners of Longitude, the Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer gave his name as ‘Joseph Pollack’ - apparently in all earnestness rather than as an intended slur on a foreign projector of a different religion. This was presumably the mathematician and astronomer Raphael Levi Hannover, who had been a pupil of Leibniz.
If such news items or the contents of advertisements, letters-to-the-editor and other commentaries were debated or inaccurate, then usually the only recourse was for objectors to run their own responses in the same formats. This could lead to some back-and-forth between the different parties, as when key supporters and opponents of John Harrison‘s claim to the highest reward overseen by the Commissioners of Longitude tried to hash it out in print.
Many letters-to-the-editor and other commentaries such as reviews were published under pseudonyms, which can make it difficult to judge whether they originated from key players themselves (such as Harrison or a Commissioner), their supporters, or the unallied but informed members of the public who the authors often claimed to be (such as a former mariner or a merchant). The different categories of items which appeared in the newspaper also bled into each other during the early modern period, and it seems highly likely that some percentage of the glowing ‘news’ mentions of projectors were actually ‘puffs’ (i.e. advertisements), prompted and perhaps at times even paid for by those individuals.
As is true of slanted or commercially driven ‘news coverage’ today, this may have influenced the perceptions of the unwary general public or even of movers-and-shakers like some of the Commissioners. For example, it is possible that the Commissioners were encouraged to initially offer financial aid and sea trials to Christopher Irwin — the Irish projector whose ‘marine chair’ for astronomical viewing at sea was ultimately slated by Nevil Maskelyne — by the glowing accounts of his invention and prowess that appeared in the news. Essentially, a number of such early modern projectors and other actors used the newspapers and other publications including pamphlets and books to run what would today be called ‘PR campaigns’.
All of this material and similar surveys of large, sometimes digitized collections will help us to better understand what was going on in Britain and Europe with respect to longitude at sea and the Commissioners of Longitude – as well as one of the key ways in which related information (whether accurate, inaccurate or intentionally misleading) spread and interpersonal interactions were facilitated. Such publications provide a dynamic view of the extent to which longitude saturated the consciousness and culture of the British public in different ways at a time when the nation had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Image credits: Photo of modern newspaper vendor © KF / http://wikimediafoundation.org/
Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
William WordsworthLast weekend I had the chance to see Craig Baxter’s play Let Newton Be!, performed in Cambridge during their Science Festival. I wrote a post outlining some of my thoughts on the play and on representations of scientific genius, which you can read here. As the play, and these couplets show, Newton has long been a figure that attracted eulogy and myth-making. He was, of course, a legend in his own lifetime, something that needs to be borne in mind when we consider his role in introducing potential longitude solutions to parliament.