Lucy Worsley, head curator at Historic Royal Palaces, has just finished presenting a series on BBC 1 called ‘Fit to Rule.’ In this she is considering the medical strengths and weaknesses of the British royal families as intrinsic to the success or failure of their reigns. The various royal palaces provide a lively backdrop for these discussions. In the second episode she investigated the health of the Hanoverians, paying particular attention to the ‘madness’ of George III. This is best known from the play and film by Alan Bennett, but is also told beautifully in the displays at Kew Palace, where George III was kept during his ‘mad’ periods.
Bennett’s play used the fashionable theory that George’s ‘madness’ was in fact a symptom of the physical, genetic blood disease porphyria, which famously turns the patient’s urine blue. But, Lucy Worsley’s programme discussed new ideas being developed by a research project at St George’s, University of London. This has pointed out that gentian was often used to treat mental disorders in the eighteenth century, and that this could account for George’s blue urine. Furthermore, researchers Dr Peter Garrard and Dr Vassiliki Rentoumi have been analysing George’s handwritten letters from his periods of illness, and are using them to argue that he was, in fact, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. They highlight how much longer and more disordered George’s sentences became during periods of illness, and how his vocabulary became much broader and more colourful. Likewise, his attendants reported that he became increasingly verbose and incoherent, sometimes talking incessantly until he foamed at the mouth. These are all symptoms which modern medicine ascribes to the manic phase of psychiatric illness.
I pricked up my ears at these arguments, because it is just such characteristics that I have been identifying in the speech and writings of John Harrison, our famous longitude clockmaker. His communication was sufficiently disordered, verbose and colourful, I want to argue, that the Commissioners of Longitude were worried that he too was going mad. Such features are clearly shown in the pamphlet which Harrison published in 1775 entitled A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or true mensuration of time. It is more than three times longer than any of his (probably ghost-written) other publications, it rants and rails at the commissioners and regularly gets lost in its own sentences. These run over multiple pages, and feature layers of footnotes and sub footnotes. The work opens, for instance, thus:
‘As first, or rather as here at the first [viz. as without the taking any Notice of the great or chief Matter, viz. of what pertains to different Vibrations, or rather, as more properly speaking, of what Advantage pertains to, or accrues from, the Largeness of a Vibration] the bare Length of a Pendulum can be no otherwise rightly considered or esteemed, but as only to what it bears, or may [as according to the common Application] bear in Proportion to the Length of the Pallats, and as together with such improper Powers or Circumstances thereunto belonging, or may, as farther thereunto belong; i.e. in other Words, [and as still in the first Place] …’
and we have not yet reached the end of the sentence! Likewise, in a later footnote, Harrison referenced a well-known scatological ode satirising Whiston and Ditton which is thought to have been written by one of the Scriblerian group. This ode opens:
The Longitude mist on
By wicked Will. Whiston.u
And not better hit on
By good Master Ditton.
So Ditton and Whiston
May both be bep-st on;
And Whiston and Ditton
May both be besh-it on.
Harrison’s footnote commented that, ‘Whiston was pissed on, and Ditton shit on, but surely these Men [the Commisioners] ought to be besmear’d or bespatter’d with both.’ Given such examples, it is unsurprising to find the Commissioners getting exasperated and irritated by their interactions with Harrison. In one meeting Lord Morton described a letter from Harrison as ‘such a confused, piece of Jargon as I believe you never have heard before, and you will see from it that whoever drew it up cannot express their own minds.’
Historians like Roy Porter and Clement Hawes have discussed just such features as characteristic of mad writing in the eighteenth century, and as key to physicians’ theories around it. Lucy Worsley doesn’t need to go to a modern medical research project, the same discussions are right there in the period! One wonders if, perhaps, George III recognised such characteristics of Harrison as latent in himself when the two men met in the 1760s, encouraging the king to help to ‘see Harrison righted’ by an award from parliament.
Detail from RGO14/44
One of the opportunities that was open to members of the Board of Longitude project has been to get involved with producing written summaries of the content of all the Royal Greenwich Observatory Papers related to the Board of Longitude for the JISC Project “Navigating Eighteenth-Century Science and Technology: The Board of Longitude”.
In the mid eighteenth-century, Astronomer Royal George Airy organised the papers of the Board into volumes that were then bound. Each volumes covered different areas of the Board’s work from chronometer trials to meeting minutes to correspondence about squaring the circle. Together with additional collections from the papers of Nevil Maskelyne, John Pond and George Fisher as well as various ship logs, each volume has been summarised by a member of the project to accompany the digitised volume on the JISC project website.
The process of writing the summaries was something that the project team learnt together, exchanging ideas and problems as we progressed through the work. At first I took a great amount of time combing through each volume, double-checking facts and cross referencing names, but I soon got into the swing of being able to look through the volumes quite efficiently, developing the skill of skim-reading an archive to get a sense of the whole volume before going back over it in more detail and deciding what to prioritise for the volume’s summary. There are also the issues of incomprehensible handwriting, untitled sets of observations and tantalisingly anonymous scraps and notes. It was an interesting and satisfying process to start to learn to read the different handwritings of the various correspondents and the Board’s secretaries as well as to know a longitude reduction when you see one.
But in addition to the practical learning curves of dealing with such a vast amount of material, some of which is in dreadful handwriting, producing summaries for the Board of Longitude Papers changed the way that I understood the Board’s earlier exploits in the eighteenth-century as well as its actions and situation in the nineteenth-century.
What became most interesting are the gaps in the archive, the spaces undermine the typical narrative of the Board, Harrison and his chronometers in the search for longitude story. Instead we find a Board that considered more than just chronometers as a solution to the longitude problem spending nearly as much money on a variety of rewards as they did on publications, particularly when producing the annual Nautical Almanac from 1767. Also notable was the increasing level of bureaucracy over the Board’s lifespan. There is a much larger quantity of material towards the later half of the Board’s archive as it became an increasingly public-facing body, which helped to remind me of the political as well as scientific dimension of the history covered by the project.
I was lucky enough to discover several things that are pertinent to my PhD research and have affected the conclusions that I have come to in my thesis. To give one example there are several documents that discuss the transitions of the Board in 1828 into a Consultative Committee for the Admiralty that have shifted my conclusions about the end of the Board. But the exchange goes both ways; as well as harvesting the archive for sources to support our thesis work, writing summaries allows us to discuss the material that won’t make it into our theses.
Detail from RGO14/45
‘Summary’ is perhaps a misleading term for the pieces that we were asked to produce as they are much more opinion-pieces. Each summary is authored on the digital archive and is a useful platform for giving an opinion about the source material found in any particular volume with regard to its usefulness as historical material as well as what it can tell us about The Board, its associated actors or scientific instruments in Georgian and Regency metropolitan science and society.
I’ve also come across material that I hopefully will be writing up separately form my thesis, particularly a few things in the perpetual motion letters collected by the Board’s secretary Thomas Young, so watch this space!
Most significantly though, working for the JISC project has reminded me of the fun you can have going with an open mind to fresh material, not hoping to pull a certain thesis out of the source, but just observing, thinking and writing. The Board of Longitude archives are a massively rich resource; even after our project is finished there will be narratives to tell and insights to gain for future researchers, especially with access and introductions made easier by the JISC digitisation project and its summaries.
I started 2013 with an academic bang attending the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies for three days last week. The theme was ‘Credit, Money and the Market’ which attendees used to discuss a wide range of subjects relating to financial and intellectual concerns in the period.
I took the opportunity to create a panel with friends who work in medical and literary history in which we looked at how credit and credibility were created and assessed through ephemera in our relative areas. I considered Hogarth’s image of the longitude lunatic in A Rake’s Progress (predictably) in the context of the print and text ephemera that discussed the longitude problem as a ridiculous or malicious scientific project, and/or as the route to and result of madness. I used this to think about how our man John Harrison had such trouble establishing his own credibility and getting the Board of Longitude to give credit to his ideas.
It was a rich and stimulating conference. I heard about cultural knowledge production in botanical and zoological texts, and satirical attitudes to burning mirrors. I discovered what eighteenth-century gentlemen carried in their pockets, how the poet Kit Smart was patronised by the Delaval family, and how late seventeenth-century theatre began creating a language of political sensibility. I saw caricatures of the 1797 invasion crisis, a fascinating Goya painting of The Junta of the Philippines, and contemporary video art inspired by eighteenth-century financial crisis.
But what really struck me, like many, was Robert Hume’s thought-provoking keynote on ‘The Value of Money’ in which he argued convincingly that we need to take better account of the cost of cultural products and activities in our period. Money comparisons across time are notoriously problematic, but Hume made a good case for multiplying eighteenth-century prices by two or three hundred for present day comparison. This gave me pause. Many of the pamphlets that proposed longitude schemes, on which my PhD is based, don’t include the price on their title page, but of those that do the cheapest seem to have cost 6d. This sounds nice and cheap, but on Hume’s scale equates to at least £12 today. I baulk at paying £6 or £7 for a paperback let alone a slim pamphlet on a niche and heavily satirised subject. I am no longer surprised that such pamphlets crop up in so few libraries, I am frankly surprised that any one bought them at all!
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.
In an only partially successful attempt to escape England’s weather, Katy, Sophie and I spent a week in April enjoying what should have been sunny California. This was for an interdisciplinary workshop that has spun off from the successful Things seminar series. Like the Cambridge events, the workshop was on ‘Material Cultures of the Long Eighteenth-Century’ and linked UK academics with the University of California’s ‘Material Cultures of Knowledge’ research group. The meeting took place at the lovely Huntington Library, which has wonderful gardens as well as fine library and arts collections, particularly of eighteenth-century material. I’m already looking forward to going back there in January for a conference we’re organising – more details in due course.
It was a rewarding week, although intellectually challenging, as we tried to grapple with the approaches and discourses of a number of different disciplines and covered a wide range of topics including authorship and re-authorship, authenticity, labour, production, collecting and control – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the topics we discussed was the selling and binding of books in the eighteenth century. Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out that many books would have been bought already bound from booksellers, not unbound as I’d previously assumed, although this did not apply equally to all types of book.
I was interested in this because it’s something I’ve come across while looking at books published by the Board of Longitude. For many of these mathematical works, it’s clear that while the copies we mostly see today are leather-bound, you could buy them with a simple blue paper covering. Among the Museum’s Nautical Almanacs, for instance, one volume with a coarse cloth cover and original blue wrapper stands out.
This also ties up with a letter from Nevil Maskelyne that I posted about previously, which talks about stitching the first edition in blue paper. Clearly, the practice continued.
Incidentally, there will be a second conference and workshop in Cambridge at the end of September – details to follow for that too – and ‘Things’ has secured funding to continue for another year from the autumn. We look forward to another interesting programme.
I find it striking how our understanding of the early Board of Longitude is defined as much by the absence of evidence as by its presence. For example, there is the perennial question: Was the gathering of 30 June 1737 truly the first official communal meeting of the Commissioners to have ever taken place? There are reasons to question whether or not this is true. Sources including the private papers of Nevil Maskelyne show that other formal (and informal) meetings of the Commissioners took place besides those entered into the ‘official’ minute books – although so far none are known to have occurred before 1737.
The existing records of the activities of the Board may have also been shaped and reshaped by the ways in which they were produced and compiled. For example, the minutes were often based upon the notes or later summaries of one meeting attendee – in many cases Maskelyne until his death in 1811. They were also later compiled and in some cases recopied at different times and for different reasons, in the process of which some errors were made. The selection and presentation of the extant Board minutes may have been further shaped by the later Astronomer Royal George Airy, who collected, reorganized and had them bound in 1858.
Eoin found a lovely quote from Airy regarding the end of this enterprise: ‘The Papers of the Board of Longitude are now finally stitched into books. They will probably form one of the most curious collections of the results of scientific enterprise, both normal and abnormal, which exists.’ You can see in the photo below a note written by Airy which is bound alongside the earliest surviving minutes in volume RGO 14/5 (now at Cambridge). How much did Airy’s rearranging and labeling of such documents (for example, as ‘impractical’ schemes) affect historians’ views of the Board? Could Airy or an earlier archivist also have disposed of some of the records which he deemed unimportant to the ‘official’ history of that body, for example from before the ascendance of John Harrison?
Some documents which are vital to understanding the history of the Act of 1714 and of the ‘Board’ have definitely fallen through the cracks. For example, there appears to be no extant copy of the famous petition to Parliament of 25 May 1714 from ‘several Captains of her Majesty’s Ships, Merchants of London, and Commanders of Merchant-men’ which is thought to have truly started the ball rolling towards the establishment of a longitude reward. Without knowing more details about its contents than have survived in the records of the House, there is so much which we can’t discern.
Was the petition truly an unprompted outpouring of concern from the nation’s maritime interests, or was it directly instigated or perhaps even scripted by William Whiston and Humphry Ditton? Whiston and Ditton had started lobbying for a longitude reward by 1713, and there are certainly similarities between the summarized contents of the petition and the contents of these two projectors’ publications. And could the contents of the petition have directly informed a draught Parliamentary bill now in the United States, which would have levied a duty on all shipping in order to provide British vessels with the means of finding the longitude?
If we go back further, even the original events of the early history of ‘the Board’ were marked by an absence of information. As I explain at greater length in an upcoming article, the Act of 1714 did not actually establish a standing body or ‘Board’ – but some percentage of contemporaries did not know this. We have not yet come across evidence that the detailed contents of the Act of 1714 were ever widely publicized, for example through the spread of handbills. Jane Squire, the only female longitude projector known to date, had to ask the Attorney General to read the text of the Act to her in 1731. As a result, it is not just longitude projectors but also the Commissioners themselves who expressed some confusion during the ensuing decades about their legislated nature and about the intended conduct of the longitude contest.
When eight Commissioners met together at the Admiralty on 30 June 1737, it seems to have received limited coverage, which did not necessarily mention the Act of 1714. For example, the London Evening Post simply reported that these ‘Persons of Distinction, view’d a curious Instrument for finding out the Longitude, made by Mr. Harrison’. When Squire wrote to Sir Charles Wager four years later to continue her decade-long campaign to have the Commissioners consider her proposal, she was not aware that the officials had ever met communally.
Photo credits: Cambridge University Library.
The project team have certainly been making the most of the conference scene recently. Last week saw some of us spending a thought-provoking two days at the National Maritime Museum, at their ‘Peopling the Past‘ conference scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new Sammy Ofer Wing.
Through five panels, and a wide range of papers the conference considered how we can use museum collections to tell engaging stories about the past. Two over-arching questions emerged for me. The first considered which people we should put in the past that we display. Inevitably, we have more objects and archives related to celebrity figures, but we increasingly want to tell the story of the ‘ordinary’ man, the silent voices of the past’s real lived experience. This theme raised further considerations over how we harness and portray community and global narratives from a potentially small object-base; how we balance the authority we want to put behind our displays with the more engaging personality that can emerge from engaging wider communities in the curatorial process. Likewise, how do we portray controversial voices, discussing issues which are now politically incorrect, controversial, or upsetting.
The second, related question, dealt with how museums can use new media to tell such stories. This allows them to engage with wider and different audiences, and to tell stories in potentially more engaging and complex ways, but also runs the risk of detracting from the objects which are the museum’s raison d’être. With increasingly complex technology there is the danger of museums becoming a more elaborate television programme. Papers considered crowd sourcing of information to tell stories for the ‘silent voices’ and engaging community groups to tell stories from personal perspectives. For me, this also raised the interesting idea of sourcing objects and archival material through new media, allowing, in fact, more ‘silent stories’ to be told. Particularly interesting papers, on both themes, considered projects at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum and Museum of London.
The questions raised also threw light on the NMM’s new ‘Voyagers‘ gallery in the Sammy Ofer wing which now acts as an introduction to the museum. It answers both questions raised by the conference particularly well I thought. Along the back wall of the gallery, a single long case uses key objects and characters to tell a story of maritime experience through seven emotions: joy, pride, sadness etc. It features both celebrities and lesser-known figures. In front of this, a huge wave construction weaves across the gallery, projected with key words in wave patterns, and with images from the archives. It is accompanied by sounds of the sea. I feel this gallery uses new media and ‘silent voices’ to particularly successful effect, and was the perfect complement to such a stimulating conference.
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/
To make sense of the novel eighteenth-century methods for longitude determination at sea, whether chronometric or through the use of lunar distances, we need also to recognize the unevenness of these new methods’ use on board ship. Historians often seem to spend much more time marking heroic innovations than in tracing mundane adoption and use. Recall how common and trusted was the method of dead reckoning among expert mariners. Two examples from the period when the marine chronometer and the Nautical Almanac were introduced remind us of how these puzzles worked. The examples are also interesting because they involved vessels of the East India Company, an early adopter of the newfangled techniques.
At the end of 1770, the sixteen-year-old William Marsden, future eminent orientalist and Royal Society treasurer, shipped from England to the East India Company base at Bencoolen in Sumatra. He was carried on the Company’s ship Seahorse, captain Edward Dampier, then on its second voyage to south China. The ship soon lost its entire crew to a press gang at Spithead, and was only able to set out for the East Indies in mid-January 1771. In a voyage to Sumatra of 14000 miles without landfall, with the crew suffering from scurvy and short of water, position finding mattered. Here’s Marsden’s reminiscence about the longitude method used on board:
‘During the course of the voyage, I was led by the example of some of the officers to pay attention to the method, then recently coming into practice, of ascertaining the longitude of the ship’s place by observation of the apparent distance of the sun or moon and certain stars; which, under the particular circumstances of our case, proved to be of much importance; for in consequence of our not seeing any land since leaving England, by which the dead-reckoning as it is termed might be corrected, the progressive amount of error became very great’.
Marsden then recalls that thanks to a lunar eclipse he and his colleagues were able successfully to check their observations and sums. But, he continues, ‘the captain, indeed, was not a convert to this new process of determining what ought to be supposed the true place of the ship, and laying down on his chart the daily run by the log, his tract led him into the continent of New Holland [Australia], and the aggregate amount of our error amounted to no less than twenty-five degrees of longitude’. Their first landfall was at the Sumatra coast, ‘the first land that blessed the sight and revived the drooping spirits of the crew’.
Fig. 1: Portrait of an East India Company Captain, c.1800 (NMM: BHC3127)
The second case is from the voyage of the astronomer and mathematician Reuben Burrow from Southampton for Bengal in autumn 1782. Burrow was already an expert surveyor and hydrographer, a grumpy collaborator of Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. His East India Company ship, the General Coote, captain Daniel Hoare, initially sailed in convoy with the main Royal Navy fleet through fear of French attack. Burrow’s notoriously irascible character had already made trouble for the ship’s ability to navigate. The great clockmaker John Arnold refused to provide Hoare with a marine chronometer just because of a remark by Burrow: in reply, the astronomer sent Arnold ‘a most bloody letter’. Once under sail, in the mid-Atlantic approaching Brazil, Burrow ‘attempted the method by the Moon, but not having a watch that could be depended upon, and having nobody on board capable of helping me, I never got a good observation. I took the distance of the Moon from the Sun without using the telescope, but the Moon’s altitude was very bad, owing to a ship being in the way of the horizon.’ Burrow’s sums gave a longitude of 17 degrees; dead reckoning gave 14 or 15 degrees.
Burrow is characteristically eloquent about the difficulties of the lunar distance method, and the corresponding incompetence of his shipmates. ‘I took the [lunar] distance and two of the Mates took the altitudes, but out of three sets of observations only one was anything like right, for some of the Altitudes were palpably erroneous, owing to the stupidity of the observers’.
Then Burrow explained the problem. Even though the East India Company had ordered the adoption of the new longitude methods at sea by their officers, ‘except the Captain I did not find any one that had the least knowledge of such matters…and they were likewise so conceited and ignorant as to be above being shown. I endeavoured to teach them better, but they only made ridicule of it and pretended they could carry a ship to India without it’. In Burrow’s view the second mate Stephen Newton ‘might be the means of destroying the lives of thousands if there was nobody on board better informed than himself’. Before the end of the voyage, at least on his own telling, Burrow was giving Captain Hoare highly accurate measures of longitude from lunar distances.
We see in these cases, and others, how the adoption of such complex and novel methods was neither self-evident nor easy. Discovery needed much more than great insight.
There are many obstacles to historians’ reconstructing and understanding the nature of past lives and events as accurately as is possible. While basic human nature has not changed much over the centuries, the socio-economic trappings that outfitted and influenced actors and institutions at any given time could of course be very different from those which exist today – even when they appear quite modern at first glance. This represents a dual threat to historians, of their 1) misinterpreting the past because of the deceptively modern feel of some of the terms and practices that existed then, or conversely 2) allowing the modern labels and definitions that they apply to the past to influence their analyses.
1) As an example of the first threat, key words such as ‘science’ and concepts associated with modern science such as accuracy and replicablility held far different meanings during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than they do today. It was not until the second half of the 1800s that ‘science‘ began to specifically indicate branches of the study of the natural world such as biology, chemistry and physics. Before then, the term could refer to any type of knowledge, or to mastery of a certain branch of knowledge or skill set – such as music, politics or defence. The sorts of activities that would later be considered ‘scientific’ fell within the bounds of a number of subjects during the Georgian period including natural and experimental philosophy, astronomy and mathematics, and they were far different in nature than modern science.
Similarly, the modern concepts of scientific and technological accuracy or precision and margin of error simply did not exist during the eighteenth century. This was in part because the instruments of the time did not allow for measurements of enough accuracy for it to be of much relevance. For example, the highest praise that instrument makers tended to bestow upon their wares in advertising was that they had been ‘brought to perfection’ – a vague and unrealistic encomium. The ‘accuracy’ of timekeepers such as the marine chronometers invented by John Harrison lay not in their ticking away the seconds regularly like a modern clock, but in their ‘running down’ at a regular and predictable enough rate as the days and weeks passed that the variations in their running could be compensated for when making observations and calculations. Parliament chose to define the requirements for the granting of its longitude rewards in terms of determination of the longitude at sea to one or fewer degrees away from the true value, or within a certain number of geographical miles.
The recording and reporting of observations and of experiments, including the trials of new methods of discovering the longitude at sea, were handled quite differently during the Georgian period than they would be today as well. Historians must try to decipher how individual observers and experimenters defined their results and chose to present them to the wider world. It was not that unusual for mathematicians and astronomers to cherry-pick the results that they shared or published, for the best didactic effect! The global standardization of mathematical, astronomical and natural philosophical practices and terms began to take shape only gradually during the existence of the Commissioners of Longitude.
2) Historians can thus be misled in their analyses of the past if they do not take into account how the definitions of words and concepts having changed dramatically over the centuries. However, they also face the opposite problem – of misinterpreting the nature of past lives and events by applying modern terminology to them and unknowingly letting this shape their perceptions.
For example, during my recent research on ‘scientific’ instrument makers in eighteenth-century London, it became clear that many historians’ study of the instrument trade had been influenced by their continued use of the term ‘scientific’. That adjective would not actually become applicable to instruments until the later nineteenth century. Its usage is entirely understandable, since the term indicates that authors are not referring to musical instruments instead and is more concise than a litany of early modern descriptors including optical, mathematical and philosophical.
However, it is clear that conceiving of optical, mathematical and philosophical instruments as ‘scientific’ in any way has continued to limit historians’ understanding of the full range of ways in which the British viewed, used and traded in these wares. For one thing, the production and sale of instruments in London encompassed a number of interconnected and yet sometimes quite disparate crafts and retail specialties, rather than representing a single instrument trade as is typically discussed. These activities were also far more interrelated with other types of crafts, services and retail specialties that would not be considered ‘scientific’ today, than has usually been acknowledged.
These dynamics saw trade members forge many important socio-economic relationships outside of ‘the instrument trade’, and instrument production and sale intermingle with trades from ship chandlery to the sale of fashionable luxuries. This mixing of instruments with diverse other stock and trades can be seen in many advertisements including that above for George Willdey, an optician and toyman (a seller of small fashionable trinkets for adults). Willdey ran a successful retail and wholesale business near St. Paul’s Churchyard in London from 1706 until his death in 1737. One of his two known surviving telescopes is now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and is a good example of the type of small, attractive and often technologically basic instruments that were produced in large numbers by instrument makers in Georgian London and exported across the nation and the world.
Similar problems of labelling and definition have hindered the study of the British state’s support for the ‘search for the longitude’. As I’ll be discussing in greater detail over the course of 2011, the term ‘the Board of Longitude’ and modern conceptions thereof have obscured the actual nature of the Commissioners of Longitude in the wake of the Act of 1714 and downplayed their activities during the earlier decades of their existence.
Image credits: Richard Rust trade card © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library, all other images © National Maritime Museum.