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!
One of the nice things about working in a museum with huge collections is that from time to time you come across things you didn’t even know you were looking for. This happened to me the other day when I unexpectedly came across a 1773 painting of Drakes Island, Plymouth, of which this is a detail:
I must have walked past it many times, but it caught my eye because I’ve been looking again at William Wales’s log from Cook’s second voyage as part of the digitisation project in which we are involved.
It’s no surprise to learn that the island was named after Sir Francis Drake, who departed from there in 1577 at the start of his famous circumnavigation. This hasn’t always been the island’s name, however: it was previously St Nicholas’s island, after a chapel there.
This takes us from one circumnavigation to another. As far as the Cook voyage is concerned, Drake’s Island had a role in the long-distance testing (proposed by Nevil Maskelyne in 1771) of four new marine timekeepers – K1 by Larcum Kendall and three by John Arnold. Not long before the voyage’s departure, Wales recorded in his log (3 July 1772) that he:
Went on shore to Mr Bayley at Drake’s Island, where I found he had got up his Clock and Quadrant and was employed making Equal Altitudes for the Time & Zenith distances for the Latitude of the Place. In the morning got on shore the Transit Instrument with intent, if possible to observe a few transits of the [moon] over the Meridian for to find the Longit[ude] of the Place from whence we are to take our Departure by the Watches. Cloudy with Rain at times.
So Drake’s Island was the starting point for the testing of the four sea watches. By the time the ships returned in 1775, of course, only Kendall’s timekeeper had proved successful.
As a final aside, I was also intrigued to learn that the first recorded submarine fatality occurred north of Drake’s Island just two years after Cook’s departure, when a carpenter named John Day died while testing a wooden diving chamber.
Tracey Gooch, who has been helping with our digitisation project, has been looking at the story of Captain Bligh and the Bounty mutiny:
On the morning of 28 April 1789 William Bligh stood on the deck of his ship the Bounty surrounded by mutineers and staring down the wrong end of Fletcher Christian’s bayonet while being ushered into a small boat overloaded with 18 other men. As he was about to be set loose in the middle of the ocean the loss of a watch was perhaps not at the top of his list of worries. But over a year later the Board of Longitude read out a letter Bligh had diligently written reporting the loss of a timekeeper they had lent him.
On 8 December 1787 the Board of Longitude had noted that Kendall’s second timekeeper, an artificial horizon and a mercurial thermometer were to be lent to Bligh for use on the “Bounty Armed Ship” and here we see Bligh’s note acknowledging his receipt of these objects:
But on 4 December 1790 the Board of Longitude,
Read a letter from Captain Bligh, late of the Bounty Storeship acquainting the Board of his having lost the Timekeeper that was lent him when the pirates seized the Vessel.
This ‘Timekeeper’ was the second watch to be made by Larcum Kendall for the Board of Longitude. Now known as K2, it was commissioned by the Board to be a simplified and cheaper version of John Harrison’s fourth marine timekeeper (H4) and used as a means to help calculate longitude at sea. It was made in 1771 and had already been on several voyages, including Constantine Phipps’ voyage towards the North Pole in 1773, before being taken by the mutineers before they made their way to Pitcairn Island.
The watch has made its way to Royal Museums Greenwich via an intriguing route since being exchanged in 1808 by John Adams (one of the original mutineers) on Pitcairn Island, apparently for a silk handkerchief. It was taken off its new owners who were imprisoned in Spain and later sold in Chile for three doubloons before being purchased by a navy officer in 1840 and handed back to the authorities (you can hear about this at the Museum’s Gallery Favourites Online).
Meanwhile, Bligh’s experience, discipline and knowledge of navigational techniques enabled him to return to safe lands. After stopping off at the nearby island of Tafoa, he and his 18 companions set off with meagre rations for what would become a 48-day journey of nearly 4,000 miles to Timor. With no watch for the journey some of the men who had stayed loyal to him learnt to count seconds accurately so that a log line could be set up and used for dead reckoning navigation. Bligh continued to log the journey diligently.
The importance of navigational instruments has also found its way into film dramatisations of the mutiny. The focus is often on the turbulent relationships on board the ship, with the overbearing, strict and cruel Bligh pitted against the dashing and fair-minded Fletcher Christian. But it is notable that in the 1962 version of Mutiny on The Bounty, Marlon Brando’s Fletcher Christian is killed when he runs back onto the burning Bounty to rescue his sextant, declaring that ‘we will never leave here without it’ – highlighting how this would be his most important possession if he were ever to leave the island.
So while facing the prospect of endlessly drifting at sea Bligh would have taken much comfort in the fact he had a sextant with him, but with little in the way of other navigational tools, the loss of this watch may actually have been pretty high up on Bligh’s list of worries.
Tracey also has her own blog, Please Don’t Touch the Dinosaurs.
Richard blogged about his tourist trips to sites in Germany associated with Tobias Mayer back in 2011, so I thought it only fair to give John Harrison his turn in the spotlight. Last week I braved the snow in Yorkshire to head over to the neighbouring villages of Nostell and Foulby, where Harrison started life.
The plaque on the house where Harrison was born in Foulby, Yorkshire
First up on the visit, was the site of the house where Harrison was born. Sadly the house itself was demolished years ago, but a blue plaque on its replacement commemorates Harrison. It mentions his baptism in the local church, and his childhood in Foulby. I was interested in the nuanced language of the way it recounts Harrison’s work on longitude: ‘the inventor of the marine chronometer which first allowed the location of longitude at sea by mechanical means.’ Nice recognition that he wasn’t the only person involved, and that the chronometer wasn’t the only method in play.
This house is on the road just next to the walls of the Nostell Priory estate. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Nostell belonged to the Winn family from the 1650s until the 1950s, and is most famous for its glorious Adam interiors and the best-archived and largest collection of Chippendale furniture in the country. All of the furniture was designed for Nostell, to work with the Adam interiors. Along with the painter Antonio Zucchi, these three were the dream team. The house also features one of the first longcase clocks made by Harrison, in 1717, with an almost entirely wooden mechanism. Seeing it alongside these iconic neo-classical, rococo, and chinoiserie interiors, is an apt reminder of how Harrison’s work developed alongside these changing fashions. Both Harrison and Chippendale started work at Nostell, before moving to London. It is tantalising to think that they might have known each other.
The face of Harrison's longcase clock at Nostell Priory.
The case of the Harrison clock is a Victorian replacement but the face and workings are original, and visible through glass panels in the sides. It is a prime piece at Nostell, which the room guides discuss with evident pride. Interestingly, though, I learnt that it has not always been at Nostell, as I had assumed, but was brought by the then Lord St Oswald (Rowland Winn was created 1st Baron St Oswald in 1885), in a sale in the nineteenth century and returned to its former home. This helps to remind us of the changing fortunes of Harrison’s timepieces, not always the beautifully conserved and cherished pieces that we expect today.
I’m always happy to highlight the work of colleagues and have recently enjoyed an exhibition that opened at the National Maritime Museum a couple of months ago. Called Broadsides: Caricature and the Navy 1775-1815, it explores the history of the Royal Navy with images from the Museum’s collection of caricatures.
Ever on the lookout for navigational imagery, I was particularly impressed by a 1785 print, ‘Sea Amusement. Or Commanders in Chief of Cup and Ball on a Cruise’ by Thomas Rowlandson.
Produced shortly after Britain’s defeat in the War of American Independence, it shows George III’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland (left), who rose to vice admiral despite lacking naval experience, and Sir Edmund Affleck, a veteran of the Battle of the Saintes who had been made vice admiral in 1784. Rowlandson has the two of them at play with a child’s toy while a navigational chart and plans for a coastal fortification lie neglected, trodden underfoot. The navy has become decadent, he tells us, no longer fit for service because of the neglect of those in its upper ranks. Nothing subtle there, I’m glad to see, and it’s good to see charts getting a nice role in the message.
There’s plenty else to see in the show, which runs until 3 February 2013 (and is free), so try to get along. Alternatively, buy the rather nice book – a perfect stocking-filler for those with the right breeches.
The Cambridge University Library offers an unusual prize to undergraduate and graduate students at Cambridge: The Rose Book-Collecting Prize for students with interesting book collections. I have seen adverts for this go out over the past two years and never thought I had anything that I could enter, until last week when I realised that I’ve built up quite a collection of longitude-related books and ephemera, especially to do with Hogarth (no surprise there really). So, I thought I would try entering my collection for the prize and the 500 word essay required makes a perfect blog post too …
Like all good collections, this started with an idea: to look at representations of longitude for my PhD. Like, I suspect, all personal collections, it grew with the conviction that I would understand each item better if I owned it myself. And, like all modern collections, it started on amazon.co.uk.
The process began with a ‘bridging’ item. In writing my masters thesis, I had been particularly influenced by the historian Paul Fussell’s work from the 1960s, now hard to find. In 2010, while Christmas shopping on Amazon, it appeared as a recommended purchase, and I bought it as a sort of talisman for future research. The look, feel and, most importantly, smell of these older hardbacks always brings them to life for me.
As I worked on the PhD, researching popular discussions and representations of the problem of measuring longitude at sea in the eighteenth century, I became particularly interested in a print by William Hogarth, which shows a ‘lunatic’ solving the longitude problem on the wall of Bedlam. The collection grew out from this one image three ways. Firstly, I scoured second hand and discount bookshops searching for Hogarth print collections, and couldn’t resist some of the secondary material on Hogarth and visual culture that I found along the way. I like owning second hand copies of books that feel like they have an independent life, and bring with them the previous ideas and emotions with which they have been associated.
Secondly, I bought myself a new copy of Hogarth’s art theoretical text, The Analysis of Beauty, thinking that I could annotate it. But the book turned out to be so white and beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to mark it. I did, however, find cheap versions of other eighteenth-century literature that discuss the longitude problem – authors like Pope, Swift and Sterne – and made them into working copies. I went to theatre productions of eighteenth-century plays and added the programmes to my collection.
Researching Hogarth, thirdly, made me aware of the varied responses to his work by other artists, especially George Cruikshank, David Hockney and Grayson Perry. I purchased catalogues, postcards, prints and even DVDs that show how they developed Hogarth’s iconography. This makes my collection disparate in both chronology and content, as it extends to ephemera, digital and website items, but I think any modern collection has to incorporate these media, and that is one of its beauties.
Detail from Hockney's programme for the 1975 season at Glyndebourne. Author's Own.
I like the highly personal nature of my collection, but would like to expand the more traditional part, to buy the classic works on Hogarth by Ronald Paulson, older editions of the eighteenth-century literature, and a set of Hockney’s Rake’s Progress etchings. One day I will display the whole collection together: the books and pamphlets housed in shelving units between the prints and postcards, with a screen showing the digital items. It will cohere around an original copy of Hogarth’s Bedlam print at the centre, which, one day, I might afford to buy, and then the collection will be complete.
Maybe it’s because I’m a curator, but I do like it when you get a glimpse of how the things we now treasure were really used in the past, and that includes books.
I’ve recently been looking again at the short life of William Gooch, about whom I did a post last year. I’ll be speaking about him at the project’s next event at the Huntington, California, in January, so I’ve been re-reading the letters and journals from his time on the Daedalus. Among the snippets I’ve found are some comments about the published accounts of James Cook’s voyages, of which they clearly had a full set.
One mention comes in Gooch’s journal in December 1791, when the Daedalus was in Rio de Janeiro and he had set up a temporary observatory on an island in the harbour. Throughout their stay, the observatory and ship became sort-of visitor attractions for the residents of Rio. After one visit to the observatory on 9 December (when there was a misunderstanding with a telescope – but that’s another story), Gooch took the group over to the Daedalus . There, ‘after drinking Tea, Mr. Hergest amus’d them with the large Folio-plates belonging to the Quarto Edition of Cooks Voyages’, Gooch tells us. This is the sort of image they would have been looking at:
although I’ve also found a complete set of the quarto edition that was once owned by Jack Lord (Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O).
A more serious use for voyage accounts, as navigational aids, crops up in a letter Gooch wrote home the following April. As the Daedalus arrived in the Marquesas Islands on 22 March, they used Cook’s description to locate a safe harbour. Gooch notes, however, that there was some doubt about what Cook had written:
We went past the Harbour (Port Madre de Dios) we were to anchor in, thinking it look’d too small from the Description in Cooks 1st Voyage; however we found no other, so return’d to this, but that there might be no risque in running in Mr. H[ergest] & I went first in a Boat to sound & examine it & found it to be the right.
In fact, Gooch made a slight mistake in his letter: Cook called at the Marquesas during the second voyage when in command of the Resolution. Cook’s description of Madre de Dios in A voyage towards the South Pole, and round the world (London, 1777) places the north and south points of the bay (which he named Resolution Bay) a mile apart, with the bay itself ‘three-quarters of a mile deep, and … from thirty-four to twelve fathoms’ water, with a clean sandy bottom’. It also has ‘two sandy coves, divided from each other by a rocky point’, although some of the other coves or bays nearby could be mistaken for this, Cook warns. This may be what concerned Gooch and the crew of the Daedalus as they approached in 1792 and made their cautious landing.
Many of the themes and some of the objects staple to our story here at the Board of Longitude project are ones that have a much wider currency than academic history. This was demonstrated when one of the team working on the NMM’s planned exhibition on longitude spotted the online design description of the New Zealand passport.
Navigation, travel and exploration are, of course, entirely appropriate themes for passport imagery (although the 2010 design for the UK passport is distinctly insular), but in the New Zealand case they are also very closely associated with national identity. As the description explains, the designs were to show “our evolution from a place of discovery, to a place of destination”.
“The journey begins at sea, with New Zealand below the horizon, representing the leap into the unknown made by early Polynesian explorers who speculated on the existence of land to the south based on the patterns of migratory birds. Travelling towards New Zealand, the land appears and the viewpoint moves closer. As the coastline is reached, the view moves towards a harbour, travels up a river and into the mountains, representing the waves of exploration that penetrated New Zealand’s hinterlands.
Finally the journey ‘launches’ from the summit of Aoraki Mount Cook, representing the modern aerial explorations and journeys made today. In addition, a progressive journey is also made from north to south to reflect the general geographic pattern of exploration and settlement.”
We are taken through the design, page by page. It reflects both western and native traditions and uses motifs that show a range of navigational techniques that can be used – cloud, ocean and land patterns, the constellations of the southern hemisphere and maps. Over all we are presented with a progressive journey and story, moving from “traditional to contemporary, and natural to technological”.
Even if this might seem a little linear, it is nice to see mention of planisphere, compass, the use of a canoe as a compass, astrolabe, sundial, marine clock, sextant, radar and GPS – and of course, Cook and the Endeavour. There are, though, a couple of points to make a specialist raise an eyebrow. The “astrolabe and chart” on pp. 21-22 certainly wasn’t used for “determining local time using local longitude and vice-versa”, for example, but for me the greatest curiosity is the choice of illustration for pp. 30-31.
That it is devoted to Harrison and the development of the marine timekeeper is understandable, and, correctly, the blurb tells us that “after 40 years of work, in 1764 [Harrison] proved that a clock could be used to locate a ship’s position at sea with extraordinary accuracy”. What is odd, though is that, despite the accuracy of the date, the illustration is of the earlier H1 and the blurb goes on to state that after 1764, “Further developments led to the H4 clock”, when it was H4 that had been trialled.
The level of accuracy and detail is again revealed by saying that it was H4 that “was copied by Larcum Kendall and used by Cook on his voyages”. But given that H4 was the timekeeper that gained the largest reward, and that it was Kendall’s K1 that was actually used by Cook and made it to New Zealand, why the prominence given to H1?
I haven’t seen the actual passport, but I assume that none of this explanation is there (or that people spend much time looking at or making sense of the pictures). It is simply an illustration and perhaps H1 has benefits in this context over H4, in terms of producing a complex design that it hard to forge. Yet I think it is the case that that the early clock has become much more iconic than the much-rewarded watch. There is, for example, an H1 iPhone app available but not an H4 one, and it is H1 that is pictured on signage outside the Royal Observatory.
It speaks, I think, to the engaging nature of this clock – its unusual appearance, its moving parts, its openness, its sense of a unique mind working on a unique solution to an intractable problem. While visitors are certainly struck by, and often comment on, the sudden change in the sequence from the large H1, H2, and H3 to the smaller and entirely different H4, I think that on its own it would much more likely be looked over. After all, it simply looks like a big watch, and its movement is usually hidden.
For the purposes of a designer or illustrator, how much more likely would it be to choose the curious object that might make people stop and ask a question over the watch? And even if you chose H4, who would know whether you had in fact chosen K1? Having two such unique and important objects that nevertheless look almost exactly the same is, it turns out, rather problematic. It is, likewise, interesting to reflect on how Harrison would be considered today had his earlier marine timekeepers not survived just long enough to be rescued and restored by Rupert Gould.
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.
This post is about sort-of an object, but not one that really survives. In planning for a small exhibition on the art and science of exploration (which will probably happen in 2014), we’ve been looking at some of the drawings and prints produced by the official artists on British voyages of exploration from the 1770s onwards. Once you start looking at these, you begin to see little tents cropping up in corners and backgrounds, as in this detail of a coloured print of Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand, by John Webber from Cook’s third voyage:
and this image of Observatory Inlet from the published account of George Vancouver’s voyage of 1791-95.
These are all portable tent observatories and were crucial to the work of the expeditions’ astronomers, who needed to set up their larger instruments on land to make accurate observations. Here’s another couple of examples from Cook’s third voyage, one by Webber, this time a drawing of Nootka Sound in what is now British Columbia:
the other a drawing of Tahiti by William Webb Ellis, a surgeon’s mate on the same voyage:
A slightly different style of tent had been designed by John Smeaton for Cook’s first voyage, but it was for the second voyage that William Bayly, one of the astronomers , came up with what became the standard design for future expeditions. It cost £25 and was praised by his fellow astronomer on the voyage, William Wales, as ‘one of the most convenient portable observatories that has yet been made’. Big enough to hold the larger clocks and instruments when erected, it could apparently be packed away and put in a box ‘six feet and nine inches long, and about twenty inches square’. This is the image of the observatory from Wales and Bayly’s published observations of 1777:
They mostly seem to have been very successful and well travelled, although Eóin has come across a complaint. In 1802, Matthew Flinders wrote to Nevil Maskelyne that ‘a great obstruction to our operation’ was that the small size of the portable observatory meant that the theodolite and clock had to stand in different tents, while the tent’s canvas ‘was rotten and full of holes’, as a result of ‘the little room in the ship, which obliged us to take the parts out of the cases and stow them separately in different places’. This in part explains why the tents don’t survive, although in 1968 the National Maritime Museum did build a replica:
This is still in store somewhere, so don’t be surprised if you see it again in a couple of years time.