Filming in progress with John Gallagher
In the last couple of months, I’ve been incredibly lucky and honoured to be involved in a series of video casts showcasing PhD research, produced by fellow students John Gallagher and Richard Blakemore in partnership with Ruth Rushworth at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). The first season features 6 PhDs, with many more to come they hope.
The idea is to give interdisciplinary students a chance to talk about their research with an eye to public engagement and making their ideas fun and interesting to a broad audience. I’ve really enjoyed the process of thinking through, recording and then publicising the film, and think it looks and sounds pretty good! My film is the second in the series ‘it’s not longitude that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts‘, and launched today, with a page of associated links and references. You can watch the film or listen as a podcast on iTunes. I’m excited to see what readers of this blog think of it.
I have recently been moonlighting somewhat, and taking my blogging focus to The H Word at the Guardian. I have not, though, been neglecting longitude but have, rather, been finding that it can be relevant to today’s discussions.
Way back last October, when the Nobel Prizes were in the news, I put up a post that looked at the difference between recognition prizes (like the Nobels or Royal Society medals), reward prizes and challenge prizes. The latter were certainly a feature of 18th-century scientific societies, and in many ways recent enthusiasm for them seems to herald a return to an older model. The Longitude Act in fact seems to sit between several of these stools. It specified a challenge but offered rewards that made up for time and money already spent rather than a prize. Nevertheless, it is clear that for John Harrison, the recognition element – of being acknowledged as a winner of the top reward – became ever-more important.
Last month, on the occasion of the arrival of a new Chief Scientific Advisor, I wrote about the possible relevance of the longitude tale to current science policy – in particular the notion of using the Longitude Act as a kind of emblem for today’s Challenge Prizes. This was within a piece written with James Wilson, of the University of Sussex’s Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, that called for informed history of science to have a greater role in the process of making science policy.
Today, with reactions to the Chief Scientific Advisor’s first public pronouncement of some advice (in the FT on bees and neonicotinoid pesticides), I found myself thinking of how our Longitude Commissioners could get flack from all sides. Having also recently been writing about Newton’s evidence to Parliament in 1714, I also recalled that Newton’s role has often been criticised by much more recent writers. It has often been suggested that Newton’s faith in astronomy over clockwork was misplaced, and unnecessarily set back the longitude search. I therefore asked whether Isaac Newton really did get it wrong.
Next week I will be talking to some of the people at the Centre for Challenge Prizes, which I hope will be interesting on both sides. For the exhibition we are particularly interested in finding the issues of today that either perplex or excite people today in the way that longitude could in the 18th century, or pinpointing today’s technical challenges that might be tackled in this kind of high-profile, one-off way. I hope that we can give a sense of this story still being relevant to us today.
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.
I’ve mentioned before how everything I do now seems to link back to Longitude. Alongside the Board of Longitude project, Alexi and I are both also members of the Digital Humanities Network at CRASSH, here in Cambridge, where we share with other researchers our interests in making traditional humanities scholarship available with modern digital tools. Often our sessions come back to the problems of using digital tools within the established academic environment. This got me thinking about my longitude pamphleteers, and how our situations are not dissimilar. It also links nicely into our new project with the Cambridge Digital Library (funded by JISC) to digitise the Board of Longitude archives, which Alexi and I have both already discussed on this blog. I have therefore followed up my previous article for the Cambridge University research website (which was on the riots and consumerism) with one about pamphlets, digital humanities and the Board of Longitude. Please have a look and see what you think.
As an academic research project we are, of course, interested in making an impact – through museum displays and public programmes, through this blog and other forms of media. It was, therefore, particularly heartening to catch, as it were, one moment of impact almost as it took place.
Thony Christie, author of the Renaissance Mathematicus blog and regular commenter here, flagged up a post on the Science Blogs blog Uncertain Principles, by Chad Orzel, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, NY. He had put up a post asking how to pronounce ‘Maskelyne’, as he was about to teach a class on the history of timekeeping using Sobel’s Longitude as a text. Thony and I both commented there, highlighting the rather different story we have been touching on in this blog, but thanks for what happened next goes mainly to Thony as my comment got lost in moderation for some time!
A couple of days later, Chad had taken his class and reported back in another post:
This week was all about Dava Sobel’s Longitude, and the making of seaworthy chronometers. I said half-jokingly that the week followed a sort of a course through Union’s curriculum: Monday was on the science of navigation, using the experimental results presented here; Wednesday was about the engineering of clocks, specifically John Harrison’s innovations for his marine clocks; and today was the humanities side of things, presenting the story of Harrison’s attempts to get paid. Those last slides are really sketchy because I spent most of the class having them provide details of the Harrisons’ grievances against the Board of Longitude, as related by Sobel. I then provided a bit of the other side of the story, from the Board of Longitude blog: (Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne, Part One: Reassessing the accusations, Part Two: Why lunar distance?, Part Three: Cultural differences, Part Four: The Harrisons’ accusations, and conclusions) and this law review article (PDF) looking at the case in a more balanced way than Sobel’s book.
I’ve been saying repeatedly that this class is about learning how to make arguments, and so introduced the additional material by asking them if they could find holes in Sobel’s argument. They did a pretty good job of picking up on places where she glosses over inconvenient details, so I think it was a useful class.
Good news! And well done to Alexi for her setting-the-record straight series. As Chad commented on the earlier post, “The Board of Longitude blog is a very nice and compact counterpoint” to the suspiciously tidy story told by Sobel.
Today saw the announcement of the Queen Elizabeth Engineering Prize, offering £1 million for exceptional advances in engineering. It will be awarded biannually to individuals or teams of up to two people. Unsurprisingly, David Cameron, announcing the prize at the Science Museum today, compared it to the Longitude Prize – hinting at a glorious British past of science and engineering – as well as the Nobel Prize. Nick Clegg name-checked X Factor and the FA Cup.
Lord Rees, formerly President of the Royal Society and (still) Astronomer Royal, mentioned Longitude too today, in a Times article (paywall) headed ‘Isn’t it time to lure innovators with Longitude prizes?’. He opens,
We are repeatedly, and rightly, urged that the UK must channel more brainpower into innovation, jump-start new technologies, and enthuse young people towards careers in these fields. If we don’t get smarter, as a nation, we’ll surely get poorer…
before suggesting that ‘We can learn from a government initiative taken nearly 300 years ago – when Britain “ruled the waves”.’
In the article, Rees briefly reiterates the longitude story, via Sobel, and highlights the Harrison timekeepers as ‘the prime high-tech artifacts of the era’. He then goes on to describe various other ‘challenge prizes’:
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) was set up to generate ideas for the Pentagon, but these often have commercial or social spin-offs. Darpa spends up to $10 million per year on challenges. For instance, there was a competition for driverless vehicles, challenged to navigate a 135-mile course across the Mojave Desert. In 2004, none of the 25 entrants succeeded; a year later, such was the improvement that five entrants completed the course.
Like the Longitude rewards, these are publicly financed, but Rees goes on to mention private initiatives, such as the California-based X Prize Foundation, ‘which oversees privately sponsored grand challenge prizes, with a typical value of $10 million’, ranging from for sub-orbital space flight to cheap but accurate genome sequencing, automated medical diagnosis to improved techniques for dealing with oil slicks. It’s strap-line is ‘Revolution through competition’. Rees notes:
Each prize unleashes investments from many competitors amounting to far more than the prize itself, and helps to focus competitive talent on an important challenge. Well-designed competitions are newsworthy enough to offer a much needed PR boost to the engineering profession. They raise the profile and esteem of innovators, and stimulate young people’s interest. For an individual or small company, the prize money is a significant incentive; if a big company wins, it’s the publicity that’s more important.
To be maximally worthwhile, a prize must address a theme that the public regard as important. It’s best if the contest can be followed as a “spectator sport” (robots, for instance). And this type of prize has other advantages over more conventional awards. The winner is decided objectively, as in athletics – and unlike Oscars and literary prizes. And they recognise and boost up-and-coming talent, unlike Nobel and similar prizes where the recognition may come only after decades.
Does this sound like the 18th-century experience of Longitude? More seriously, perhaps, are winners ever – then or now – decided objectively?
The piece ends with a call for such ‘challenge prizes’ in the UK. Rees does not mention the new engineering prize (unless the version of the article that I downloaded from Nexis is incomplete!), and so, obliquely, I presume that his point is that this prize, which doesn’t specify a particular challenge or set of challenges, is perhaps too open to get the kind of competitive spirit, financial investment and public interest he desires.
It is interesting, particularly in terms of the public interest we hope to generate in the theme of longitude with the various events and exhibitions at the NMM, to consider if the Board of Longitude’s rewards really do fit into the scheme that Rees has characterised. It was, of course, in origin a ‘challenge prize’ (and in 1818 it returned to a specific challenge with interest in the North West Passage) but it should be remembered that from the later 18th-century onward rewards were given for ideas, schemes and instrument that were general improvements in navigation and allied areas. Thus, while the X Prize – and, perhaps, Ken Livingstone’s £100,000 challenge to find a way of cooling the London Underground – are analogous to aspects of the Board’s remit, in some ways, the openness of this new QE Engineering Prize sits reasonably well with much of the Board’s history.
Maskelyne’s trousers have again inspired a reconsideration of the man, this time in a nice story by Stephanie Pain for the New Scientist. While I am not sure that owning a funny suit necessarily works as proof that Maskelyne was a nice guy, it seems to be the case that the survival of this unique item reminds us that the historical character was once a living, breathing person. Clothing is particularly intimate and, of course, once encased a completely three-dimensional being. That in itself is enough to encourage readers, visitors and writers to look beyond black and white versions of the past and to understand that even the long-dead were once individuals with realistically complex personalities and motivations, which is, surely, a Good Thing.
Pain did not, of course, leave the work to the trousers alone, and I was particularly glad that she found room to mention the ’mathematicians’ mutiny’, as an occasion that complicates the idea of Maskelyne as a represenative of a unified ”scientific elite”, against which Harrison had to do battle. The mathematicians in question attempted, in 1784, to oust the Royal Society’s president Joseph Banks. They painted themselves as “the scientific part of the society”, countering a snobbish generalist with no understanding of mathematics and the need for practical mathematicians to have representation on the Society’s Council. Maskelyne was identified with those who needed to earn a living through their skills in practical mathematics, and against the coterie surrounding Banks.
(Perhaps it was leaked knowledge of Maskelyne’s funny trousers that lost them the vote….)
I hope that there will be further opportunities to create a good, rounded sense of Maskelyne and his times at the Museum’s symposium on 15 October, marking this year’s Maskelyne bicentenar. The programme and booking details are now available online. Speakers include NMM curators, who will reflect on the surviving manuscripts and objects relating to Maskelyne and his family, as well as members of the Board of Longitude project team and external speakers. Attendees will also have the opportunity to see some of the collections in store and in the Museum’s new library and archive the previous afternoon (Friday 14 October).
I will be starting the day with a brief look at how Maskelyne’s reputation has fared in biographies and histories since his death. While he was certainly painted badly (or moaned about) in his lifetime by some who felt hard done by, such as William Harrison, Thomas Earnshaw and Reuben Burrow, he was generally respected and obituaries naturally sang his praises. I am hoping to pinpoint the moment when it all turned sour, probably as a result of the renewal of interest in Harrison in the early 20th century. I am beginning to see, though, that my talk will also have give some time to reflections on the 2011 Maskelynian rehabilitation!
As you will have spotted in the three videos posted on this blog, our Senior Specialist in Horology, Jonathan Betts, has been dismantling, measuring, cataloguing and conserving John Harrison‘s third sea clock, H3. The opporunity to see H3 in pieces has struck a chord with the media, and there have been a number of stories generated. Jonathan gave an interview for BBC Radio 4′s Material World programme, which can be heard here (Jonathan’s interview is 15:40 into the programme). Details of the programme and download can also be found here.
Jonathan Betts and Quentin Cooper in the Horology Workshop of the Royal
Observatory, Greenwich, ©BBC
They write: “Preparations are underway for the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act in 2014 and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Jonathan Betts has been working on a massive project to dismantle, study, catalogue and reassemble the four world famous Harrison timekeepers. Currently in 1253 pieces, Jonathan is about to start putting the H3 clock back together. Quentin [Cooper] went to see him and to find out more about one of the world’s most historically significant timekeepers which ultimately solved the great longitude problem, and save[d] countless mariner’s lives.”
It’s good to see the anniversary already getting mention, and hints about the forthcoming celebrations. Jonathan also appears in a local publication, The Guide (Enjoying Life from Greenwich to Bromley). The cover sports an image of the sculpture, placed on the meridian line in the Royal Observatory courtyard for the millenium, and the headline “Precision timekeeping explored at the National Maritime Museum”. The article can be read here, and you can also see the main image, showing Jonathan and some bits of H2 taken from below a sheet of glass.
The sheer number of ‘bits’ of these clocks exercises a real fascination. This picture of H2 also appeared in the Metro, there was a lovely spread of H1 and Jonathan’s working notes in the Guardian last year. Take your chance in the next month to visit the Royal Observatory to see the H3 in bits through the window of the Horology Workshop.
Last week, Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811) hit the big time, or rather his stripy, padded Indian silk observing suit did, in an article in the Guardian by Maev Kennedy. Maskelyne was Astronomer Royal from 1765 until his death in 1811, meaning that he was, ex officio, a Commissioner of Longitude. As well as this he is, of course, particularly important to our story as someone who was involved in testing means of finding or keeping longitude during sea voyages to St Helena and Barbados: Tobias Mayer‘s lunar tables and Harrison‘s H4 timekeeper. Maskelyne was also founder and editor of the Nautical Almanac, which made the lunar distance method a practical means of finding longitude at sea.
For readers of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Maskelyne is also the villain of the piece. He is charged with opposing Harrison, largely so that he could win the prize himself. This is not the place to go into this here, but suffice to say that it misunderstands the nature of ‘the prize’, who was entitled to win it and the very real problems of using and replicating Harrison’s timekeeper. This blog, and talks by members of the team and others over the course of this year, will, I hope, begin to flesh out and correct such views. We are taking advantage of the fact that 2011 is the bicentenary of Maskelyne’s death and, perhaps more cheerfully, the 250th anniversary of his voyage to St Helena (for the purpose of observing the 1761 transit of Venus, as well as testing the lunar distance method of longitude determination). We are also celebrating the recent acquisition of an important collection of items relating to Maskelyne, his wife Sophia and daughter Margaret.
The journals, letters, portraits, items of clothing and other objects combine to give us a fuller picture of life at the Observatory in the 18th and early 19th century, and of Maskelyne himself, but the star object is surely the observing suit. The shorter print version of the Guardian article included an image of the suit being carefully held by two curators and a conservator (the online version only gives a fairly stock image of the Royal Observatory, Maskelyne’s home and workplace of 46 years). Copyright means that I can’t freely reproduce the image here, but it seems only fair that interested online readers should be able to get an idea of this remarkable item. So, here is an image of a former NMM curator, David W. Waters (known as Willie Waters), actually wearing the thing. I hasten to add that it was then in private hands and that curators would emphatically NOT DO THIS KIND OF THING now.
This picture does not quite do justice to the large, well-worn and padded seat of the trousers: Maskelyne was probably a reasonably plump man and clearly did a lot of sitting down at his instruments. We do know that Willie Waters was not particularly tall – perhaps 5′ 6″ – and Amy Miller, our Curator of Decorative Arts, assures me that the cut of the suit shows that Waters was taller than Maskelyne. She has also explained what a peculiar garment it was, and what a strange sight Maskelyne would have made, walking across the Observatory’s courtyard, presumably in wooden pattens to keep his padded feet out of the mud, to the meridian instruments.
We hope that the suit and other items from the Maskelyne collection will be on view to delegates to our forthcoming symposium on Maskelyne on Saturday 15 October 2011 (probably as a specially arranged visit to the conservation studios the day before). Speakers will include members of the Longitude Project team, NMM curators as well as Jim Bennett, from the Oxford Museum of the History of Science, and Mary Croarken, who has published extensively on Maskelyne, his assistants and early scientific computing. More details of the programme will be available on the website in due course.
- Mary Croarken, ‘Providing longitude for all: the eighteenth-century computers of the Nautical Almanac’, Journal for Maritime Research (2002) – free online
- Derek Howse, Nevil Maskelyne: the Seaman’s Astronomer (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
- Nicky Reeves, ‘“To demonstrate the exactness of the instrument”: Mountainside Trials of Precision in Scotland, 1774′, Science in Context 22 (2009), 323-340 [Abstract]
The YouTube video in this blog’s first post is by Tom Kirk of the University of Cambridge’s Office of Communications. Featuring the Longitude Project’s Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy, and Richard Dunn, Curator of the History of Navigation at the National Maritime Museum, it’s a brief introduction to the Longitude problem, the research project and some of the themes that we hope to explore over the next few years.
Topically, Simon highlights the important issue of government funding for science: “Essentially the Board represents the germs of our national science policy. The materials and
correspondence it left behind is a window on to the cosmologyof an entire class of people, and also on to the beginnings of
Government-sponsored science in Britain”. The project should both help us recover detailed information about the lives of the many different kinds of people who came in contact with the Board – from Admirals, to astronomers, to artisans – and lead us to discuss very relevant issues of how the state and the scientific community interact.
In the video Richard talks about the most iconic Longitude-related items in the NMM’s collection, John Harrison’s sea clocks, but makes it clear that we have much more to say – and much more yet to find out – about the Board. Let’s remember that Dava Sobel’sbestselling Longitude is a (partial) account of a very small part of the whole story. The NMM, which includes the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (itself founded to solve the Longitude problem), has many other objects in its collection and aspects to its history which relate to that broader story. We have yet to do these full justice.
In the video, Richard and Simon also explain why it made perfect sense for the NMM and Cambridge to come together on this project. We (at the NMM) have the object collections and an intrinsic interest in the navigational story, they (at Cambridge) hold the archives of the Board and of the Observatory. Also, we like to think, the collaboration has brought together a great group of individuals, who you can read more about on the Project Team tab.