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.
One of history’s coincidences allows me to use this title with impunity. One slight admission, of course, is that I’m talking about a different John Harrison. It was, however, a John Harrison who was working in the 1760s and who really was an early practitioner of lunar distances at sea.
This John Harrison, about whom disappointingly little is known, sailed as purser on HMS Dolphin’s circumnavigation of 1766-68 under the command of Samuel Wallis. What we do know is that he had an interest in astronomy and mathematics and made accurate determinations of the positions of islands discovered during the voyage. These included Tahiti, which Wallis named King George’s Island after it was first sighted in June 1767 (the Dolphin being the first European vessel to do so). Wallis noted in his journal that Harrison had established the island’s position by, ‘taking the Distance of the Sun from the Moon and working it according to Dr Masculine’s Method which we did not understand’ (Harrison presumably had a copy of Maskelyne‘s 1763 work on lunar distances, The British Mariner’s Guide). This was a fortunate discovery, as the island was in the region that Maskelyne had prescribed as favourable for observations of the next transit of Venus, due in 1769. Indeed, this was why Cook was sent to Tahiti on his first circumnavigation of 1768-71. On that voyage, Cook judged that Harrison’s position had been correct to within half a degree, which sounds pretty good.
Spending a morning at Cambridge University Library a few weeks ago, I came across an interesting related document. This was a letter from the same John Harrison to William Wales, dated May 1787 (RGO 14/187 item 13). Evidently Wales had been hoping to get more information about some eclipse observations made during the Dolphin‘s voyage and was hoping Harrison could add something. Sadly, all Harrison could say was that, ‘I am really ashamed to say I have not a paper by me relative the Voyage you mention, having lost every mathematical Book & paper I was master of’. Harrison does, however, confirm that all the observational results given in the surviving logs were ‘per Quadrant’, meaning that they had not been corrected for parallax and other errors. Harrison and his fellow mariners were clearly happy to let others do the tedious mathematics of reducing the observations, which was also one of the downsides of the lunar distance method, as Harrison presumably knew well from his longitude determinations.
A long time ago, in a post far, far away, I stated that “There was no such thing as the longitude prize”. In the same post I also mentioned that I would, nevertheless, have more to say about 18th-century references to a longitude prize. It is high time I fulfilled that promise.
In fact, there are just two mentions of a “Longitude Prize” picked up in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), which includes millions of searchable, digitised pages from over 180,000 books, pamphlets, essays and broadsides. I think we can safely say that it was not a commonplace term at that time. [A Google Books Ngram search on Longitude Prize and longitude prize gives us nothing between 1800 and the 1890s, and has peaks in the 1960s (after Gould's chronometer history and Quill's Harrison biography appeared) and the 1990s (post-Sobel).]
Chasing this reference did, however, lead me to learn about some rather public dissatisfaction with the Board of Longitude and its Nautical Almanac. It also reveals another dispute that hit Nevil Maskelyne.
Both 18th-century uses of the phrase are from Robert Heath’s The British palladium; or, Annual miscellany, for the years 1768 and 1774. Heath was an army officer and a mathematician, best known as a frequent contributor to and subsequently the editor of the Ladies’ Diary. This was an annual publication that contained useful information, calendars and mathematical puzzles. Many of these puzzles and problems, for which prizes were offered, were set by Heath, who initially marketed the British Palladium as an appendix.
Heath’s major publications were, however, Astronomia accurata, or, The Royal Astronomer and Navigator (1760), and The Seaman’s Guide to the Longitude (1770). These were both very combative publications, the first accusing James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin of making errors in their astronomical tables, and the second attacking Maskelyne for having failed to publish Tobias Mayer‘s lunar tables. The tables, which were nearly ready, actually appeared that year, but Maskelyne and Heath subsequently remained on bad terms, disputing mathematics and table production.
From this disputatious context, we can imagine that the use of the term “Longitude prize” was a loaded one. The 1768 instance leads to a piece of Longitude doggerel, which, for your edification, I will reproduce below. The “prize” here produces a rhyme, but also reveals a negative judgement of the competitive, argumentative and money-grabbing nature of the longitude search.
The 1774 instance occurs within a piece that compared the British Nautical Almanac with the French Connaissance des Temps. The sub-title is “The Discoverers of the Longitude discovered” and, as we might guess, was critical of the Board of Longitude. It suggested that public money wasted, noting that as aspects of the British ephemeris appeared to be the same as the French, it must have been copied (I think I’m right to say that it was actually the other way round). The article, attributed to “A Sea Officer”, goes on:
The British Computers make as puzzling a Mystery of their mixed and borrowed Calculations (and some no Use at Sea) as of the Longitude they seek. But we, on-board the Navy, make the same Use of the Nautical Ephemeris as we do of a Pack of Cards or the Back-gammon Tables; to pass an idle Hour or to kill Time! For, as we find none is paid for chacing the Longitude-Prize but Longitude Schemers and Projectors, (for whose Profit we are annually out of Pocket by being compelled to buy their Work,) we have long given over the Chace ourselves, without endeavouring to come up with what is not worth our picking up.
It was clearly Heath himself: his chief target, Maskelyne, is referred to as “the reverend Superintendent or Commander in Chief of Longitude”. It is unsurprising that Maskelyne, in his autobiographical notes, chose to underline the fact that he never benefited financially from taking on the extra work surrounding the publication of the Nautical Almanac. It was not only Harrison who suspected him of being motivated by money.
These publications, produced after the date that the “Longitude Prize” is usually considered to have been awarded and the problem solved, are very clear in their view that the solution was still elusive.
LONGITUDE ODE. By Mr. MOONSBY,
Tune of the Ass. Or otherwise to be set to MUSIC by Seig. Chrisstiano Longitudiano.
Disputes still arise,
For the Longitude Prize,
Since Whiston and Ditton are fled;
And H__r__n’s W___h,
Have prov’d a mere Catch,
And goes like one out of it’s Head, its Head,
And goes like one out of it’s Head [Note: See Mr. Maskelyne's Observations.]
Irwin’s Chair lost it’s Fame,
And has now but a Name,
Was surpassed by the Scheme of the Moon;
W_tch_l beat up a Breeze,
For the Longitude Fees,
But to School he was sent away soon, aye soon,
But to School he was sent away soon.
For D__nth__e of Sages,
With one Dozen Pages,
That voluminous Scheme quite knock’d down;
He shew’d where it err’d,
Got his own Scheme preferr’d,
Which made the Watchmaker to frown, to frown,
Which made the poor Q_____r to frown.
Yet D___nth_e, or Ly___n,
We cannot rely on,
Tho’ Cambridge of Oxford takes Place;
Parallax and Refraction,
Are but a Distraction,
Till prov’d to agree with the Case, the Case,
Till proved to agree with the Case.
The Palladium Brother
Has gone little further, [Note: See p.53, & Suppt to Royal Astron. & Navigator, p.8]
Till his Theory and Practice unite:
Then, by Observation,
He can serve his Nation,
Without his being a Bite, a Bite,
Without his being a Bite.
Of the Longitude Hoard,
Which is rul’d by the Board,
No Em___rs__n ever yet shar’d;
And the Nautical Nac,
Is but a fam’d Crack,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d, appear’d,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d.
Of Cambridge and Lyon,
And Oxford, cry fye on!
No Longitude yet has been found;
The learned Professors,
Have all been Aggressors,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d, renown’d,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d!
(I’ll admit that there are a few references there that I haven’t yet worked out – all suggestions on these names and allusions are gratefully received!)
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.
Today is National Poetry Day, which has ‘stars’ as its theme this year, so it seemed rather appropriate to offer up a ‘poem’ (more or less) that was published in Lloyd’s Evening Post in 1764 (in the edition for September 12-14). The poem is about the 1763-4 sea trials to Barbados to test John Harrison’s sea watch (H4), Tobias Mayer’s latest tables for determining longitude by lunar distance, and Christopher Irwin’s marine chair for observing Jupiter’s satellites.
I’ve not included the footnotes from the original, but it’s a nice summary of at least one person’s view of what was going on at a crucial time for the history of longitude at sea:
The TRIPLE-SCHEME for finding the LONGITUDE at SEA, truly stated: Or, REMARKS on Mr. HARRISON’S TIME-PIECE, and late VOYAGE to BARBADOES.
Humbly addressed to the PUBLIC.
By the PALLADIUM AUTHOR.
To aid true judgment, which he thinks no crime,
He thus, for shortness, makes remarks in rhime.
Was e’er this Watch’s equal motion prov’d.
From Stars revolving, uniformly mov’d?
It’s gain in eight days by th’unequal Sun,
Proves not it’s equal gain in ev’ry one:
Nor does it’s gain or loss in eight days space,
Prove the same gain or loss in diff’rent place;
Without which equal motion first be shown,
No Longitude can certainly be known.
– Unequal, if it goes too fast or slow,
The Longitude, in error, must be so.
Various effects, it’s equal pace with-hold.
Shocks, gravity, wet, dry, and heat and cold;
Sometimes too slow it goes, and then too fast,
That Longitude, by chance, is found at last.
– How vain prediction, from each Port, accords
With Longitudes, as taken on mens words!
As those and Latitudes are dark or clear,
At Ship and Port, their distance will appear;
For Longitude for nothing ever serv’d,
But where the Latitude was well observ’d,
From both we shew how far the Port’s a-part,
The Navigator’s, not Time-keeper’s art.
The Seaman in the Latitude steers right
Due West or East until his Port’s in sight;
Then running three leagues off, and lying to
‘Till morning light, he hits the place most true;
As, in our voyage, we were us’d to do.
So, in return, another might behold,
And make the Lizard, as the brig foretold.
But as to what was done at Surry-stairs,
The public must be judge from what appears;
The Watch examin’d with a friend’s regard,
Was found within the Longitude-reward:
– Tho’ this, and others made, must go the same,
On ev’ry voyage — else the project’s lame!
– If such a Watch will time, at home, decide,
The time, on board, another must divide,
From day to day be often rectified.
The diff’rence of which times, when you descry,
Is the Ship’s Longitude to ev’ry eye.
But a Watch-maker must with these be sent,
To keep in order, or cure accident:
For, if these miss the Longitude at Sea,
(While num’rous Ships, for num’rous Watches pay)
The Nation’s care and cost are thrown away!
But, if you more prefer the Lunar scheme,
As Maskelyne, and Speculatists seem;
Some gaping for the mammon more than praise,
Exciting wonder, as our mirth they raise!
Two minutes, in degree, if these mis-spy,
(And who can peep out Latitude so nigh?)
Two miscompute-twice two, in time, those crost,
Then all their credit, time, and gain, are lost!
– But rivals, will each other still offend,
And for a shadow often will contend;
Each vying with the other to be great,
And each one’s scheme the other wou’d defeat!
See Irwin’s Chair exalted for a while,
O’erpower’d by interest, now is in exile!
Tho’ recommended by a noble Lord,
To whom it truth, and pleasure did afford.
An easy, cheap, and certain, simple thing,
That can’t above two minutes error bring;
As Jove‘s first Satellite will give you proof,
Whose known Eclipses are seen oft enough;
Which observations, when improv’d with care,
To thirty miles will tell you where you are.
– But Truth and Fashion vary like the Times,
Virtues to-day, to-morrow may be crimes!
And what avails it Art or Truth to know,
Without a Friend in Pow’r to prove it so!
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.
Last week, five of us attended the workshop ‘British Sea Power: Authority, Expertise and the State, 1800-1950′ at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Many of the speakers and attendees tried to define ‘expertise’ for the Georgian as well as the later periods, although the term was not employed as such until the later nineteenth century. We also discussed interrelated concepts which could contribute to the judgment and establishment of authority, such as a person’s ‘character’.
Something which has always interested me about the ways in which Georgian institutions such as the Board of Longitude defined acceptable experts or authorities for different purposes, is the degree to which what might be called ‘social’ considerations and connections played a role. It is clear from reading the surviving minutes, correspondence and related documents from over the decades that it was not just artisanal, practical or intellectual knowledge and skill which made a person a suitable Board expert or agent.
They needed to be acceptably conversant with the ways in which literate and respectable men communicated with each other to be fully taken seriously, and they almost always either held a certain degree of social and/or political standing in their own right or were recommended by such men. Sometimes individuals’ ‘social’ standing and esteem even helped to outweigh a dearth of specific knowledge or expertise when it came to the appointment of, for example, witnesses as in the cases of the different trials and discoveries of the clockmaker John Harrison.
Edward Sabine in 1850
Charles Babbage in 1833
Sophie Waring suggested at the workshop that these sorts of dynamics may have also played a role in the largely unproblematic reception of the suspiciously precise results of Edward Sabine‘s pendulum experiments. Few men except for Charles Babbage — whose reputation suffered somewhat for it — questioned the precision of Sabine’s results, perhaps in large part because of his high standing within circles such as those of the Board and of the Royal Society. It seems that it was the man, rather than his methods and results, who was being treated as being beyond reproach.
The incorporation of more socially oriented considerations into the process of choosing and recognising authorities in the search for the longitude was seldom a conscious and explicit decision, but more a result of the nature of society and of institutions in Georgian Britain. It was the common thing for people, and for officeholders such as Commissioners of the Longitude, to draw almost all of their associates from their wide-ranging webs of existing socio-economic connections. A personal association, or the recommendation of personal associates, could prove an even more valuable sign of trustworthiness and ability than candidates’ positions and publications alone.
This resulted in witnesses and collaborators typically being drawn from overlapping social circles and having at least basic skills in conducting the polite Georgian dance of patron / servant or of ‘friends’. (The term ‘friend’ was somewhat more expansive during the eighteenth century than it is today, as Naomi Tadmor says, encompassing ‘kinship ties, sentimental relationships, economic ties, occupational connections, intellectual and spiritual attachments, sociable networks, and political alliances’.)
Marischal College in Aberdeen in circa 1900
One example, out of many, is the dealings of the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne with the Scottish astronomer Andrew Mackay from the late 1780s to the early 1800s. Mackay was then the unpaid head of the observatory at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He was partially or wholly self-taught in astronomy, navigation and mathematics and was respected for his abilities, receiving a number of honours. His notebook of routine observations made until 1789 survives, including estimates which he made of the longitude via observations of the Jovian moons. In 1793, the astronomer was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also published by subscription the first edition of his longitude book, in which he was said to have received the thanks of both the French and British longitude boards for his efforts.
Since Mackay was not paid for his observatory work, he sustained himself by publishing and by teaching diverse mathematics-oriented subjects, later also becoming the superintendent of the Aberdeen harbour. In 1802, he brought an unsuccessful action in the court of session against King’s College Aberdeen after having been passed over for the Professorship of Natural Philosophy there. He moved to London in 1804 and in addition to teaching there, was an examiner in mathematics for Trinity House, Christ’s Hospital and the East India Company.
The two astronomers’ association began when Mackay asked Maskelyne in the spring of 1787 to lay his ‘new method of finding the Longitude and Latitude of a Ship at Sea’ before the Board of Longitude – which he did on 8 December. The latter man was so impressed by the Scotsman’s treatise, position in Aberdeen, and apparent skills, that he suggested bringing him to Greenwich as an assistant. (The treatise in question was later published as ‘The Theory and Practice of finding the Longitude at Sea or on Land’, and various editions were dedicated to the Astronomer Royal, although the Board declined to give its author an award.)
Letter from Nevil Maskelyne to Andrew Mackay of 26 May 1787, in which Maskelyne expresses concern about offending Mackay's patrons.
Maskelyne, normally so adept at navigating the steps of Georgian social interaction, appears to have made a slight faux pas here by not having first considered Mackay’s connections higher up the social and collegiate ladder. The Astronomer Royal wrote in an ensuing letter that he would not want to steal the Scotsman away from his patrons at Marischal College and especially from a Professor Copley without their approval. While the two men discussed further details of the assistantship in ensuing letters, it ultimately did not come to pass.
During the ensuing years, Maskelyne and Mackay appear to have struck up one of the elder man’s common friendly-working relationships, exchanging greetings and astronomical and mathematical information, and at times boons from the elder to the younger man. On 2 August 1790, the former responded positively to the latter having attempted to visit him in Greenwich, while he was in England. Later in 1802, Maskelyne also tried to make his young friend the replacement astronomer on the Matthew Flinders voyage to Australia, despite confusion over the pay being offered by the Board of Longitude and stalling on the part of the supposed supplicant – who still hoped to win a professorship at King’s College.
The surviving letters show that at this time, Maskelyne was also keen on aiding his friend to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, provided he wanted to go to the significant expense involved. He offered to try to secure the support of President Joseph Banks, after which Mackay’s election would be practically assured. The two astronomers discussed possible co-signers for the election certificate, with the Astronomer Royal being sure of the Spanish-born Joseph de Mendoza y Rios but alerting Mackay that whomever else he has suggested had not attended the Society’s meetings since the famous blowup between Banks and a number of mathematical Fellows in the early 1780s. He also suggested the Scotsman’s friend Professor Abraham Robertson of Oxford and perhaps Lynn, William Herschel or Alexander Aubert.
Letter from Nevil Maskelyne to Andrew Mackay of 15 June 1802, in which Maskelyne inquires about the Scotsman's planned participation in the Matthew Flinders expedition to 'New Holland'.
Later in 1802, Maskelyne regretfully informed Mackay that he had chosen someone else to join the Flinders expedition, as it could not be put off any longer, and the Scotsman also would not have been able to go if his litigation were successful. However, he assured his counterpart that he would still support his election to the Royal Society and even that he would try to get his longitude book ‘advertised on the sheets of the nautical almanac‘. The Astronomer Royal also encouraged Mackay’s interest in naval architecture and asked to be put down as a subscriber to his new treatises on astronomy and navigation. In 1805, he was still discussing getting the Scotsman elected to the Royal Society, although this never happened, and communicating favourably about the third edition of his longitude book.
It’s clear in this correspondence and in so many other records related to the Board of Longitude, that it was the most common route taken, for acceptable authorities and assistants for the Commissioners’ work to be drawn from within the orbits of their existing socio-economic circles. This wasn’t cronyism or nepotism (or any other modern -ism) per se, as one might accuse today, but a prevalent means of trying to ensure capability and trustworthiness. This contributed to the frequency with which witnesses and collaborators became long-term associates of the Board — with the same names reappearing over and over in the extant records — and it often blurred or even erased the lines between employee and friend as well.
‘Expertise’ in the modern sense did not exist during the Georgian era, but there were similar concepts which could indicate a man’s worth as an authority or employee. In the case of the Board of Longitude and many other institutions, these appear to have included the possession of ’expert’ knowledge or skills but also factors including social standing, good character, and what is often termed ‘politeness’.
Image sources: Edward Sabine and Charles Babbage – National Portrait Gallery; Marischal College – Wikipedia; Correspondence – Richard Dunn / Royal Museums Greenwich.
Many documents now at Greenwich and Cambridge shed light on the life and work of the long-serving Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who was an active and widely esteemed figure in early modern European ‘science’, mathematics and navigation. Maskelyne was also vital to institutionalising and increasing the stature of the Board of Longitude from the 1760s until his death in 1811. He was often the single most active and proactive, and the highest-profile, Commissioner on the Board during this period. His interests, activities and ties to other institutions from the Royal Society to learned dining clubs, greatly shaped and empowered the Board. The Maskelyne sources at Greenwich and Cambridge additionally shed light on the workings of the astronomer’s mind — as he scribbled thoughts and calculations and diagrams across any papers which he had to hand — and on the inextricable links between his so-called ‘professional’ and ‘personal’ lives.
I’ve just been looking at the volume RGO 4/187 at Cambridge, which consists of 48 letters sent to Maskelyne from 1765 (the year before he became Astronomer Royal) to 1809 (two years before his death). These letters, while limited in number, provide a sort of cross-section of the astronomer’s many interests, activities, and intersecting relationships and institutional ties. Many are also overlaid with later notes on his darting thoughts. The letters hail from around the globe and touch upon Maskelyne’s work on astronomy (at home and for expeditions), the Board’s publication of the annual Nautical Almanac and other texts, the lunar-distance and Jovian moon methods of finding longitude at sea and on land, specific longitude projectors, and the use and complications of instruments such as the sextant.
Others are announcements seeking Maskelyne’s presence at many of the institutions with which he was involved, as when Lord Sandwich (yes, that Sandwich!) requested that he attend the election of a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge in 1772 in the hope of swinging the vote towards a candidate from their alma mater, Trinity College. There are also a number of announcements of meetings of the Royal Society, of which the astronomer had been elected a Fellow in 1758, such as that above from 1793. All of these documents were later covered in Maskelyne’s calculations and geometric sketches. Some letters involve the purchase of a pocket globe and a telescope with a six-foot focal length from George and Peter Dollond in 1807 and 1808. A small number of letters address the workings of the Board of Longitude or the Royal Observatory, such as the Board’s oversight committee including Joseph Banks reviewing accounts in 1798, an upcoming official visitation of the Royal Society to the Observatory in 1801, and samples of papers under consideration for use in publications in 1804.
Other letters in this volume mainly revolve around the astronomer’s personal life, which complements the personal manuscripts including diaries and correspondence which are now held at the National Maritime Museum. Such interpersonal relationships and expressions of good will commonly greased the cogs of Georgian society, business and institutions. For example, in 1795 James Stuart Mackenzie, the Lord Privy Seal of Scotland (then retired from politics) and amateur astronomer, invited Maskelyne to dinner and addressed him as ‘My Dear Tycho’ in reference to the astronomer Tycho Brahe. He had originally sent the invitation to the Royal Society, but it missed its recipient. The same year, Mr Rowed of the Globe Tavern in Fleet Street in London wrote about an upcoming club meeting at the astronomer’s house. In a letter of 1785, Charles Hutton, professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy, also mentioned a meeting of the club when he wrote about various subjects including A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary upon which he was working. Hutton had been foreign secretary of the Royal Society until Joseph Banks organised his ouster in 1783, which eventually led to the resignation of he and other mathematicians from the Society. Again, this letter has been covered, back and front, with calculations and sketches.
In 1799, William Manwaring of Paddington in London wrote about sending Maskelyne and his wife and daughters presents of pears and a pair of pigeons which he had bred (below). Dr. Layard, in an undated note, sought Maskelyne’s vote for a candidate at the British Lying-in Hospital and thanked him for having obtained the proxy votes of his in-laws, the Ladies Clive (his sister Margaret having married Robert Clive). This was presumably Daniel Peter Layard, a successful man-midwife and physician. Other correspondents paid their compliments, some as friends seeking a meeting and some as strangers. As an example of the latter, William Marsden wrote from Fort Marlborough in Bengkulu in Indonesia in 1772 (the letter only reaching Greenwich eights months later) apologising for approaching the astronomer without an introduction and then praising his British Mariner’s Guide and method of finding longitude, and relating his own observations made with the Captain’s sextant. Marsden concluded that, ‘Any Service in my power on this Coast will be a pleasure to me to Perform you’.
Correspondents sometime also introduced others to Maskelyne, as when at the end of his letter of 1799, Thomas Wright wrote: ‘I beg leave to introduce Mr. Webber to the honor of your correspondence;- He is a person of Merit and of great application to the objects of his profession’. This was the American astronomer Samuel Webber, who had recently assisted Wright, the surveyor general of the colony of St. John’s Island, in taking accurate sightings to establish the positions of the various rivers then claimed to be the border between New Brunswick and the District of Maine in Massachusetts. The correspondents represented in this volume are mainly British, including those posted or travelling abroad, but include a small number of contacts from foreign nations as well. The Britons mainly included astronomers and computers, and members of the government and Naval and military establishments (including the soon-to-be-deposed Governor William Bligh of New South Wales, of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ infamy).
Most of these correspondents were male, with Mary Edwards of Ludlow being a notable exception. As Mary Croarken has written about in different articles, Edwards was a highly unusual female contributor to the ‘search for the longitude’, having been a long-serving ‘computer’ (calculator) for the annual Nautical Almanac. Edwards first assisted her husband John, whom the Board of Longitude awarded £20 and £200 in 1778 and 1780 for his work on the metals for reflecting telescope mirrors, and then entirely replaced him as computer when he died in 1784. A year later, she wrote to direct and to thank Maskelyne for assisting with settling her late husband’s accounts with renowned London instrument makers including Edward Troughton and Edward Nairne and in transporting her husband’s instruments back and forth for sale. Again, the back of Edwards’s letter is covered in notes and sketches.
On the foreign side, two officers of the War Ministry in Madrid in Napoleonic Spain conveyed observations of a solar eclipse made by Ali-Beik Abd-Allah at Tangier in 1803. Three years later, Julian Canelas wrote from an observatory on the Isla de León (between the city of Cádiz and the Spanish peninsula) to ask for observations of a recent solar eclipse and of the occultations of Antares to compare with his own. Gian Giuseppe Barzellini sent a paper about his calculation of the altitude of pole of the Austrian Habsburg city of Gorizia for a solar clock in 1774. Barzellini, whose papers and books are now held at the theological seminary in Gorizia, was the first director of its insurance bank, worked with the local agrarian reform society, and conducted a land survey of the province. He says in the letter that he taught himself mathematics, astronomy and instrument design by studying publications. Four years after this, he constructed a meridian line on the exterior wall of the cathedral. It was not unusual for such partially or wholly self-taught enthusiasts to contact Maskelyne for his opinion or to try to contribute to larger astronomical efforts.
Of perhaps the greatest interest to aficionados of the longitude and of the story of the great clockmaker John Harrison is an undated draft letter (above) of c. 1765 from Maskelyne to ‘My Lord’. In it, the Astronomer Royal first responds to Harrison’s applications to the Board of Longitude and to Parliament to get a second £10,000 in reward money for his marine timekeepers – despite refusing to produce two more watches and to otherwise submit to the trials required by the legislation of 1765. The astronomer then asks to provide his correspondent with an abstract and explanation of the Act of 1714, which he had at first intended ‘as an introduction to an answer to Mr. Harrison’s scandalous [originally written as 'abusive'] pamphlet on my trial of his watch at the Royal Observatory; tho I afterwards dropt the design of publishing the same thinking such abuse thrown out without probability or proof required no refutation’. Maskelyne never responded in published form to the slights from John and his son William, put forth in the 1765 pamphlet A Narrative of the Proceedings relative to the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea and in other media including newspapers and journals – although anonymous supporters of his or the Board’s cause did rally in the media.
While my photos of these illuminating resources are not of the best quality, it shouldn’t be that many more months before the project to digitise these records posts high-resolution images and complementary materials online!
Image sources: Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library.
A lesson quickly learned in the world of museum collections and displays – perhaps especially in history of science and technology collections – is that the appeal and aesthetics of an object only rarely match the interest of their story. It has been rightly stated that in many cases when an instrument has made its way into a museum collection, it is probably because it not much used for its ostensible function: it has been admired and collected rather than used, broken and thrown away.
There are many exceptions to this rule, of course. Two of the most obvious cases are objects that have been rescued because of their association with a famous person (an item which, therefore, may or may not be attractive, may or may not have been much used) or those which have arrived at a museum not as part of an assembled collection but through the acquisition of items left by a defunct institution.
Bradley's 8-foot transit instrument (AST0980 National Maritime Museum)
There are elements of all of these points to consider when presented with this object – it is quite large (8 foot long) but rather dull and simple-looking. Its importance is not writ large and it is easily passed over. Yet it is an object that has survived because of its history and associations – it has been a relic, preserved institutionally until handed over to ownership of the National Maritime Museum.
Why am I writing about it on the Longitude Project Blog? Because it is a key item in the suit of instruments used at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to produce the astronomical data that went into the Nautical Almanac, along with the astronomical regulator and mural quadrant. Aligned north-south (i.e. on a meridian or line of longitude), it was used to measure right ascension, one of the two co-ordinates required to map the positions and motions of heavenly bodies, at the moment a star, planet, Sun or Moon crossed that local meridian.
It is a transit instrument, because that moment of crossing is known astronomically as transiting. Called Bradley’s 8-foot transit instrument, it was in fact used at the Observatory under the regimes of Nathaniel Bliss (briefly) and Nevil Maskelyne as well as James Bradley. It was the use of this instrument, on its piers in the Observatory’s Transit Room, that defined the Greenwich meridian for 66 years. It was Maskelyne’s efforts from the 1760s to ensure the observations made at Greenwich were publicly available – through regularly published volumes of Greenwich Observations and through the Nautical Almanac – that led to this meridian being one that ever-larger numbers of people used as a reference for astronomy, cartography, navigation and timekeeping.
The instrument, costing £73 16s. 6d, was made in 1749 by the exceptional maker John Bird, who Richard introduced in an earlier post. When Maskelyne took over as Astronomer Royal in 1765, this and the other chief instruments by Bird and George Graham, now over 15 years old, were evidently still considered satisfactory. This is not to say there were not alterations made over its long working history. Astronomical instruments are objects of parts, subject to huge amounts of tinkering, adaptation and recycling when in use and, additionally, this famous instrument went on to have a second life as a trophy, hung on the wall of the building that housed its descents, the Troughton transit instrument and Airy Transit Circle.
Historic instruments displayed in the Transit Circle room in the 1890s. The Bradley transit is on the left, with its setting circle above the door (from Howse's 'The Buildings and Instruments'). Apologies for the poor image.
It is the trophy instrument that is with us today, stripped of many essential parts, including the original pivots on which its axis balanced, its counterpoise apparatus, illumination, plumb line and spirit level – all elements essential to the production of precise observations. Other aspects of the instrument, however, reflect working alterations and improvements. One of these was an important technological upgrading – the replacement of its original object glass (lens) in 1772 with an achromatic lens by Peter Dollond.
Other, less fundamental, tinkerings by Maskelyne have, fortunately, been indicated by the description left in Thomas Bugge’s 1777 journal (the recently-published edition of which I reviewed here). Bugge noted that “In order to eliminate the influence of the solar rays on the tube, Doctor Maskelyne had covered it with white paper” but was unconvinved: “I am more inclined to think that this would have a bad effect and increase the changes of the tube by heating, because the white paper is pasted immediately on to the brass”. Brugge thought that the paper would be better used as a screen, not touching the tube itself. Maskelyne may also have changed his mind, as he was clearly always a keen experimenter and observer of his instruments. In 1784, for instance, he added mahogany covers to the top of the instrument’s piers to keep the sun off the pivots.
The Bradley transit instrument in a drawing by John Charnock, 1780s (PAF2928: National Maritime Museum)
Much of the history of this instrument is succinctly recorded in Derek Howse’s volume on ‘Buildings and Instruments’ in the 1975 Greenwich Observatory (3 vols). My favourite note is pulled from the published Astronomical Observations of 1800, in which Maskelyne noted: “Just before the Sun’s transit found a little spider in the tube, beyond the wires, which had made itself a web there”. The spider, Howse notes, was alowed to remain there just over a week. Perhaps, given the astronomer’s reliance on spiders to produce the threads used as ‘wires’ in the eyepieces of many telescopes, leaving it undisturbed was a small ‘thank you’.
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.