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Longitude Essays

Board of Longitude > Longitude Essays

Edward Sabine

Edward Sabine (1788-1883), an Anglo-Irish astronomer, was one of the early nineteenth-century military men of science that managed to secure sponsorship by the Board of Longitude. An informal network of men of science and naval or army officers consolidated round the Board as it functioned as a source of funding and endorsement in the last part of its existence. Sabine was a young man during the re-flourishing of pendulum work in the early nineteenth-century and he worked towards measuring the length of the seconds pendulum in an ambition to standardise the yard for a series of Parliamentary Committees that commissioned the work. But more significant for the securing of Board of Longitude funds was his investigations into the Earth’s magnetic field as he attempted to co-ordinate a system of magnetic observatories across the globe. Sabine collected information from others and work to compile and assess the huge amount of observations as part of what historians have called the magnetic crusade of the nineteenth century.

Having recruited John Barrow as a patron, Sabine was sent of several voyages of discovery despite being a member of the army rather than the navy. Sabine was first assigned to serve as astronomer on John Ross's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, which left England in 1818. Sabine's scientific assignments were given to him by the Board of Longitude. He was asked to assist in the usual mariners tasks of determine latitudes and longitudes and taking metrological observations, but in addition Sabine was provided with instruments and equipment to measure the direction and intensity of the earth’s magnetic field as well as the force and variation of gravity in the region. Within the Board Papers we have a copy [RGO 14/42:319] of “the Variation of the Compass and Deviation of the magnetic needle, with Experiments and Facts established…” by John Ross. The work is seven pages long, including a data table and several illustrations as well as accounts of HMS Isabella and HMS Alexander ’s deviation from set courses. This work was sent by Ross directly to The Admiralty and John Barrow sent a copy to Thomas Young for the Board of Longitude. There was some disagreement over credit for work done between Ross and Sabine and this publication most probably contained work from both of them.

Sabine sailed to the Arctic for a second time shortly after having returned from his first voyage. This time under the command of William Edward Parry, Sabine was on the first British expedition to overwinter in the Arctic from 1819 to 1820. Sabine made a vast quantity of magnetic and gravitational observations during this voyage, sometimes in coordination with Parry and James Clark Ross, nephew of John Ross. Upon returning to London the written up account of his expedition won him the Copley Medal in 1821. Reflecting the bureaucratic support given by the Board of Longitude we find within its papers the nuances of getting Sabine’s Arctic work [RGO 14/49:12] as well as the results of other projects [RGO 14/49:195] published. The Board of Longitude did also request and keep copies or originals of the observations and experimental results of those it sponsored and there is the observational notebook [RGO 14/50] by Sabine entirely dedicated to measurements for the longitudes of the various pendulum stations that he worked at between 1822 and 1823 held in the Board papers. Between 1821 and 1823 Edward Sabine travelled across most of world with his pendulums and conducted the most extensive collection of measurements that had ever been attempted. The results of this research were published in 1825 at the expense of the Board of Longitude in An account of experiments to determine the figure of the earth by means of the pendulum vibrating seconds in different latitudes. This work represented the most exhaustive assessment of the figure of the earth and was thought to be those most accurate by many of Sabine’s contemporaries.

After many years of financial sponsorship [RGO 14/20:879] for Sabine’s pendulum research, the Board was dissolved by an Act of Parliament in 1828 and Sabine was invited [RGO 14/1:240r], along with Thomas Young and Michael Faraday, to serve on the Resident Committee for the Admiralty that replaced it. The level of trust put into Sabine by the Admiralty is further evidenced in the Board of Longitude papers in a rather delicately written letter [RGO 14/22:103] to Sabine from John Barrow regarding who should be superintendent of the Nautical Almanac after Young’s rather sudden death in 1829 and if the position is to return to John Pond as Astronomer Royal, then Barrow requests Sabine’s help in monitoring Pond’s accounts. Sabine worked hard to ensure and keep the patronage offered by John Barrow through the Board of Longitude and this privileged position resulted in criticism from several other men of science, Charles Babbage in particular included an extreme character assassination of Sabine in his 1830 publication Decline of Science in England.

Sophie Waring
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge