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Longitude Essays

Board of Longitude > Longitude Essays

John Barrow

John Barrow was an English Statesmen born in the village of Dragley Beck, then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria in 1764. He spent his early career teaching maths at a private school in Greenwich. Due to an association with the father of one of his students, Barrow was attached to the first British embassy visit to China from 1792 to 1794. After that Barrow spent time at the newly acquired colony of the Cape of Good Hope and finally returned to England in 1804. Shortly after he returned to London Barrow was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty by Viscount Melville, a post which he held for four decades till a year before his death in 1847. In his position at the Admiralty, Barrow was a great promoter of voyages of discovery particularly in the Arctic, including those of John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross and John Franklin. This is where we start to see Barrow in the Board of Longitude papers. After the period that the Board of Longitude spent working on a solution to the problem of finding longitude at sea, the Board started to work on a variety of different projects and was involved with many of the famous voyages of discovery of the early nineteenth century. Barrow, due to his position at the Admiralty, sat on the Board of Longitude and exerted his influence to ensure that the Board provided voyages of discovery with all the instruments and support that the he felt they needed.

For the most part John Barrow’s role in the Board of Longitude appears to be that of an administrator when the Board started to creak under the weight of its bureaucratic duties in the first half of the nineteenth century. Barrow appears in the records signing for vouchers, organising the employment and payment [RGO 14/11:163r] of people working as computers for the Nautical Almanac and to care and maintain the constantly growing collection of instruments [RGO 14/19:159r] owned by the Board. He was also involved in the primary function of the Board of Longitude; there are many letters between Thomas Young, the Board’s secretary and Barrow discussing various schemes and inventions for the improvement of navigation. In the associated papers of the Board of Longitude, after it was replaced by the Resident Committee for Scientific Advice for the Admiralty in 1828, we see Barrow continue to deal with the same bureaucratic issues, serving as an important reminded that the duties of the Board did not disappear when it was replaced. The Board’s bureaucratic roles were distributed to other parts of the Admiralty as well as the new committee and we see that Barrow worked to co-ordinating the dissemination of tasks. For example there is a note [RGO 14/28] from Barrow to Thomas Young shortly after the end of the Board requesting that John Gottlieb Ulrich's description of his new escapement plans be considered by members of the 'Scientific Committee'. There is also interesting correspondence [RGO 14/22:103] between Edward Sabine and Barrow regarding the replacement of Young in his role as Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac after his death in 1829. This exchange demonstrates Barrow’s desire to keep the Nautical Almanac close to the Admiralty Board even though the obvious choice of Astronomer Royal John Pond to replace Young was supposedly far from ideal. Finally there are three volumes, RGO 5/ 229 [RGO 5/229], 230 [RGO 5/230] and 231 that are dominated by Barrow; those containing instruction regarding the assignment of chronometers to the various ships of the Navy fleet are vast and almost exclusively exchanged between Barrow, at the Admiralty, and Pond, at the Observatory at Greenwich. Francis Beaufort took over the duty towards the end of 1829, when he was appointed to the post of Admiralty Hydrographer of the Navy and the duty of coordinating ships and chronometers as well as the upkeep of the Admiralty’s collection of chronometers fell to him.

The archive in the context of John Barrow serves to remind us of the bureaucratic aspect of organising the famous voyages of exploration that Barrow is associated with; furthermore they remind us that these voyages are assemblages of many different aspects of early nineteenth-century society. From Treasury money, to officers chosen and instruments and equipment selected there was a bureaucratic network that underpinned the whole venture each time a ship set sail. John Barrow sat at the centre of those networks associated with the voyages that he supported, particularly to the Northwest Passage.

Sophie Waring
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge