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Longitude Essays

Board of Longitude > Longitude Essays

William Whiston

William Whiston is one of the most contentious figures in the longitude story. Prominent in the London mathematical community, Whiston was a popular lecturer in the London coffee-houses and a prolific writer of pamphlets. He had succeeded Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in 1702, but been expelled in 1710 due to his dissenting religious views. He was involved with the Board of Longitude from its inception, as it was a proposal by Whiston in partnership with the mathematician Humphrey Ditton which instigated the passage of the 1714 Act [RGO 14/1:10r]. Their idea involved shooting rockets from vessels moored at set points in the ocean. Ships could find their longitude by comparing when the sound and light reached them, much like a thunderstorm. The unusual nature of the scheme combined with Whiston's eccentric character made him a figure of fun in the longitude story from that date. He was repeatedly satirised in the popular press and by his fellow natural philosophers.

Partly, this was due to his persistence in seeking a means of finding longitude. After the failure of his and Ditton's proposal, Whiston published proposals for finding longitude using magnetic variation in 1719, and solar eclipses in 1724. In 1730, he proposed using the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites. A manuscript copy [MSS/79/130.2] of this proposal is preserved in the archives at the National Maritime Museum. Whiston also submitted a copy [link] to the Royal Society, giving a good example of how proposals were also shown to parallel institutions during the early years of the Board of Longitude. As far as the Board's own records are concerned, Whiston is rarely mentioned. Like John Harrison, another early contributor, in interacting with the Board in its early years, he was partly responsible for creating the demand for administration which would produce the bulk of the Board archives in future decades. Most of the early meetings took place to award grants of money, and in one Whiston appears with Harrison. At the Board's second meeting [RGO 14/5:6], on 16th January 1742, the Commissioners voted him £500 for his work mapping the British coastline, using magnetic variation.

Despite Whiston's persistent work on longitude, his comparative unimportance as far as the Commissioners of Longitude were concerned is shown in the papers of Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal. When he became a Commissioner in the 1760s, Maskelyne made extracts [RGO 4/310] of the Board's previous meeting minutes up to that date. He copied much of the material directly, but abridged the section dealing with the money voted to Whiston [RGO 4/310:3]. This shows very clearly how Harrison was the real concern of the Board, and Whiston never a serious contender for their financial backing. Indeed, by the Board's closing years in the 1820s, Whiston's tireless work on longitude seems to have been largely forgotten. Captain WJ Owen wrote to the Board in 1820 proposing a means of measuring differences of longitude on land. His suggestion to use rockets [RGO 14/51:212r] did little more than re-use Whiston's original proposal from 1714.

Katy Barrett
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge