Papers of the Board of Longitude : Acts of Parliament and awards : 10r

Papers of the Board of Longitude

This first volume of the Board of Longitude papers is the perfect introduction to both the content and the arrangement of the archive. Most of the materials were made after 1775, as is the case with the archive as a whole. They include a range of official records and correspondence of the Board over the course of its existence. The papers are not in definite chronological order and are not clearly linked to the other volumes. They are presumably bound as they were found in the 1850s. The volume opens with a nineteenth-century note 3r on how it should be bound and titled, and most sections are similarly introduced with a title and date on a sheet of blue paper. A particularly useful survival is an 1865 note 231r by then Astronomer Royal George Airy NMM icon . It has been bound with the correspondence from Peter Barlow NMM icon , which Airy wanted matched with the relevant minutes. Gems like this help us to see the continued history of the archive after it left the hands of the Board of Longitude.

The volume opens with the printed Parliamentary Acts relevant to the Board's history. The first is the 1714 Act 10r under Queen Anne which established the Commissioners of Longitude with prize money to reward a longitude solution that was 'practicable and useful at sea.' The Acts show two clear crisis points in the history of the Board, both of which led to the repeal and re-framing of the previous Acts. One was in 1773-1774, when John Harrison NMM icon gained the second half of his reward through application to King George III NMM icon , and the criteria for winning the rewards were therefore re-constituted. The second was in 1818 when the Board was re-configured to include a higher proportion of mathematicians as Commissioners and took responsibility for administering the prizes for finding a North-West Passage or reaching the North Pole. Copies of the draft bills 63r for this act are also included. Otherwise, the Acts deal with repeated applications by the Board for more money, add ex officio Commissioners to their number, or deal with the award of various amounts of money to the clockmaker John Harrison. For an unknown reason, these are preceded by Acts 6r from 1605 regarding the Oath of Obedience that was enforced following the Gunpowder Plot. The only rationale that I can see behind this, is that it was used to frame the oaths which the Act of 1765 32v empowered the Commissioners to ask of those proposing longitude schemes, especially John Harrison.

Notably there is no copy of the final Act that dissolved the Board of Longitude in 1828 but two sections of correspondence relate to this. One 240r informs Thomas Young (see portrait link in the National Portrait Gallery), Edward Sabine NMM icon and Michael Faraday NMM icon that they have been elected onto the Resident Committee that replaced the Board as scientific advisors to the Admiralty. The other 247r requests Young to lay before the House of Commons the final accounts of the Board, as well as any memorials regarding the Nautical Almanac that he had received, on behalf of the Board since their dissolution. The earliest item 145r of correspondence comes from Mary Mayer, widow of Tobias Mayer, in 1765, requesting that she be transferred the prize for his lunar tables that the 1765 Act had awarded to Mayer on behalf of the Board of Longitude. Much of the other correspondence is concerned with establishing the later acts, particularly the prize money to be given by the 1818 Act 79r on those approaching near to the North-West Passage or North Pole and a claim 127r by the crews of HMS Hecla and HMS Griper for having achieved this. Another selection 158r deals with expenses claims by John Crosley in the 1790s-1810s for instruments and books he bought in attempting to replace William Gooch as astronomer on HMS Daedalus.

Katy Barrett
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge Cambridge Digital Library