Papers of the Board of Longitude : Confirmed minutes of the Board of Longitude, 1737-1779

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Minutes for seventy nine of the known communal meetings of the Commissioners of the Longitude, which took place from 1737 to 1779. These shed light on the events of and contributors to a key period in the history of the Board of Longitude. The Commissioners had largely acted independently until this point, when they redefined themselves as a standing body. The Act of 1714 <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00001'>RGO 14/1:10r</a> named twenty four influential people who were thought to be acceptable judges for dispensing the new longitude funding and rewards as Commissioners. However, it did not provide these officials with an institutional identity and resources.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Until 1737, key Commissioners such as Admiralty representatives, the President of the Royal Society and especially the Astronomer Royal of the Royal Observatory [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/106337.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] appear to have continued to act as independent authorities in the so-called search for the longitude, much as they had before 1714. These minutes and other sources show that varying numbers of the Commissioners began to meet together at irregular intervals at the Admiralty [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/105543.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] in London from 1737 to 1760. This seems to have started in response to the great public and institutional interest surrounding John Harrison [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136321.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]'s efforts at developing a reliable marine timekeeper (later known as a chronometer). From 1760 on, the Commissioners began to meet together at least annually and to take the shape of a standing body, and became increasingly known as 'the Board of Longitude'. (For more information about this trajectory from 1714 to the early 1770s, see the journal article: Alexi Baker, 'The Board of Longitude, 1714–1774: the self-fashioning of an early science funding body', forthcoming.)</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The Commissioners also expanded their interests to include other navigational, scientific and technological activities. These included voyages like those of Captain James Cook [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14102.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. The minutes reveal a number of reasons for this expansion of activities and increasing institutionalisation. These included the ongoing work of John Harrison, with whom the Commissioners collaborated openly for more than two decades before the famous falling out of the 1760s. They also included: the other longitude schemes which the Commissioners considered as a group, such as that of Christopher Irwin of Ireland for a 'marine chair' for making astronomical observations at sea and efforts at improving the lunar-distance method made by actors including the Hanoverian mathematician Tobias Mayer and the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/379043.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], including Maskelyne's annual publication of the Nautical Almanac from 1766 on; technological innovations made by well-known craftsmen such as John Bird [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127570.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]; the dedication and activities of key Commissioners including Maskelyne and later the President of the Royal Society Joseph Banks [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/145444.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]; and the interests and activities of collaborating institutions including the Admiralty and Navy, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and the Royal Society). The later minutes in this volume also record the initial involvements of the marine timekeeper or chronometer makers John Arnold (See <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=55293&partid=1'>portrait</a> held at the British Museum) and Thomas Mudge [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/152338.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] with the Board of Longitude.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>However, the confirmed minutes (in RGO 14/5, <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00006'>RGO 14/6</a>, <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00007'>RGO 14/7</a> and <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00008'>RGO 14/8</a>) provide neither an exhaustive nor an entirely accurate record of the activities and decisions of the Commissioners. They were often based upon the notes or later summaries of one meeting attendee. This was Maskelyne in many cases during his tenure from 1765 until 1811. They were also later compiled and in some cases recopied at different times and for different reasons. Errors were made during this process. The selection and presentation of the existing Board minutes may have been further shaped by the later Astronomer Royal George Airy [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136564.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], who collected and had them bound in 1858. In addition, evidence including Maskelyne's private papers <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00004-00310'>[RGO 4/310]</a> suggest that other formal and informal meetings took place amongst Commissioners besides those recorded in the confirmed minutes, although so far none from before 1737 have been definitively confirmed.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br /> History and Philosophy of Science<br /> University of Cambridge</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Includes discussions on Harrison's first marine chronometer (H1 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/79139.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]); the purchase of new instruments for work on the longitude and latitude of the coasts of Britain; improvements to the reflecting telescope; Mayer's lunar motion tables; the trial of Harrison's chronometers; errors in the tables of the satellites; Schutz's machine for finding longitude; Irwin's marine chair; the use of lunar observations for finding longitude at sea; Maskelyne's use of Hadley's Quadrant; Lyons's method for finding the corrections of the refractions of parallax; attempts to obtain observations made by Bradley when he was Astronomer Royal; the publication of the Nautical Almanac; the mural arc at Greenwich; Harrison's attempts to claim the reward for his work on chronometers and finding longitude at sea; the construction of further chronometers by Harrison's son and Kendall; Lysle and Swedenberg's method of discovering longitude at sea; the trial of Arnold's timekeeper; the voyages of HMS Resolution [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/100618.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and HMS Adventure; the printing of Halley's Journal; the tables of Euler; Mudge's objections to the trial method for chronometers; the voyages of HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery under Captain Cook to the South Seas and the nautical and astronomical work carried out; work by Ramsden and others on accurate divisions for mathematical instruments; a reward claimed by Mason for work on solar and lunar tables; a petition by Shelton; and Richmond's instrument for taking horizontal angles at sea.</p>




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