Papers of the Board of Longitude : Papers on astronomy

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p>This volume contains correspondence and occasionally other records regarding what <a href='/search?keyword=George%20Airy'>George Airy</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136564.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] described [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(5);return false;'>2</a>] in 1858 as 'General Astronomy', 'Pure Mathematics' and 'Miscellaneous Science'. These subjects mostly lay beyond the scope of longitude alone. At the beginning of the 1740s, Parliament began to create laws that widened the remit of the Board of Longitude. The Board could grant financial and logistical help and rewards for subjects broader than contributions to finding the longitude at sea. The bulk of the history and activities of the institutional 'Board of Longitude' took place after dealings with the clockmaker <a href='/search?keyword=John%20Harrison'>John Harrison</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136321.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] concluded in the early 1770s. This was despite Harrison and the longitude having defined the institution in the modern popular consciousness. Topics include innovations intended to improve navigation, advancements in the myriad 'scientific' subjects in which the Board later became involved, and observations made on journeys of science and exploration by men associated with and assisted by the body.</p> <p>The correspondents who appear in this volume encompass many astronomically and scientifically oriented luminaries including <a href='/search?keyword=Friedrich%20Bessel'>Friedrich Bessel</a> (see portrait [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='https://www.kulturarv.dk/kid/VisVaerk.do?vaerkId=105056'>link</a>] at Art Index Denmark), <a href='/search?keyword=John%20Herschel'>John Herschel</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/146006.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] , <a href='/search?keyword=Herbert%20Hall%20Turner'>Herbert Hall Turner</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=James%20South'>James South</a> (see portrait [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw05917/Sir-James-South'>link</a>] at National Portrait Gallery), <a href='/search?keyword=Edward%20Sabine'>Edward Sabine</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107845.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] , <a href='/search?keyword=Francis%20Baily'>Francis Baily</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136488.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] , <a href='/search?keyword=Abraham%20Robertson'>Abraham Robertson</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=J%C3%B3zef%20Maria%20Hoene-Wronski'>Józef Maria Hoene-Wronski</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=Ferdinand%20von%20Sommer'>Ferdinand von Sommer</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=Christian%20Carl%20Louis'>Christian Carl Louis</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=Bryan%20Higgins'>Bryan Higgins</a>) and other Board collaborators such as <a href='/search?keyword=John%20Bradley'>John Bradley</a>, the nephew of <a href='/search?keyword=James%20Bradley'>James Bradley</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/203215.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and connections such as <a href='/search?keyword=Joseph%20Garnett'>Joseph Garnett</a>, a former assistant to the Astronomer Royal <a href='/search?keyword=Nevil%20Maskelyne'>Nevil Maskelyne</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/379043.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] . There is also the typical smattering of current and former seamen (for example <a href='/search?keyword=Commander%20Walter%20Forman'>Commander Walter Forman</a> and the Royal Navigators <a href='/search?keyword=Thomas%20Kerigan'>Thomas Kerigan</a> and <a href='/search?keyword=Lewis%20Fitzmaurice'>Lewis Fitzmaurice</a>), authors (such as <a href='/search?keyword=William%20Bigland'>William Bigland</a>), educators (<a href='/search?keyword=John%20Tulloch'>John Tulloch</a> and <a href='/search?keyword=Richard%20Bainbridge'>Richard Bainbridge</a>), glass and instrument makers (such as <a href='/search?keyword=Pi%C3%A9rre%20Louis%20Guinand'>Piérre Louis Guinand</a>), and others. They hailed from not only <a href='/search?keyword=London'>London</a> and provincial Britain but also from <a href='/search?keyword=Prussia'>Prussia</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=France'>France</a>, <a href='/search?keyword=Denmark'>Denmark</a>, the <a href='/search?keyword=Austrian%20Empire'>Austrian Empire</a>, the <a href='/search?keyword=German%20Confederation'>German Confederation</a>, the <a href='/search?keyword=Old%20Swiss%20Confederacy'>Old Swiss Confederacy</a>, and Napoleonic <a href='/search?keyword=Italy'>Italy</a> and <a href='/search?keyword=Spain'>Spain</a>.</p> <p>Sometimes these individuals had not actually sent their letters to the Board (whether directly or through an intermediary) but instead to other individuals and institutions (such as the <a href='/search?keyword=Admiralty'>Admiralty</a>, the Astronomer Royal or even the <a href='/search?keyword=Lord%20High%20Admiral'>Lord High Admiral</a>), who ended up turning them over to the Commissioners. For example, in 1827-1828, <a href='/search?keyword=William%20M.%20Higgins'>William M. Higgins</a> contacted [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(144);return false;'>80</a>] the Lord High Admiral and was then passed on to the Board. Higgins used the purported approval of the monarch and of members of the nobiity and gentry to argue that the Commissioners should encourage his improvements to the hygrometer and other instruments and planned book on those innovations and on astronomy. Some letters also involve personal dealings between the correspondent and the Secretary or members of the post-1828 incarnations of the Board, which were essentially unrelated to the Board's activities. For example, <a href='/search?keyword=Ferdinand%20von%20Sommer'>Ferdinand von Sommer</a> of <a href='/search?keyword=Germany'>Germany</a> asked [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(370);return false;'>183</a>] <a href='/search?keyword=Edward%20Sabine'>Edward Sabine</a>, by then one of the three Scientific Advisers to the Admiralty, to put one of his mathematical papers before the <a href='/search?keyword=Royal%20Society'>Royal Society</a> in 1830 - two years after the abolition, or perhaps more rightly transformation, of the Board of Longitude. Some sections of this volume also contain other types of records than correspondence with, for example, section 21 [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(498);return false;'>250</a>] containing computations and committee and Board records related to a table of perpetual logarithms. Section 23 [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(544);return false;'>270</a>] contains clock, thermometer and compass readings from a voyage of 1795.</p> <p>These letters and records encompass subjects including the astronomical (Transit of Venus observations, double star observations, astronomical publications, an ephemeris of Venus, a calculation of twilight, a table for observing the right ascension of stars), instrument usage and improvement (timekeepers, a hygrometer, a dip sector, an artificial horizon, an instrument for solving trigonometrical problems, magnetic variation, the production of glass for optical instruments), mathematics (a method to replace the use of logarithms, a table of perpetual logarithms, the solution of equations of the fifth degree, calendrical calcuations), general navigation (an improved method of keeping a sea journal, nautical astronomy and calculations), optics (refraction, publications on optics), and natural history (the properties of air and heat). The papers are mostly arranged by individual correspondent, but section 10 [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(162);return false;'>88</a>] contains 'Miscellaneous papers' by different authors including some who appear in other sections as well, and has its own separate index.</p> <p>Many of the episodes described herein are illuminating. For example, John Bradley's correspondence [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>5</a>] with the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne in 1769 about his observations at the <a href='/search?keyword=Lizard%20peninsula%20in%20Cornwall'>Lizard peninsula in Cornwall</a> of the Transit of Venus of that year and of other celestial phenomena (mainly in the hope of settling the latitude and longitude of the hazardous coast), reflects the difficulties of transporting, jerry-rigging and using instruments in challenging and changing environmental conditions - something which was often left out of resulting reports and publications. Friedrich Bessel thanked [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(53);return false;'>28</a>] the Board Secretary <a href='/search?keyword=Thomas%20Young'>Thomas Young</a> (see portrait [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait.php?mkey=mw41673'>link</a>] at National Portrait Gallery), the renowned instrument maker <a href='/search?keyword=Edward%20Troughton'>Edward Troughton</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/203200.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] , and the Commissioner Abraham Robertson for assistance with producing and subscribing out his publication Fundamenta Astronomae of 1818, including by supplying the observations of the late Astronomer Royal James Bradley. James was the uncle of the John Bradley here mentioned, and for decades the Board and the Royal Society had fought to obtain his Greenwich papers from his family after his death in 1762. (There is also a note [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(63);return false;'>32</a>] to see Thomas Young's vouchers for another letter written by Bessel on 26 May 1818 regarding the publication of his book, and a description and advertisement [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(65);return false;'>33</a>] which was published in The Philosophical Magazine in 1816 in order to draw subscribers.) In 1822, the astronomer John Herschel wrote [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(122);return false;'>67</a>] to the Board that he hoped that the Commissioners would defray the costs that he and James South had been put to in building a temporary observatory over the Sisson equatorial on the roof of the Royal Society building in London in order to observe double stars as part of his revolutionary cataloguing of binary and multiple systems and their movements - and later that he considered a thermometer and barometer built for his use the property of the Board. (Young told Herschel and South, the latter of whom he was conflicting with over the direction of the Board, that the Commissioners would only pay for the new building if the resulting observations were put at their disposal.)</p> <p>As with the materials in RGO 14 as a whole, these records are weighted towards the final decades of the existence of the Commissioners of the Longitude because of factors including the selective survival and interpretation of records, and in this case particularly because of the increased institutionalization and expansion of activities of the Commissioners from the 1760s on. In part, the Board expanded its interests because of its close ties with related institutions (including the Royal Society, the Admiralty and the trading companies), because of the interests and ongoing activities of key Commissioners (including the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne and the President of the Royal Society, <a href='/search?keyword=Joseph%20Banks'>Joseph Banks</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107455.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] ), and because of the perceived maritime and 'scientific' authority offered by its members. The activities to which it contributed included, for example: judging and sea-testing new methods of, and technologies for, improving general navigation; the improvement of instrument making at large, as with <a href='/search?keyword=John%20Bird'>John Bird</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127570.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] 's method of precision dividing instruments and the Glass Committee's efforts to improve the glass for optical instruments; scientific efforts and observations, from pendulum experiments to international observations of astronomical events like the Transit of Venus; the planning and carrying out of journeys of science and exploration like those of <a href='/search?keyword=Captain%20James%20Cook'>Captain James Cook</a> [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107028.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='NMM icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] , which encompassed multiple types of activities; and even the establishment of observatories like that at the Cape of Good Hope. The Board often compiled and issued publications related to these activities and voyages as well.</p> <p>Additional information about the subjects mentioned in this volume can often be found in other locations in the archives, including in the different volumes of minutes and accounts. There are also entire voyage journals, log books and sets of observations preserved in volumes [<a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00056/1'>RGO 14/56</a>] to [<a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00067/1'>RGO 14/67</a>], correspondence on observations in [<a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00068/1'>RGO 14/68</a>], and so-called 'irrational' astronomical theories in [<a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00053/1'>RGO 14/53</a>].</p> <p>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /> </p>


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