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Longitude Essays

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John Pond

John Pond was appointed Astronomer Royal on the 13th of April 1811 following the death of Nevil Maskelyne. Pond is potentially one of the more controversial figures found in the Board of Longitude archive and associated papers; praised for his skill in astronomical observation, Pond was simultaneously publically berated for errors and inconsistencies in the Nautical Almanac and Greenwich Observations . His neglect of the Nautical Almanac, along with his own admission that he was not vigilant enough as an editor, resulted in the superintendency of the publication being handed to Thomas Young in 1818 at the same time he became secretary for the Board of Longitude. Evidence for his true passion being for astronomy rather than administration can be found in the papers of the Board of Longitude when Pond writes [RGO 14/48:27] in an unknown year that he could not attend a committee meeting because the weather was too suited to testing out the new mural circle by Thomas Jones whose scale divisions Pond deemed to be 'perfect'. Additionally his only contribution to Board of Longitude meetings, according to the minutes [RGO 14/8], during the 1820s was to reports on chronometer trials being conducted at Greenwich.

Evidence of Pond’s neglect of administrative matters is further present in the archive. In a letter [RGO 14/13:13r] from 1817, Stephen Lee, secretary to the Royal Society, wrote to Thomas Hurd, then secretary to the Board of Longitude, listing the items that had been removed from their shared warehouse at the request of the John Pond, and stating his anxiety that he had received no receipt for this from Pond. More significantly the choice of superintendent of the Nautical Almanac after the death of Young was debated in correspondence [RGO 14/22:103] between John Barrow and Edward Sabine when Barrow expressed concern over Pond’s suitability for the task and askes for Sabine’s help in the periodic examination of the accounts of the Nautical Almanac produced by Pond. The Nautical Almanac did pass back to Pond as Astronomer Royal in 1829; this was a piece of political manoeuvring to keep the Nautical Almanac close to the Admiralty Board and The Royal Society, perhaps even at the cost of Pond regaining the editorship. Further evidence of Pond’s administrative failings exist in his correspondence, for example, Peter Burt [RGO 14/31:190] asked for Pond to return his papers when Burt was preparing to send a petition to the House of Commons in 1817 regarding his dissatisfaction with the Commissioners' decisions about his buoy and nipper, the design of which was ultimately used by the Admiralty. Burt later reported [RGO 14/31:191] that he had not received some of his correspondence back and had also mistakenly been given someone else's papers.

John Pond is most present in the papers [RGO 5/229] regarding the allocation of chronometers to ships and coordinating their transportation and maintenance between Greenwich and various ports. These volumes remind us of the generally unreliable functioning of chronometers and the particular difficulty of transporting them over land. For example, Pond was particularly worried about the problem of transporting a chronometer by John Arnold over such a distance as Greenwich to Plymouth, where it would arrive at a place without a space for making adjustments or regulating a chronometer before going onto the ship. In Barrow’s reply [RGO 5/229:15] we find that Captain Hurd had arranged for an agent of Arnold’s, based in Plymouth with a good regulator, to care for the instrument upon arrival. In these volumes we see the bureaucracy behind the careful maintenance of this network of chronometers moving across the globe and we see a different aspect of Pond, a more able administrator coping with the complex movement of instruments on and off of ships, to and from makers, and around the world.

Pond symbolises a contradiction; regarded by several contemporaries as having great observational skill yet lacking all administrative ability, to the cost of his reputation as an astronomer. Pond’s legacy, or lack of one, should serve as a reminder that to be successful in the elite scientific circles of the Regency period, you had to have a talent for bureaucracy as well as precision measurement.

Sophie Waring
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge