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Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks was the dominant figure in British science between his election as President of the Royal Society in 1778 and his death in summer 1820. His Presidency gave him a seat on the Board of Longitude, on which he consistently exerted major influence. Educated at Eton and Oxford between 1756 and 1763, Banks became a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner and travelling naturalist. He sailed to Newfoundland in 1766 and, after becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, joined the expedition led by James Cook to the South Pacific in 1768-1771. His South Seas collections and reports made his London reputation. He withdrew from Cook's second Pacific voyage [RMG icon] in 1772, a project in which the Board of Longitude took an active interest, after fights Admiralty [link] about the layout of the ship. Banks soon assumed control of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and, in 1778, became the Royal Society's President. From then on he combined a dictatorial attitude to the scientific community with energetic engagement with the British government as expert advisor on a range of colonial and economic schemes. Amongst other portraits of Banks, the National Maritime Museum holds a drawing [RMG icon] of 1819 and a marble bust [RMG icon] of 1814 presented to Royal Greenwich Hospital.

Banks was a regular presence at the Board of Longitude, at least for the first twenty-five years of his membership. Of the 75 meetings between late 1778 and late 1803, he missed only 8. Board meetings often took place at his house in Soho Square. The Minutes [RGO 14/2:300] and Accounts of the Board show Banks' leadership of a series of significant schemes. In 1779 he proposed a reward [RGO 14/5:352-4] of £1000 for the discovery of improvements in manufacturing flint glass for telescopes and sextants and in 1788 led an inquiry into the glass trade [RGO 14/6: 123-4] and a campaign for tax relief on glassmakers. He helped manage the Board's campaign [RGO 14/4:247] to recover the invaluable astronomical records of the Greenwich astronomer James Bradley. He also exploited the relations between the Royal Society and the Board. He arranged for the Board's instruments to be stored in a Royal Society warehouse [RGO 14/6:35] and for the Society's librarian to be well paid [RGO 14/19] for this service. Banks would brief delegates [Mm.6.48:36] sent out by the Board, avidly followed their progress [Mm.6.48:196r], and got the Board to lend its instruments to favoured clients, such as the astronomer William Herschel [RGO 14/6:2:74], the Bounty commander William Bligh [RGO 14/6:2:117], or the French expedition into the Pacific led by La Pérouse [RGO 14/6:2:87]. The Board's correspondence reveals Banks' use of widespread patronage for such figures as the Philadelphia surveyor John Churchman [RGO 14/42:118v] or the Massachusetts captain Matthew Groves, who in 1803 sought Banks' support [RGO 14/36:33] for a new astronomical quadrant. Banks also used the Board to destroy the reputation of longitude claimants, such as the eccentric Polish philosopher and astronomer [RGO 14/12:501r] Józef Maria Hoene-Wronski.

The most important of Banks' colleagues on the Board was the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne's correspondence [REG09/000037:5:56] shows how the two men often solely managed the Board's affairs [RGO 4/187:30:1r]. But their relations were never easy. In 1784 Maskelyne joined an attempt [MKY/8:4:3] by some Royal Society fellows, many of them mathematicians, to oust Banks as President. Both had firm and often differing views about clockmakers and their timepieces' virtues. In 1772, Banks purchased for £100 [link] a watch for his prospective Pacific voyage from the clockmaker John Arnold. In 1779, the East India Company's hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple reported that Banks had decisively approved the use of the term 'chronometer' for sea-clocks. Banks also opposed parliamentary awards of cash to the Plymouth clockmaker Thomas Mudge. In 1793 Banks printed a pamphlet and lobbied the government [link] arguing that by over-ruling the Board's rejection of Mudge's claims parliament had effectively made the Board redundant. Banks' friend Arnold appeared as a witness against Mudge. These conflicts reached their zenith in 1803-4 when Banks mounted a fierce campaign [link] on Arnold's behalf against the Board's decision, which had been led by Maskelyne, to Thomas Earnshaw [link] . Maskelyne's papers and the Board's archives contain many records of the dispute, including trials of Earnshaw's chronometer [RGO 4/153] at Greenwich as well as responses by many London clockmakers and instrument makers ( [RGO 14/26] and [RGO 14/27]), several such as Edward Troughton recruited by Banks, to the claims of Arnold and of Earnshaw published in 1805. From 1806 Banks' attendance at the Board was less frequent and his dissatisfaction with its conduct more evident. In 1811, on Maskelyne's death, he persuaded the government to make his colleague John Pond Astronomer Royal. In 1818 he successfully engineered legislation that put six Royal Society fellows on the Board, with his ally Thomas Young appointed secretary in place of the Admiralty hydrographer Thomas Hurd [RGO 14/55:86r]. Banks last attended the Board on 5 June 1820, a fortnight before his death.

Simon Schaffer
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge