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Longitude Essays

Board of Longitude > Longitude Essays

Thomas Young

Thomas Young (1773 -1828) is a man well remembered by history, but the Thomas Young that is present in the Board of Longitude archives is a facet of him that is less well recorded. Young made contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, Egyptology and assisted in an early stage with the first translation of hieroglyphics from the Rosetta Stone. Young originally trained as a medical doctor and held a practice at 48 Welbeck Street from 1799, then in 1801 Young was appointed a professor of natural history at the Royal Institution. Young delivered over ninety lectures in the period he was at the Royal Institution, retiring in 1803 due to concerns that the commitment was interfering with his medical practice. In 1811 Young moved to St George's Hospital, and in 1816 he was secretary of a commission charged with ascertaining the precise length of the seconds pendulum in the hope of producing a standard yard. Finally in 1818 he became Secretary to the Board of Longitude and Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac which is where his story in these archives begins.

Due to the increase in bureaucracy generally and the consolidation of a more formal Board of Longitude through the ambition of individuals as well as several Acts of Parliament the archives that we have are heavily weighted towards the nineteenth-century end of the Board. As a result of Young’s positions, the Secretary of the Board and the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, he saturates the Board of Longitude and associated papers. Thomas Young organised and kept the incoming correspondence to the Board after he was made secretary; from the Admiralty to men proposing schemes for perpetual motion, it was all kept and ordered. Young also, as far as we know, saw it as part of his duty to respond to most of the incoming correspondence and there are several examples of copies he made of outgoing letters. The sheer volume of correspondence resulted in Young sending out a mass of rejections for proposals, becoming the public face of the Board and therefore being scrutinised for the board’s actions. For example Captain Heywood, in an undated letter [RGO 14/11:240], criticised at length ‘the cold room he was shown into, the time he waited there, the Omission … of the common civil offer of a Chair to a Stranger … [and] the cold indifference of Doctor Young.’ A letter [RGO 14/38:415] to Mr F Parkinson, sent on the 5th of June 1823, is a typical example of Young's rejection style. The letter states that ‘the Nautical instrument described in it (Parkinson’s letter) appeared to the Board to be of a nature which is not required in the present state of nautical astronomy and navigation.’

What is also notable about Young’s presence in the archive is the range of schemes and request the Commissioners would consider and respond to, many of the official minutes of the Board have lists of rejected schemes included in their minutes. Some of the rejected applicants were persistent and their interaction with the Board would continue for some time. One particular set of correspondence [RGO 14/12:376r] with Edward Naylor gives useful insight into the treatment of letters by the Commissioners. Naylor wrote to Thomas Young complaining that after his scheme had been rejected his papers had not been returned to him. Young responded stating that the Board usually kept proposals in order to defend themselves against complaint. Increasingly aware of the funding for the Board and its activities being from a public source, in a period of financial retrenchment following war with France, Young was constantly on the defensive attempting to be transparent and fair in his dealing with applicants.

There are signs of drastic increases in efficiency in the running of the affairs of the Board in their minute books and organised incoming and outgoing correspondence, which is partially the result of the reorganisation of the Board by the 1818 Act. But more significantly, the new found efficiency can be attributed to Young’s organisational skills, evidence by the papers of the Board that show Young opening an account [RGO 14/19:153r] with Coutts in his name on behalf of the Board. All the Board’s finances from this point onwards pass through this account and the drafts and vouchers of Board are consistently signed off by Young [RGO 14/18:487r]. The largest expense of the Board was the cost of computation and publication of the Nautical Almanac. Young also inventoried the papers and books belonging to the Board and organised them into packets [RGO 14/13:400r] for storage in their warehouse.

In his capacity of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac we see Young dealing with both the requests of the other Commissioners regarding the content of the Nautical Almanac and with those employed to perform its computation. Various letters [RGO 14/20] demonstrate the compassion with which Young dealt with the computers. For example in 1823, a Captain Lynn wrote requesting the Board's assistance paying for the burial of a deceased computer, Mr. Marshall and Margaret Mackay continued to receive yearly support thanks to her deceased husband's computing work. Young retained all correspondence regarding improvement, reform and errata in the Nautical Almanac in RGO 14/22 [RGO 14/22], regardless of whether or not the suggestion was ignored or implemented. The attacks on his editorial choices for the publication by Francis Baily [RGO 14/22:95a] and James South [RGO 14/22:13] are also kept here.

Another aspect of Young’s duty as Secretary was to deal with the collection and co-ordination of incoming volumes and observations from voyages of discovery sent out by the Admiralty, this job was often shared with John Barrow as reports were often sent to both men or exchanged between them. For example Edward Sabine’s pendulum research was sent straight to Barrow, but then passed over to Young and finally published by the Board of Longitude with the exchange of letters co-ordinating this held in RGO 14/49 [RGO 14/49]. Another example are the interviews [RGO 14/7:2:321] conducted by Young of William Edward Parry and several other members of his crew, regarding their furthest destination west in pursuit of the Northwest Passage and the rewards offered for such an achievement.

When the Board of Longitude was finally dissolved in 1828 Young was the first member appointed of a new committee replacing the Board to advise the Admiralty on matters of scientific interest. The letter [RGO 14/1:240r] that informs Young, Sabine and Michael Faraday that they have been elected to this committee is kept with the Acts of Parliament in the Board’s archive. Young also stayed on as Superintendent of Nautical Almanac and until his early death at the age of 56 in 1829, after which the Nautical Almanac was handed back to the Astronomer Royal, John Pond.

Sophie Waring
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge