National Maritime Museum Manuscripts : Navigational workbook: paper on the nature and origin of the Aurora Borealis

National Maritime Museum Manuscripts

<p>This workbook is a collection of theories that attempt to explain the nature and origins of the Aurora Borealis; a phenomena observed by <a href='/search?keyword=George%20Fisher'>George Fisher</a> on his second trip to the Arctic on board the <a href='/search?keyword=HMS%20Fury'> <i>HMS Fury</i> </a> with <a href='/search?keyword=William%20Parry'>William Parry</a> in his 1821 Arctic voyage. The notebook contains a discussion of the presence of ice in open waters, and of atmospheric conditions and electrical phenomena as causes for the Aurora Borealis. A variety of schemes in the workbook are the work of a different theorists and have the testimony of multiple observers listed underneath each scheme. The notebook contains a rather comprehensive list of contemporary theories [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(4);return false;'>1-6</a>] regarding the Aurora Borealis and is systematically organised, dedicating several pages to each proposition; there are however many blank pages [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(12);return false;'>9</a>] separating the writing suggesting perhaps that the project did not progress as far as Fisher would have liked, stifled perhaps, by a lack of time, information or resources. The propositions are mostly concerned with the climate, ice present in the atmosphere and the Arctic waters as well as electrical activity. Each proposed explanation for the Aurora Borealis is stated at the top of a new page and the proofs offered in its defence listed neatly underneath. The proofs often consist of George Fisher’s own observations [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(10);return false;'>7</a>] as well as those of other officers and men of science that have witnessed the Aurora Borealis during voyages to the Arctic. One of the most quoted [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(50);return false;'>47</a>] voyage accounts is <a href='/search?keyword=Fredrick%20William%20Beechey'>Fredrick William Beechey</a>’s exploration of the Bering Straits whilst in command of <a href='/search?keyword=HMS%20Blossom'> <i>HMS Blossom</i> </a>, an account of which he published, <i>Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Bering Straits to Co-operate with the Polar Expeditions, 1825-1828</i>, in 1831.</p> <p>This workbook also contains copied out snippets of information regarding the Aurora Borealis for a wide range of sources. The scrapbook like contents consist of extracts from correspondence, for example a letter [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>6</a>] sent to <a href='/search?keyword=Edward%20Sabine'>Edward Sabine</a> from <a href='/search?keyword=Professor%20A%20Erman'>Professor A Erman</a> dated the 12th of November 1839, which has been published in the ‘report of the committee of physics and meteorology’ detailing observations made by Sabine whilst in the Arctic with Captain John Ross in 1818. Also included are notes from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, meetings of the Athanum, eye witness accounts from other voyages, the Nautical Magazine [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(56);return false;'>53</a>] and the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(57);return false;'>54</a>]. Newspaper reports of sighting in the United Kingdom are also recorded, for example from the Nottinghamshire Guardian in 1847 [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(71);return false;'>68</a>]. Also of interest in this volume is a copy of observations of the Aurora Borealis [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(64);return false;'>61</a>] taken by the <a href='/search?keyword=Reverend%20Joseph%20Bancroft%20Reade'>Reverend Joseph Bancroft Reade</a> on the 30th of October 1847, whilst serving as vicar in Stone, near Aylesbury where he had established a school and an astronomical observatory.</p> <p>Despite the copious notes, the volume does not contain any particular conclusions or seem to favour any of the listed proposals accounting for the origin and nature of the Aurora Borealis suggesting that this work was unfinished. Fisher was convinced of the generally popular theory that the Aurora was an electrical phenomenon caused by a sudden change in the temperature in the Arctic. The opening pages of the notebook [<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(2);return false;'>cover (inside)</a>] detail a ‘general proposal’ for the written account of Fisher’s research read to the Royal Society in 1834, but it remained unpublished in the <i>Philosophical Transactions</i> owning to the paper having so ‘few facts’.</p> <p>Sophie Waring<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /> </p>


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