Papers of the Board of Longitude : Account of John Harrison and his chronometer

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This bound, hand-written manuscript represents one of the most interesting and complex sources in the history of the Board of Longitude. Dated 1817, it is a later copy of a manuscript composed in the 1760s by supporters of John Harrison [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107002.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], the clockmaker. An <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(206);return false;'>annotation</a> on this copy states that '[JM] Atkinson wrote the full contents of this book in twelve days.' Three copies of the manuscript survive, two in private collections, all of which are in different hands. One includes marked up corrections by William Harrison.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The authorship of this manuscript, known colloquially as 'the <i>Harrison Journal</i>' is uncertain. It is an account from John Harrison's perspective of his interactions with the Board of Longitude in the 1760s, from the <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00003/27'>Board meeting</a> on 12 March 1761, when the first trial of H4 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.nmm.ac.uk/collections/objects/79142.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] to Jamaica was agreed, to the 23 May 1766, when Nevil Maskelyne [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/379043.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] collected H1 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.nmm.ac.uk/collections/objects/79139.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], H2 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.nmm.ac.uk/collections/objects/79140.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and H3 [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.nmm.ac.uk/collections/objects/79141.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] from Harrison's house in Red Lion Square and moved them to the Royal Observatory. The account is in the third person, but is Harrison's tale, and dwells at length over his grievances with the Commissioners. It has often been mistakenly taken to be authored by William Frodsham [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14172.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and Walter Williams, as these names appear at the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(206);return false;'>end of the text</a>, but these men merely signed the certificate for Harrison which closes the <i>Journal</i>. The presence of annotations by William Harrison on one of the other copies shows that authorship was at least overseen by the Harrisons, but comparison with one published text known to be written by John Harrison himself - <i>A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or true mensuration of time</i> published in 1775 - makes it very clear that this <i>Journal</i> was written by a clearer mind with an eye to public sympathy. The most likely candidate is James Short [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections.html#!csearch;authority=agent-20071;makerReference=agent-20071'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], the instrument maker, who was a close associate of the Harrisons, and is <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(64);return false;'>mentioned as such</a> at one point in the <i>Journal</i> </p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The <i>Journal</i> compares interestingly with the emergence of novels in this period, as it marshals a range of epistolary and administrative sources to tell the story of Harrison's interaction with the Board of Longitude. It reproduces items from the <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00003'>minutes</a> and <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00001'>Acts</a>, which also appear in volumes in the Board of Longitude archives, but it also adds highly personal commentary on the decisions made therein. It is interesting to see how much of their interaction was conducted by letter, with the Harrisons often only attending at meetings for a few minutes. The <i>Journal</i> also makes clear how far Harrison felt he had been 'hard done to' by the Commissioners, and shows us details of discussions - often arguments - that are glossed over in the minutes. Thus, we see <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(99);return false;'>discussions</a> over the accuracy of instruments sent on the trials, with interesting comparisons between models made by John Bird [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127570.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and James Short. Discussions were also lengthy over how Harrison should disclose his time-keeper in both verbal and printed form, and over what exactly he needed to do to win the 'great reward.' Much of this revolved around controversy over the meaning of the words 'experimental exhibitions' insisted on by the Commissioners, but never understood by Harrison. He constantly complained that the subsequent acts had been achieved by the Commissioners merely to '<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(145);return false;'>lay [him] under new restrictions, which were not thought of in the Act of the 12th of Queen Anne</a>.' There are interesting overlaps with the Barrington Papers in many of these discussions, as another independent commentary on their interactions.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Interesting also, are the personal animosity he felt towards, and was convinced was felt towards him by, a number of the Commissioners, notably Nevil Maskelyne (Astronomer Royal), Lord Morton (President of the Royal Society), and James Bradley [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127545.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] (a previous Astronomer Royal). Harrison claimed that these three, in particular, had their own vested interests in other methods for finding longitude, especially the lunar distance method, and therefore purposely obstructed his chances. He therefore opined that, '<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(90);return false;'>the affair of Longitude was now become nothing but Parties, nor did he know who was engaged in it or in what Scheme</a>.' Harrison's sense of grievance and exasperation would lead to him memorably storming out of one meeting, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(155);return false;'>exclaiming</a> 'that so long as he had a drop of English Blood in his Body he would not comply with their Resolutions without they would explain them.' This led directly to the Board resolving to publish their side of the story in 1765 as Minutes of the Proceedings of the Commissioners. This <i>Journal</i> was almost certainly the intended publication by Harrison in response to that. It <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(206);return false;'>ends with the account</a> of the obviously painful experience for Harrison, when Maskelyne arrived to remove the remaining three time-keepers to Greenwich, and one was damaged in the process.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>Katy Barett<br /> History and Philosophy of Science<br /> University of Cambridge</p>


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