Papers of the Board of Longitude : Confirmed minutes of the Board of Longitude, 1780-1801

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Minutes of the meetings of the Board of Longitude covering the period 1780 to 1801. These minutes help to give a sense of the diversity of issues covered during such meetings. A single session could see discussion moving from the cost of publishing the Nautical Almanac to the logistics of trialling timekeepers, to the payments due to astronomers' widows. Most meetings also record the reading of letters sent to the Board proposing solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. The original copies of many of these letters, such as Heinrich Schultze's proposal for an improved octant <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00034'>[RGO 14/34:10]</a>, can be found in the correspondence volumes.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>One particularly common topic of discussion is that of printing and publication. The Board took a very active role in this respect, even agonising over the title page of their publication of Captain Cook [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107028.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]'s first voyage. In one meeting of 15th August 1789 the Astronomer Royal goes as far as to convince the Board that the Nautical Almanac should be printed on 'sufficiently fine' <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(287);return false;'>[2:141]</a> letter paper. Other reports further emphasise just how much the quality of printing mattered to the Board. High-quality printing helped to convey status, but it was also important for ensuring the durability of publications at sea. In fact, in 1787 the Board received a letter from Lieutenant Dawes of HMS Sirius [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/106266.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] complaining that his astronomical tables had been damaged by salt water.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The storage of publications also proved a recurring issue for the Board. In 1780 they resolved to increase the print run of the Nautical Almanac to 1250 copies for the coming year. The Board then considered the pros and cons of acquiring a warehouse for storing the increased volume of publications. They eventually decided to give the bookseller Peter Elmsly of the Strand wholesale rights to the Board's works on condition that he provided a warehouse. However, by 1787 the Board discovered that the house in which some of these publications had been stored was due to be repossessed. Fearing for 'the safety of the printed and unprinted papers' <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(253);return false;'>[2:107]</a> the Commissioners resolved to move the materials to their own private warehouse.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>The management of astronomical instruments owned by the Board raised similar logistical challenges. In early 1781 the Board faced a major storage problem. They had been keeping a number of instruments in the cupola of the Chapel of Greenwich Hospital [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/106328.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. This had recently burnt down and they needed a new secure storage location. Connections to other learned societies proved key, with Joseph Banks [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107455.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] organising for the instruments <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(181);return false;'>[2:35]</a> to be kept in a warehouse owned by the Royal Society.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>These local logistical challenges certainly occupied a great deal of the Board's time. But the Board's remit also extended globally. They regularly lent timekeepers, sextants, compasses and copies of astronomical tables to navigators and astronomers travelling around the world aboard Royal Navy vessels. In order to keep track of all these items, the Board initiated a receipt system. The minute books record the issuing of these receipts alongside the loan of instruments including an achromatic telescope to Admiral Campbell for his voyage to St John's, Newfoundland and a transit instrument to Lieutenant Dawes at Port Jackson, New South Wales. Getting these instruments back was not always easy. In 1792 the Board wrote to the Governor of Sydney, New South Wales in order to arrange the return of instruments <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(330);return false;'>[2:184]</a> loaned to the captain of the HMS Sirius. They also recorded receiving a letter <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(307);return false;'>[2:161]</a> in 1790 from William Bligh [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107428.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], the commander of the infamous HMS Bounty [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/149152.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], reporting that the timekeeper he had been lent by the Board had been stolen by the mutineers aboard his ship. It was another 18 years before it could be recovered from the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean.</p> <p style='text-align: justify;'>James Poskett<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /> </p>


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