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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Petitions and memorials

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume, along with <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00011'> (RGO 14/11)</a>, brings together a set of memorials, petitions and letters sent to the Board over the course of 46 years, between 1782 and 1828. While the two volumes are arranged simply alphabetically by applicant's surname (as arranged under the direction of George Airy [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] in the 1850s), this volume has nonetheless a subtly different flavour to the previous one.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>What is striking is not only the range of requests to which applicants thought the Commissioners would respond, but also the persistence of applicants, and the length of time over which some continued to apply to the Board. Many such petitions asked the Board for money in one form or another. A number asked for financial assistance based on previous work for the Board, such as George Margetts [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=agent-103786;makerReference=agent-103786'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], a watchmaker who <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(55);return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/12:322r)</a> stating that he had provided the Board with timekeepers and since lost money in trade in the East Indies, or the wife and sons of Charles Mason who <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(99);return false;'> referred to (RGO 14/12:346r)</a> his work on lunar tables in the 1790s. One son even <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(117);return false;'> asked (RGO 14/12:355r)</a> for the Board's help in paying a passage to America. Similarly, William Turnbull [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(325);return false;'> asked (RGO 14/12:458r)</a> for a position, and James Stoat<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(249);return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/12:429r)</a> asking for help in getting a teaching job in Australia in return for performing observations there. Even a French prisoner of war [William] Violaine<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(347);return false;'> offered (RGO 14/12:472r)</a> his proposal in return for being moved from the prison ship. Many such applicants had worked as comparers or computers of the Nautical Almanac and seem to have had some kind of understanding with its superintendent, the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. One application by Benjamin Workman, who had worked as a computer for Maskelyne, included a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(387);return false;'> printed poster (RGO 14/12:494r)</a> advertising his skills as a teacher. Some applicants like Margaret Mackay, widow of a computer, sent polite and very apologetic <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(61);return false;'> requests (RGO 14/12:326r)</a> for assistance; others, like William North, sounded increasingly desperate. North's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(191);return false;'> last letter (RGO 14/12:396r)</a> stated that he had almost no food or clothing.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>One <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(153);return false;'> set of correspondence (RGO 14/12:376r)</a> with Edward Naylor gives useful insight into many of the other letters. Naylor wrote to Thomas Young (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portraits</a> at the National Portrait Gallery), the Secretary of the Board, complaining that his scheme had been rejected but his papers had not been returned to him. Young had informed him that he might ask for the papers as a 'favour' but that the Board usually kept proposals in order to defend themselves against complaint. Many letters certainly include persistent, and lengthy complaints at the Board's lack of interest in a proposed scheme, or ask for unsuccessful proposals to be returned. Charles Mason's son, for instance, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(111);return false;'> asked for (RGO 14/12:352r)</a> the return of his father's lunar tables in order to sell them. Two particularly persistent applicants were William Lester (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at the Science Museum Group) and Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at the National Museum in Krakow). Lester sent Young <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(5);return false;'> eleven letters (RGO 14/12:297r)</a> over March and April 1821, explaining different parts of his proposal. He specifically compared his 'Solometer' to the marine chair proposed by Christopher Irwin, which he had been involved in trialling in 1763. These letters clearly ignored replies by Young saying the Board was not interested (<a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00040/111'> more correspondence (RGO 14/40:340r)</a> regarding the Solometer also features under 'Impracticable Schemes' in another volume of the archives). Wronski also applied to the Board in 1820-1821 with a whole new mathematical system to solve longitude. His <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(391);return false;'> letters (RGO 14/12:497r)</a> took a particularly accusatory tone. With these is a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(399);return false;'> letter (RGO 14/12:501r)</a> from Joseph Banks [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] (presumably to Young) including an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(403);return false;'> anonymous note (RGO 14/12:502r)</a> sent to him calling Wronski 'an artful dangerous character.' This seems to explain the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> cheque (RGO 14/12:501a)</a> to Wronski which also remains in the volume. Wronski also <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(471);return false;'> petitioned (RGO 14/12:536r)</a>George IV suggesting that the Board rejected him in order to reserve the glory of discovering longitude to the British, and he published a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(529);return false;'> printed sheet (RGO 14/12:565r)</a> criticising the Board, which certainly seems to back up the anonymous accusation of his 'talking unintelligibly.'</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Other applicants corresponded with the Board for over twenty years, such as William Mitchel, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(131);return false;'> regarding (RGO 14/12:364r)</a> his quadrant, and Joseph Emanuel Pellizer, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(197);return false;'> about (RGO 14/12:400r)</a> his lunar theory. Pellitzer even <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(201);return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/12:401r)</a> justifying that his proposal had been forwarded by the Admiralty and that he was therefore not contravening the Board's order ten years earlier never to contact them further.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Katy Barrett<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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