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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Papers regarding the invention and improvement of various astronomical and nautical instruments

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume and volume <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00030'> (RGO 14/30)</a> contain correspondence with and supporting evidence from British and foreign projectors who asked the Board of Longitude for rewards for their new or improved nautical and astronomical instruments and aids such as marine chairs, or for assistance with the development and trialling of these inventions. In 1858, the Astronomer Royal 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>] sorted these materials into different sections according to correspondent - 22 in this volume and 34 in volume RGO 14/30. As with the materials in RGO 14 as a whole, these communications are weighted towards the final decades of the existence of the Commissioners of the Longitude because of factors including the selective survival and interpretation of records, and the increased institutionalization of the Commissioners from the 1760s on. They also do not encompass all of projectors who tried to contact the Board during the period covered, since some relevant records did not survive to this point, and some projectors were turned away by individual contacts or were met with silence rather than having achieved a bureaucratic response.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Technology like that discussed in these two volumes was vital to all of the activities to which the Board contributed, from the search for the longitude and the improvement of general navigation, to experiments and voyages of science and exploration. In terms of the longitude, all of the main approaches deemed contenders for the rewards established in 1714 required the usage of instruments and typically of accompanying texts. For example, the lunar-distance method relied upon astronomical instruments such as the quadrant for making observations, and on instructive and predictive texts to guide and accelerate the observation taking and ensuing calculations. Magnetic variation of course required compasses as well as magnetic charts and publications. For decades after the death of John Harrison [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], chronometers still needed to be used in conjunction with astronomical instruments as well. This was understood by all informed actors during the lifetime of the Commissioners, so the modern perception of there having been an unbridgeable gap between the thoughts and activities of astronomers and 'professors' like 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>] and of 'mechanics' like John Harrison is inaccurate.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>One thing that the papers in this volume and in RGO 14/30 reveal is domestic and foreign projectors' methods of approaching the Board and of trying to establish their credibility and that of their inventions, including through images and printed advertisements and explanations, trial results, patents obtained, and testimonials from individuals such as navigators, astronomers and scientific instrument makers. These records also shed further light on the ways in which the Commissioners and the different Secretaries judged and interacted with these individuals, with the body's output during its final decades likely seeming more bureaucratic and organised to modern eyes than that from the earlier years. One can further see trends develop in response to changing scientific and navigational trends and interests (hence the later preponderance of compass proposals for example), and the increased mention of patents and usage of printed memorials and descriptions and of drawn or printed images.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The projectors included in this volume are relatively diverse, as was typical of petitioners to the Board. They include the provincial and occasionally the foreign as well as those based in London and encompass clock and instrument makers, mathematicians, mariners, a seal engraver, a grocer, an Admiralty Surveyor, gentlemen, and inveterate projectors. There is also an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> interesting representative (RGO 14/29:153)</a> of the British Empire in the form of Samuel Busby, a long-time collector of tax on the pilgrims who went to 'Juggernaut(h)' in the province of 'Cuttack' in India to worship Jagannath, who communicated about his 'compass to shew the time of Longitude' from 1811 to 1812. The projectors did not always contact the Board of Longitude directly but instead sometimes asked an individual or institutional go-between to transmit their communications, or in fact only intended to contact another organisation such as the Admiralty which later decided to pass the matter on to the Board. This sometimes occurred after the Admiralty had first conducted its own consultations and experiments. Some of these correspondents were successful in the sense of having obtained rewards or grants for research and development (most comparatively small) -- or additional work with the Commissioners, testing and improving other technologies or contributing to the Board's 'scientific' efforts -- while other projectors were ultimately turned away or rejected outright. Their inventions mainly included timekeepers, compasses, artificial horizons, and quadrants and sextants.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Additional materials relevant to some of these projectors can be found in other volumes as well, including other correspondence and of course in the minutes and accounts. An example is C. Somay of France, who <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> appears (RGO 14/29:19)</a> in this volume in 1782 and 1785 discussing his variation compass, original instruments called the 'heliope' (which Nevil Maskelyne called a quadrant) and the 'Meridiameter', and improved method of dividing instruments. Communications from Somay about the compass also appear in <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00043'> (RGO 14/43)</a>. Note as well that the correspondence here from <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/29:226</a> of Edinburgh in 1817 appears to only reference the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> artificial horizon (RGO 14/29:255)</a> invented by Gavin White of Kinross -- as well as Bain's own thoughts on magnetic variation, about which he published 'An Essay on the Variation of the Compass' the same year -- rather than referencing his own technological innovations.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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