Papers of the Board of Longitude : Papers on nautical travel

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume contains correspondence and printed texts and images related to proposed methodological and technological innovations for increasing the speed and safety of sea travel in general. The papers in this volume date from the final decades of 1790 to 1828. The Board of Longitude's remit began to expand to include more than just the search for the longitude early in its institutional history. The first known communal meeting of the Commissioners of Longitude took place on 30 June 1737. They awarded £500 of funding to the clockmaker 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>]. At the second known meeting, on 16 January 1742, the Commissioners did the same again. They also gave William Whiston (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portraits</a> at the National Portrait Gallery) £500 to assist in mapping the coasts of the Kingdom with his new astronomical and magnetic instruments. A Parliamentary Act had recently been passed to specify that the Commissioners could allocate funding for such purposes as well.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The expansion of the Board's interests to other areas of navigation, which only gathered pace as the decades passed, was a result of the understanding amongst informed actors that there were more challenges to the speed and safety of sea voyages than just a poor knowledge of the longitude -- such as poor maps and charts and insufficient other means of estimating or keeping speed and location -- but also of the individual interests and of the perceived intellectual authority of the Commissioners.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The later 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>] labelled this volume 'Sounding Machines and Ships Logs &c'. Sounding machines were attempts to improve upon the traditional 'lead and line' or lead-line [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] for estimating water depth and the nature of the seabed by lowering a line, often with regular length demarcations, which ended in a lead tipped with tallow to bring up seafloor samples. The ship's 'log' was often the timekeeper, traditionally a sandglass, employed in making the observations and estimates for the ship's logbook. The logbook was a vital and long-held element of navigation, which became increasingly detailed and regularised over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It recorded systemic observations and estimations of conditions which could help the navigator keep track of the vessel's position and trajectory, and institutions at home from trading companies to the Hydrographic Office to try to build up an accurate picture of the globe's oceans and trading routes. The recorded conditions could include wind, weather, currents, geographical landmarks and sketches, temperature and pressure, magnetic declination, and later chronometric readings - contributing to estimates of position, direction and distanced traveled. A number of examples of ship's logs kept by expedition astronomers, navigators and captains including James Cook [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] can be seen in the RGO 14 archives. For example, the log books of the HMS Adventure [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=vessel-274833;vesselReference=vessel-274833'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and Resolution [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] which took part in Cook's expedition of 1772-1775 are <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00056'> (RGO 14/56)</a> and <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00058'> (RGO 14/58)</a>, while the parallel Observations books are <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00057'> (RGO 14/57)</a> and <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00059'> (RGO 14/59)</a>. Other proposed innovations in this volume in addition to logs and sounding machines include: machines for measuring currents and the ship's course; a buoy and knipper to keep sounding lines vertical in the water; a chronometer; a machine to solve spherical triangles (for navigational calculations); and a new method of 'dead reckoning' (trying to track the ship's position mathematically or on a chart from a known starting point by regularly estimating the vessel's time, speed and heading).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The correspondents in this volume include a colonial merchant and FRS (David Riz), an Army officer (Edward Fergusson), a provincial clockmaker (Edward Massey), a London mathematical instrument maker (Peter Burt), a Dublin Esquire who had previously patented a lock (Thomas Ruxton), a London chemist and inventor (Henry Constantine Jennings), Royal Navigators (Edward Fairfax and Captain Bingham), a glue manufacturer of Hull (Robert Raines Baines), an Irish instrument maker (James Bamber), a French instrument maker (Etienne Le Guin), a Romantic novelist from Ireland (Francis Higginson), and a lecturer in practical mathematics and military sciences from Prussia (Johann Emanuel Vetter). As was typical of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century projectors, these individuals often built their cases upon a combination of trial results, testimonials, diagrams, publications including advertisements, patents and models. Common themes, amongst others, in the history of the Commissioners of the Longitude which appear in the letters in this volume include disagreements over the Commissioners' decisions and actions and attempts to retrieve materials submitted to them. (Projectors had periodically been voicing such dissatisfactions ever since the Act of 1714 - even during the years in which no institutionalised Board of Longitude existed and the Astronomer Royal was the main longitude contact and authority.)</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>For example, the aforementioned Henry Constantine Jennings <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> berated (RGO 14/31:216)</a> the Commissioners at length for not giving him the additional attention and encouragement he thought he was due in 1818. Jennings was generally abrasive in his dealings with the Board and the Admiralty but still sold some designs for instruments including compasses to the latter. Peter Burt <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> asked (RGO 14/31:190)</a> for the Astronomer Royal and Commissioner John Pond to return his papers when Burt was preparing to send a petition to the House of Commons in 1817 due to his own dissatisfaction with the Commissioners' decisions about his buoy and knipper - the design of which was ultimately used by the Admiralty, as were similar designs by other projectors including Massey. Burt later <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> reported (RGO 14/31:191)</a> that he had not received some of his correspondence back and had also mistakenly been given someone else's papers.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>As with the materials in RGO 14 as a whole, these records 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. It should also be remembered that when Airy later tried to sort the surviving Board of Longitude paper by general subject in 1858, he could only do so approximately. This was in part because interpersonal correspondence often covered more than one subject, and in part because projectors who dealt with the Board could appear in varied sources including correspondence, minutes and accounts. Therefore additional information about the actors, technologies and events found in this volume can often be found in some of the other volumes.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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