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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence regarding impracticable schemes for establishing longitude

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume and its partner <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00040'> (RGO 14/40)</a> give an idea of the breadth and variety of correspondence received by the Board of Longitude from the 1780s. Both volumes show the way that applicants came to see the Commissioners as a general focus for scientific invention. Sometimes this related to navigation but sometimes it was more purely mathematical. In 1783, Walter Bedford thus described the Board as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(35);return false;'> 'the Grand National Tribunal for such difficult and obstruse undertakings' (RGO 14/39:17r)</a>. Yet there is the interesting case of Henry Cragg's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(115);return false;'> communications (RGO 14/39:53r)</a> between 1818 and 1828. He first submitted these to the Society of Arts, seemingly expecting that these would be forwarded to the Board of Longitude. Most proposals in this volume suggest either new instruments or observational methods. John Horner's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(488);return false;'> 'Gospel System' (RGO 14/39:223r)</a> is a notable example. A number of proposals feature instruments using the sun's shadow as a clock to measure longitude, including those by Henry Cragg and James Fosbury.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>We see the sheer commitment and effort put into some of these proposals by the correspondents. A number include beautiful paper versions of the proposed instruments, including proposals <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(83);return false;'> from (RGO 14/39:39r)</a>Edward Chase and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(443);return false;'> from (RGO 14/39:203r)</a>Arthur Hodge. Others feature extensive and detailed tables of calculations, Hodge being again the notable <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(355);return false;'> example (RGO 14/39:164r)</a>. These manuscript proposals equal the level of detail that featured in the proposals published in the first half of the century when the Board of Longitude was not an active institution. It is interesting that all of these proposals date from after 1775 when 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>] was awarded most of the 'great reward' and yet all refer to the longitude problem as yet to be solved. Only L. Adams appeared to be aware of Harrison's work. William Evans did <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(261);return false;'> comment (RGO 14/39:121r)</a> in 1794-5 that he had heard the Board would only accept proposals that used a timepiece.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume also tells us about the reception of such proposals, both by the Commissioners and by the researchers who organised the Board of Longitude archives in the 1850s. Notes on the back of many proposals show the exasperation of the Commissioners at receiving so many impracticable schemes. The then 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>], <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(38);return false;'> wrote on the back (RGO 14/39:18v)</a> of Walter Bedford's proposal that, 'This paper does not appear to me to deserve the attention of the Board of Longitude'. The secretary Thomas Hurd [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=agent-178430;makerReference=agent-178430'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(341);return false;'> wrote similarly (RGO 14/39:158r)</a> on a sheet which is now bound in with proposals from Arthur, 'Received 30 May from God knows who,' and replied to Hodge himself <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(371);return false;'> stating that (RGO 14/39:172r)</a> the Board wished to be shown how his proposals were relevant to the discovery of longitude before they would consider them further. The 1850s researchers were less diplomatic, separating these proposals out from other contemporary correspondence to the Board and branding them 'Impracticable Schemes.' The title pages to each section similarly feature titles such as John Bradley's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(53);return false;'> 'absurd letters about finding the 'londdetude' (RGO 14/39:27r)</a>, and Henry Croaker's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(167);return false;'> 'wild proposals chiefly resulting from dreams' (RGO 14/39:74r)</a>. It may not be clear to the modern reader in what manner some of these schemes differ so greatly from the 'sensible' proposals elsewhere, indeed contributors like Walter Bedford and Arthur Hodge also appear in other volumes.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Katy Barrett<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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