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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-00014-00039'> (RGO 14/39)</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 in which the Commissioners came to be seen by applicants as a general focus for scientific inventions. Some of these were to do with navigation but others were purely mathematical. Indeed, one correspondent, Joseph Shee, enquired of the Board whether perpetual motion came within the remit of their responsibilities. Captain Hurd's reply, as secretary, was that it did not. Clearly this did not stop the many other contributors whose schemes make up the entire of <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00054'> Volume 54 (RGO 14/54)</a>. The titling of the volume as containing 'impracticable schemes' combined with the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(301);return false;'> title pages (RGO 14/40:430r)</a> describing schemes as 'wild' shows how such schemes were viewed by the nineteenth-century organisers of the Board of Longitude archive. Contemporary notes on the back of letters show that the Commissioners were generally in accord. 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>] noted on some that <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(409);return false;'> 'This letter does not deserve the attention of the Board of Longitude' (RGO 14/40:482r)</a>. Likewise, the secretary William Wales commented <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(299);return false;'> 'This method is not deserving of the Board's attention' (RGO 14/40:428r)</a>. However, proposers in this volume also feature in 'sensible' proposals in others. Notable here is the 'Solometer' proposed by William Lester in 1820-1. This volume includes an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(126);return false;'> illustration and discussion (RGO 14/40:345r)</a> of Lester's invention. Much of the related correspondence is now in <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00012/5'> RGO 14/12 (RGO 14/12:297r)</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The attitude of all the proposers, on the other hand, might be summed up by a statement in a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(89);return false;'> letter (RGO 14/40:328r)</a> from Richard Judson in 1805, that 'here are several ways of finding the Longitude some of them certainly will be right.' This volume includes the usual range of proposals from observation and new invented instruments, including diagrams and tables of calculation. Notably proposals from both William Lester and Charles Moody show that they also sent model instruments to the Board. What is particularly interesting in this volume, is the different levels of knowledge which correspondents show regarding the terms of the longitude acts. William Ross <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(275);return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/40:416r)</a> in 1806 that he had seen the terms reproduced in the <i>Nautical Almanac</i> , hopefully proposing that, like all mathematical teachers, he could find the difference of longitude on the globe, and that this seemed to be for what the act asked. By contrast, Joseph Shee's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(335);return false;'> correspondence (RGO 14/40:446r)</a> shows that he thought he would become a Commissioner of Longitude when the Board approved of his proposal, and Alexander Winter<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> had heard (RGO 14/40:496)</a> that the reward on offer was one million pounds. A similarly interesting contrast is visible in how proposers address the Board. A number show diffidence in addressing unsolicited letters to gentlemen with whom they are not acquainted, while de Sanctis presumed on a social acquaintance with Thomas Young (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at National Portrait Gallery) and William Hyde Wollaston [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] to send a number of discussions and even some <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(307);return false;'> Latin odes (RGO 14/40:433r)</a> addressed to them as 'the Scientific Protectors of the British Navigation, as Castor and Pollux were of the old Ships of Greece and Rome.'</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Katy Barrett<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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