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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence regarding miscellaneous schemes and inventions

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'> RGO 14/44 and <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00045'> (RGO 14/45)</a> are the last volumes of incoming Correspondence to the Board. They contain forty-six different authors between them. The schemes mentioned seem to have fallen by the wayside. Many would have fitted into other volumes, particularly the irrational schemes, yet 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>] filed them together under 'miscellaneous' when he organised and bound the papers of the Board of Longitude. This suggests that at some point Airy's work on the Board's papers became less thorough; perhaps he ran out of time or simply grew weary of sorting the Board's large collection of letters. Organised alphabetically, the correspondence ranges in date from 1784 to 1828. This is towards the end of the Board's existence. Its focus at this stage had been opened up to schemes for improving navigation and related experiments more generally rather than a focused search for longitude schemes. The forty-six separate sections each contain the correspondence of a different individual, several of whom sent more than one scheme or invention to be considered.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Lieutenant John Couch serves as an example of an individual who sent several schemes to the Board, between 1818 and 1823, Thomas Young (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at the National Portrait Gallery) received several different inventions. Some <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letters (RGO 14/44:83)</a> regard corrections to the Nautical Almanac and warning the Admiralty of the dangers of the fraudulent figures found therein, another <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter concerns a design for a kite for communicating between ships in a storm and a proposal to replace hay for cattle on board ships with dried parsnips and carrots to avoid fires and sodden hay (RGO 14/44:85)</a>. At the top of a 1819<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/44:87)</a> from Couch regarding a new plan for buoys in the surf at Madras is a pencil annotation by Young that states, 'To be informed that preventions are carried out and not in general to be considered as proper objects for the deliberation of the Board'. Another scheme of 1819 has a rather stunning <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> illustration of a man on a 'calitsa' (RGO 14/44:90)</a> that was designed by Couch. The relative absence of diagrams in comparison to other correspondence volumes is important to note; yet one scheme in this volume is heavily illustrated. The correspondence of Major General Grant, Viscount de Vaux, who wrote to the Board regarding his scheme for longitude involved measuring the distance that the ship has travelled at sea by placing instruments in the water behind the moving ship. The same scheme seems to have been presented several times with few or only minor adjustments; firstly in 1806 with a very <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> extensive description (RGO 14/44:121)</a> of the technique and instrument as well as <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> illustrations (RGO 14/44:135)</a> showing how the instrument connects to the ship and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(307);return false;'> how it sits in the water behind the boat (RGO 14/44:149)</a>. The proposals also include a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> celestial map (RGO 14/44:157)</a>, coloured and folded up into the volume. Another handwritten version of the scheme from 1806 is included and there is also a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> smaller booklet volume (RGO 14/44:160)</a> that again has <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> illustrations showing the instrument connecting to the boat (RGO 14/44:167)</a> and a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> movable model version of the dial found on the instrument inside the ship (RGO 14/44:173)</a> consisting of two pieces of paper attached by string.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Another potential reason this volume has been labelled 'miscellaneous' by Airy could be a result of some of this material being not with the original papers at the time he came to organise it, as there are a large quantity of letters that have rather confused addresses. For example a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/44:8)</a> from Mr John Beale is directed to 'Mr Gilpin, Somerset House, the residency of the RS', as well as to 'The Honourable Commissioners of the Board of Longitude' and finally also to 'The Admiralty at Greenwich'. Some of the letters in this volume might therefore have come into Airy's possession after other volumes of correspondence had been organised. In his letter, Mr John Beale declares to have already constructed a machine; 'the effect of this instrument is to measure the exact length of time from the departure of the ship to her arrival in any part of the world, and to work without springs or weights'. This highlights another common theme in this volume; there are several letters where the authors state that their machine or instrument has already been constructed. For example John Brent declares that he has made a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> machine that goes by itself' (RGO 14/44:20)</a> and another <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> self-acting machine (RGO 14/44:222)</a> was sent to the Board in May 1822 by a Mr Linton.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>For most of the letters in this volume we only have the original incoming letters which were presumably ignored by the successive secretaries, yet kept as a matter of public record. Another common occurrence in this volume are those authors who only sent their pamphlets to the Board; for example <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> 'A plan for a mercurial time keeper intended for the better discovery of the longitude at sea' (RGO 14/44:36)</a> dated Jan 10th 1812 by William Chavasse, Lieutenant, 6th Regt, Madras Native Infantry. Chavasse thought he could replace the chronometer.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Over all this is a rather eclectic collection of remainders, several letters found in this volume would have obvious homes in other more thematic volumes, yet the correspondence in this volume is interesting with regard to the new role of the Board had after the broadening of its remit to included all discoveries in navigation at the start of the nineteenth century.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Sophie Waring<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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