skip to content

Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence on astronomical and nautical tables

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>A range of correspondence from the later part of the Board's existence, starting in 1784 and continuing until its dissolution in 1828. The broader remit of the Board, from the 1790s onwards, opened it up to receive correspondence regarding all aspects of navigational science. This volume helps to remind us that the problem of longitude at sea was far from fully solved and at the end of 1820s and astronomical and nautical tables still occupied much of the Board's time. The tables presented to the Board in this period are sent in either for potential inclusion in the Nautical Almanac or for finding the longitude at sea independently. An example of the latter is George Holden's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> 'Easy method of finding longitude' (RGO 14/46:13)</a> which was sent to the Board at the encouragement of 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>]. Holden, headmaster of the free grammar school at Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Yorkshire sent his extensive scheme to Sir Harold Parker, Secretary to the Board in April of 1790 containing his <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> 'Easy and Expeditious Method of Finding the Longitude' (RGO 14/46:14)</a> which has a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> handwritten preface (RGO 14/46:15)</a>, an <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> introduction (RGO 14/46:16)</a> and then <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> eight tables (RGO 14/46:18)</a> for various observational corrections and logarithms.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Sir Harold Parker's habit of putting notes onto the corners of the back of correspondence appears again in this volume. We can see on the reverse of Monsieur De La Loude's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/46:36)</a> of October 1790, enquiring if the Board would like to purchase his tables, Parker's <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(70);return false;'> corner note (RGO 14/46:36v)</a> which declares that this correspondence created a rather awkward situation that "the Board in England did not think that proper to encourage". Corner notes also appear on several <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letters (RGO 14/46:40)</a>, the first dated December 1790, in Parker's exchange with George Margetts [<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 famous Cheapside clockmaker. The correspondence included a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> printed pamphlet (RGO 14/46:58)</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> hand written tables (RGO 14/46:62)</a> and finishes with last dated <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/46:59)</a> sent on March 1st 1794. The corner notes by Parker help to build a picture of outgoing correspondence that is lost; these along with, one outgoing <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter from the Admiralty (RGO 14/46:46)</a> authored by Philip Stephens, first secretary to the Admiralty and the incoming letters together sketch a narrative that saw Margetts tables being trialled on voyages to India and the relation of these tables to several timepieces.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Also found in this volume are significant correspondence collections from key personalities in the Board's London and European circles, for example there is a large quantity from material from the Spanish astronomer and mathematician Josef de Mendoza y RÌos. This includes his letter regarding <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> 'tables for the easy reduction of correspondence' (RGO 14/46:66)</a> dated June 1796 which Mendoza sent to then Secretary of the Board William Wales, whilst the two hundred and sixty pages of tables went straight to Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Mendoza enquires of Wales as to whether the Board thinks they're useful as he will pay to have them published himself and claims no reward from the Board if they do. From a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/46:69)</a> dated May 3rd 1802 we can see that Mendoza has spent time reducing the number of pages necessary for the volume, by simplifying and excluding certain sets of tables, after criticism from the Board. This provides an insightful example of someone who could have published his tables independently but needed the correction and guidance of the Board in order to make them useful for sailors lacking their astronomical and mathematical gifts. This collection of tables, as edited by the Board, was eventually produced in 1814 and a copy of 'Forms for the ready calculation of the longitude... with the Tables published by Joseph de Mendoza RÌos. London, Black, Parry, & Co' was sent the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty, from the publishers with a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> covering note (RGO 14/46:85)</a> declaring that Mendoza's tables were in general use in His Majesty's Navy [<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 the East India Company [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;searchTerm=AAA0970_'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>].</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Also found in this volume is William Lax's correspondence, from the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> first letter (RGO 14/46:124)</a> in 1812 to the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> last in this collection (RGO 14/46:153)</a> sent on June 25th 1822. The letters are concerned with the contents of the Nautical Almanac and the publication of Lax's own tables. William Lax was elected to the Board in 1818 and continued as a member until the Board was dissolved in 1828. The Board published a set of tables by Lax for use with the Nautical Almanac for finding latitude and longitude in 1821 and were described in 1832 by The Nautical Magazine as a "very meritorious attempt to solve the problems of nautical astronomy by one uniform system." The Board awarded Lax about a thousand pounds for his tables, which were intended to replace Nevil Maskelyne's Requisite Tables. This, along with the award given to Edward Sabine [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], is potentially one of the only two rewards given to Commissioners of Longitude.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This correspondence helps to remind us that the Board of Longitude transforms from offering a specific reward for a method determining longitude at sea, to instead working with individuals that propose a series of different ideas concerned with a variety of projects. There is not a specific reward offered by the Board in the nineteenth century apart from awards for degrees west in the search for the North West Passage. It is in this period that the Board makes one of its most significant changes; going from reward judges to funding council perhaps. Several letters in this volume are from people attempting to extract money from the Board by claiming that their tables are useful or essential to navigation, for example the 1827<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/46:190)</a> from Thomas Lynn regarding his 'star tables' for 1822 and 1823. The Board consistently responded with the idea that the private profit of producing something useful to navigation is a reward in itself, something Lynn denied to be the case in his <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/46:192)</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Sophie Waring<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , and information about sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: