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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Observations and correspondence

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Twenty three sections of letters and astronomical observations, some arising from activities at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and most from communications with observatories around the world, some of which the Board of Longitude had helped to establish and to outfit. (In 1858, 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>] sorted these papers into one volume which he simply <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> entitled 'Observatories' (RGO 14/48:3)</a>.) These include the Cape Observatory, the Parramatta Observatory and the Port Jackson Observatory in New South Wales (later Australia). These documents mostly hail from the later decades of the Board's existence, in part because the extant archives as a whole are skewed towards the later years, and in part because many of these institutions were not founded until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Contributing to or overseeing establishment and operation of such institutions far from the British mainland were part of the growing trend of the institutional Board of Longitude and the Astronomers Royal, in particular 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>] until his death in 1811, increasingly working with the Navy and the Royal Society to define and maintain 'scientific' and technological standards at a distance.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The initial papers in the volume appear related to Greenwich, including: <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> manuscript comparisons (RGO 14/48:4)</a> of astronomical observations made with the values predicted in the Nautical Almanac and in the Connaissance de Temps for the early 1820s (author and origins not noted); <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> printed comparisons (RGO 14/48:10)</a> of astronomical observations including of the right ascensions of the Sun and stars made at Greenwich with the predictions in the <i>Nautical Almanac</i> and other publications for the period 1816 to 1826 (author and origins not noted); the bookseller <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> 's offer (RGO 14/48:17)</a> on 28 January 1825 to sell his remaining stock of 130 copies of the late Maskelyne's observations to the Board for a reduced rate of ₤300 (instead of the normal ₤6 per copy) on the assumption that they could more easily disperse the volumes; Peter Mark Roget [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], the Secretary of the Royal Society and later of <i>Roget's Thesaurus</i> fame, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> writing (RGO 14/48:21)</a> on 2 February 1828 on behalf of the Society's President and Council to urge that the Board oversee and publish the reduction of past and current observations made at Greenwich; the famed German mathematician and astronomer Friedrich Bessel<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> writing on (RGO 14/48:24)</a> in German about strictures on the Greenwich observations and other matters; and the Astronomer Royal John Pond<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> writing (RGO 14/48:27)</a> in an unknown year that he could not make it to a committee meeting because the weather was too suited to testing out the new mural circle by Thomas Jones (whose scale divisions he deemed 'perfect').</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The remaining sets of documents in the volume relate to new British observatories overseas. There is a most interesting <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> set of letters (RGO 14/48:32)</a> related to the negotiations and equipment purchases related to the establishment of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope (the first European scientific institution in Africa) in 1820 and its ensuing fitting out and activities until 1828, as well as a copy of a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> petition (RGO 14/48:43)</a> submitted to the King in support of the initial establishment of the observatory. Then follows correspondence with and bills and receipts mainly from the craftsmen and tradesmen involved in fitting out the observatory -- including the well-known London optician <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/48:80</a>, the esteemed London instrument maker RGO 14/48:192 Edward Troughton [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], the German immigrant tool and lathe makers <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> and (RGO 14/48:175)</a> in London, and the aforementioned <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> Thomas Jones (RGO 14/48:179)</a> of London -- which provide a most illuminating record of the steps and missteps often involved in commissioning and obtaining instruments and astronomical texts and tables, and in transporting such resources to distant lands.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The letters from <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/48:93</a>, the astronomer at the Cape Observatory, also provide many details of his struggles to obtain a site for the institution, to build and outfit it, and then to maintain and update it. Fallows also writes of his astronomical activities and thoughts, such as a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> catalogue of the principal fixed stars (RGO 14/48:119)</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> observations of summer solstices (RGO 14/48:137)</a>. In addition, many of these letters reveal the types and identities of agents who assisted with transporting equipment, information and correspondence around the world from England. There is furthrmore <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> correspondence about a (RGO 14/48:202)</a> which could be purchased from Glasgow University for the Cape, and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> correspondence (RGO 14/48:207)</a> arising from the meeting of a Board Committee on 20 April 1820 about the materials and instruments and books which would be needed for the Cape.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>At the very end of this volume, there is some correspondence about the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> observatory at Parramatta (RGO 14/48:217)</a> in New South Wales -- constructed privately by Governor Thomas Brisbane and the first observatory in what would become Australia -- and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> more about the reductions (RGO 14/48:233)</a> of the observations which Stephen Groombridge had made. There is also a lengthy <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> set of correspondence (RGO 14/48:238)</a> from the astronomer and colonial administrator Willam Dawes about the observatory at Port Jackson in the same colony, where Sydney is now located. This includes descriptions of his efforts to erect and maintain a permanent observatory, including <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> sketches (RGO 14/48:281)</a>. The <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> final item (RGO 14/48:310)</a> in this volume is the copy of a letter, submitted to the Board's consideration in 1828, from the astronomer Sir James South (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at National portrait Gallery) to the President and Council of the Royal Society regarding the comparative state of astronomical observations in England and on the Continent, with a reply from the President of the Royal Society Davies Gilbert [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. South, who had received funding along with William Herschel [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] from the Board for their work on double and multiple stars, desired better instruments for this endeavour which afterward might be used in the Southern Hemisphere or elsewhere (at the same time alluding to the impending abolition of the Board).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>For more about these observatories, see: David Aubin et al (eds.), <i>The heavens on earth: observatories and astronomy in nineteenth-century science and culture</i>, (Durham, North Carolina, 2010).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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