Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence regarding geodesy, pendulum experiments and the longitude of Madeira

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume contains papers relating to pendulum research. The Board of Longitude was involved in a range of pendulum research in early part of the nineteenth century. The collection is eclectic. It ranges from <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> results produced (RGO 14/49:4)</a> in Thomas Browne's basement to the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> publication of Captain Edward Sabine's experiments (RGO 14/49:12)</a> after his global travels from 1821 to 1823. Other topics include the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> determination of the distance between Dover and Calais (RGO 14/49:195)</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This collection is organised by papers relating to the research of various individuals, the work of Henry Kater (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait.php?search=ap&npgno=2165&eDate=&lDate='>sketch</a> at the National Portrait Gallery), Edward Sabine, Henry Foster [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections.html#!csearch;authority=agent-178044;makerReference=agent-178044'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and Fearon Fallows each have their own sections whilst the endeavours and correspondence between George Airy [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13981.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], Captain Basil Hall [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/103367.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and William Whewell [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/136542.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] is collected together. This organisation reminds us of the individualistic nature of the pendulum work in this period. Had the papers been arranged chronologically it would have told of a more holistic attitude towards pendulum research by the Board, a larger research programme consisting of the joint efforts of various men. Yet Airy thought that the most effective way to organise this work was by individuals, thus suggesting the absence of a larger research programme and instead a series of specific sponsorships for the research ambitions of individuals deemed to be significant or worthy by the Board. Furthermore the results that were produced show a variation in experimental technique and mathematical reduction that varies according to who is conducting the experiment, suggesting that the Board was taking a less active part in this research when compared to the instructions sent out with voyages of discovery or surveying vessels; no such instructions existed for pendulum research.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Of particular interest are the letters regarding the publication of Edward Sabine's experiments for determining the figure of the earth; Thomas Young (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/thomas-young-17731829-216072'>portrait</a> at BBC Your Paintings)is in communication with the Admiralty Board and the Duke of Wellington regarding who should pay for the publication. These letters highlight the confusion that often existed in the funding of these projects; Sabine has no idea that he should consider himself in the employment of the Board and simply sends his results direct to John Barrow [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/107724.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] and the Duke of Wellington [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/158529.html'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. The letters imply that the Board had not been clear about Sabine's employment and Fitzroy Somerset (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw05195/Fitzroy-James-Henry-Somerset-1st-Baron-Raglan?LinkID=mp03694&search=sas&sText=Fitzroy+Somerset&role=sit&No=1'>portrait</a> in the National Portrait Gallery), on behalf of the Duke of Wellington, tells Young that if he considers Sabine to be in his employment he should pay the man and fund the publication of his work. Young simply regrets the delay in his obtaining Sabine's results as they have been held at the Admiralty. Here we gain insight into the nature of employment with the Board and the Admiralty; without formal contracts we see a strange bureaucratic confusion between those providing the instruments, paying for the voyage and publishing the results. The institutions themselves negotiate this on a case by case basis, leaving the men of science or officers involved with little idea who was commissioning them.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>There are is also an interesting collection of papers that tell us of Thomas Williams' communication with the Board regarding “A new, interesting and most Important Discovery, respecting the Diameters and Circumference of this Globe.” There are both <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> handwritten letters (RGO 14/49:212)</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> results booklets (RGO 14/49:219)</a> sent directly to the commissioners as well a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> printed pamphlet from 1786 (RGO 14/49:235)</a>. There is no sign of any communication from the Board to Thomas Williams, yet here are his papers perfectly preserved. Why these were kept and not others is a question that often arises when considering the papers of the Board of Longitude. Yet for now we can only speculate that at least one of the Commissioners decided that the scheme had some merit; perhaps the link Williams makes between the shape of the globe and an effectual method for standard weights and measures, and that therefore the papers were worth retaining.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Sophie Waring<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>


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