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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence and papers regarding irrational astronomical theories

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume contains letters, papers and drawings labelled as 'Irrational Astronomical Theories'. 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>]<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> labelled (RGO 14/53:2)</a> this volume as such in 1858. However, this is not a tidy categorisation. Such terminology would not necessarily have been applied to all of these and similar documents in earlier decades. There are plenty of documents of questionable logic that appear in other RGO volumes. Some of the documents that appear 'irrational' to modern eyes did not necessarily seem far-fetched to many Georgian thinkers. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>At least one of the schemes in this volume is religious in nature. It was not that uncommon for religious authors and correspondents to contact the Board of Longitude and similar institutional and individual actors, mostly using the 'search for the longitude' as a springboard for expressing their apocalyptic and anti-Catholic warnings or for laying out their religious conceptions of the Universe. Religious thought and theorization was much more closely intertwined with Georgian observations and research than is true in modern science -- it would have been more unusual for actors to have <i>not</i> been at all influenced by religion -- and at least some of these highly religiously motivated correspondents are known to have received hearings of their ideas or to have had followers.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Of course, some religiously-minded longitude projectors were also criticised by their contemporaries. The Board <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> received (RGO 14/53:3)</a> a copy of the printed tract The Astronomy and Geography of the Created World in 1786, from an anonymous author who had previously published religious pamphlets. Three years previously, a reviewer had said of the author's previous publications, in volume 56 of <i>The critical review, or annals of literature</i>, that: 'As the intentions of this writer are pious, his faculties evidently disordered, and his lucubrations absolutely unintelligible, these three pamphlets must be exempted from criticism.' The author of these publications appears to have been Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at the National Portrait Gallery), a sister of the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=agent-161700;makerReference=agent-161700'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>], who began anonymously publishing religious pamphlets via a printer in Oxford after her ne'er-do-well husband abandoned the family. She represents a very rare female longitude projector, with the other being the far better-known Jane Squire, who was also driven by religious feeling and perhaps somewhat by financial need. Johnson <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(92);return false;'> concluded (RGO 14/53:44v)</a> her pamphlet with confidence: 'And now I shall take the liberty to say, that if the palm for finding the longitude, is not given to the author of the Explanation of the Vision to Ezekiel, it will never be given to another.'</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Another fascinating longitude projector who appears in this volume is Lazarus Cohen, a prominent member of the Jewish community of Exeter who <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/53:46)</a> in 1825 about his proposal to publish by subscription a book on the true workings of the tides and winds in accordance with Newtonian laws. Cohen operated a shoe and patten warehouse from 1796 until he died in 1834, invented agricultural implements and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> published about astronomy (RGO 14/53:301)</a> but also about the evils of Jewish 'conversionists'. It is rare to encounter a longitude actor who is known to have been Jewish, with Israel Lyons possibly being another exception.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>An unusually high proportion of the correspondents in this volume were foreign, which may or may not say something about some underlying prejudice on Airy's part towards foreigners (and a domestic Jew and woman). These projectors included Francois-Marie Fyot was a French inventor and mathematician who had taken part in a royal expedition to study the longitude problem in 1771. He invented a marine chair and corresponded with luminaries including Benjamin Franklin. In 1785, he <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> sent (RGO 14/53:52)</a> the Board a copy of his publication, Précis sur les Longitudes Résolues. Fyot <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> said (RGO 14/53:53)</a> that 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>] had asked him to send it after they met and discussed it. He also wrote that he had just had the honour of placing one of his printed memorials in the hand of the King [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>]. However, the inventor later <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> said (RGO 14/53:79)</a> that the Earth does not turn around the Sun as well, and that the Astronomer Royal supposedly agreed with this.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr. Huet M.D. was also a native French speaker who <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/53:85)</a> about his conception of the universe and the forces at work therein beginning in 1798. In 1800, he bluntly <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> accused (RGO 14/53:115)</a> the Commissioners of not having really read his last treatise and of having cared more about the postage costs he had inadvertently forced them to pay, and he <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(236);return false;'> appears (RGO 14/53:115v)</a> to have threatened to complain of them to the government and 'company' unless they explained their objections to his work. His <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> core idea (RGO 14/53:117)</a> seems to have involved ether-like substances filling the space around all of the planets and suns in the Universe.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Joseph Emanuel Pellizer of Spain appears in different RGO volumes including <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> this (RGO 14/53:125)</a> one. He wrote to the Board for more than two decades, here about the correction of time and his new system of the universe, and in <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00012/'> RGO 14/12 (RGO 14/12:400)</a> about his lunar theory. At one point, Pellizer even <a href='/view/MS-RGO-00014-00012/'> claimed (RGO 14/12:401)</a> that because his proposal had been forwarded by the Admiralty, he was not contravening the Board's order ten years earlier to never contact them again. There is also a printed pamphlet herein about the projector's<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> legal case (RGO 14/53:135)</a> against the Spanish Consul Manuel de las Heras over money - which further reveals that the Spanish ambassador in London had berated him for dishonouring their countrymen with his publications.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>In 1827, one Jose Victorino dos Santos e Sousa also <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/53:148)</a> from Rio de Janeiro about his new theory of the Universe. Georg Wolffgang Ulrich Wedel of the German Confederation <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> sent (RGO 14/53:170)</a> a parcel of his publications against heliocentrism to England through Joseph Charles Mellish, the British Charge d'Affaires at Hamburg, in 1822. He wanted it laid before the House of Commons, but it was ultimately sent to the Board of Longitude instead. The parcel includes some fine, and colourful, images from page <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/53:268</a> onwards. Finally, in addition to these texts, there are three drawings in this volume divorced from their original contexts. Those on pages <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/53:295</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/53:296</a> are labelled in Spanish, which may or may not be related to Pellizer, while that on page <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'>RGO 14/53:299</a> is not.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Alexi Baker<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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