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Papers of the Board of Longitude : Correspondence on perpetual motion and the quadrature of the circle

Papers of the Board of Longitude

<p style='text-align: justify;'>In comparison to earlier periods the concept of perpetual motion is relatively under-researched in the Regency period as it had been almost entirely abandoned as a legitimate ambition for elite men of science, yet this volume represents an important insight into the continuation of discussions concerning perpetual motion both as a plausible scientific project as well as a social spectacle.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This volume is a collection of letters from fifty-five different correspondents, dating from 1787 to 1828; much of the correspondence to the Board was retained by the various secretaries in this period, perhaps due to the Board's increasing awareness of its public-facing dimension and responsibilities towards the 'public purse'. To illustrate this increase in bureaucracy we can see that Thomas Young (see <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>portrait</a> at the National Portrait Gallery) filed and sorted these letters regarding perpetual motion schemes in the same way that he did all correspondence, for example he writes at the top of a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:5)</a> dated the 21st of March 1823 “Abbotts – perpetual moving machine” in his usual style. Yet Young appears not to have responded to Abbott as a second <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:6)</a> in September 1824 complains about not having heard from the secretary. Finally Abbott tried his luck with a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:8)</a> to John Crocker [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=agent-5273;makerReference=agent-5273'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] in the December of 1824 showing us something of the perseverance of those concerned with perpetual motion. So whilst most correspondence collections in this volume consist of just one or two letters, there are several particularly persistent correspondents; for example there are nine letters from Lieutenant J Price. The first <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:144)</a> arrives for William Wales on the 13th of February 1797 and the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> last (RGO 14/54:173)</a> arrives for Thomas Young on the 13th of January 1826. These letters are often accompanied by <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> diagrams (RGO 14/54:150)</a> of Price's perpetual machine and there is one <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:160)</a> in the collection concerning improvements to the chronometer.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Most of the letters in this volume declare that the author, their family member or acquaintance already have a perpetual motion machine and are writing to enquire if there is a specific prize or reward for them offered by the Board. Some correspondents attempt to link there perpetual motion machine to the problem of Longitude at Sea by suggesting that their perpetual motion would keep perfect time at sea without needing adjustment. For example John Ashfold, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> wrote (RGO 14/54:20)</a> on April the 8th 1787 to Henry Parker, the Secretary of the Board, declaring to have a perpetual motion machine capable of keeping perfect time. Other letters are written on behalf of others, for example a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:35)</a> dated march 24th 1821 from a T. Bointon is concerned with William Masterman, a poor man residing in the township of <a href='/view/'> Pickering ()</a>, who needs funds to put his wooden prototype into brass and Bointon hopes that the Board would help.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>During their times as secretary there is evidence of both Thomas Young and Thomas Hurd [<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href='!csearch;authority=agent-178430;makerReference=agent-178430'><img title="Link to RMG" alt='RMG icon' class='nmm_icon' src='/images/general/nmm_small.png'/></a>] engaging with some of the letters regarding perpetual motion yet ignoring others. For example the 1826 <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:91)</a> of Richard Holt describing his machine moved by weights is followed by a second <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:92)</a> providing Young with the further information that he required, whereas a 1812 <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> response (RGO 14/54:100)</a> from Thomas Hurd to a Mr Henry Holden states: “I have to inform you that as the discovery of a perpetual motion has nothing to do with the discovery of the longitude and the commissioners did not think it necessary to take your letters into consideration.” Young also ignores letters - for example John Howe writes a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:104)</a> in 1817 and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> again (RGO 14/54:105)</a> in 1818 as he did not receive a response. Hurd's responses are often copied up and bound into this volume, for example the <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> reply (RGO 14/54:110)</a> to a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:109)</a> dated 6th of July 1813 from Charles Jacob which states yet again that the Board won't consider perpetual motion schemes as they do not relate to finding the longitude at sea and are therefore not for the Board of Longitude to judge. It is interesting that Hurd never bothers to challenge the existence of any of the perpetual machine presented to him and instead hides behind bureaucracy and legislation to avoid engaging with these correspondents.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Letters concerning the quadrature of the circle are also included towards <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> the end of this volume (RGO 14/54:207)</a>. These are filed in a similar way to the letters regarding perpetual motion and there is a similar reticent sentiment in the letters, for example William Bass' <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:208)</a> claims to have solved the problem of squaring the circle and is willing to reveal to the Board the Rule by which he obtained it in exchange for the prize. Again similarly to the perpetual motion correspondence William Hyslop sent a <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage();return false;'> letter (RGO 14/54:278)</a> to the Board on the 29th of October 1823 suggesting that his quadrature of the circle will aid the discovery of longitude at sea after two preceding letters were ignored by the Board.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Sophie Waring<br />History and Philosophy of Science<br />University of Cambridge<br /></p>

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