The new Longitude Prize has nothing to do with longitude: that particular problem is long since solved. Yet it has a Longitude Committee that, like the original Board of Longitude, includes the Astronomer Royal. Lord Rees has borrowed the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act and the idea of an incentive prize in the hope of turning money and talent toward a new challenge.
But, apart from the Astronomer Royal, what are the connections between the new committee and the old? And what do the differences tell us about the two schemes?
The 1714 Act appointed a number of Commissioners of Longitude, either by name or by position, from political, maritime and scientific worlds. By making several positions ex officio, the authors of the Act ensured – by accident or design – that the Commission could continue in perpetuity. It also marked a first by bringing key scientific positions directly into government decision-making.
The political positions were: the Speaker of the House of Commons, the First Commissioner of Trade and, in 1714, ten named Members of Parliament. The maritime and Admiralty representation was: the First Lord of the Admiralty; the First Commissioner of the Navy; the Admirals of the Red, White and Blue Squadrons; and the Master of Trinity House.
The scientific men were: the President of the Royal Society; the Astronomer Royal; and the Savilian, Lucasian and Plumian Professors at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Later the Lowndean Professorship, founded in 1749, was also added.
The Commissioners do not seem to have met before 1737, when they deliberated John Harrison’s first reward, by which time many of the named MPs had died. The left the ex officios, the best-known of which attending in 1737 were Edmond Halley and James Bradley. Halley was Astronomer Royal, although he had previously been a Commissioner as Savilian Professor. Bradley was there as Savilian Professor, but was to remain a Commissioner when he succeeded Halley as Astronomer Royal. It was a small world.
The Commissioners of Longitude were not known as the Board of Longitude until around the 1760s. By then business was considerably more bureaucratic and regular and the core team had settled down as the Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society, the professors, the first Lord of the Admiralty and the secretaries to the Board and the Admiralty.
Things changed again when, under the influence of Joseph Banks, the Board was reorganized. It had already become concerned with all navigational issues, not just longitude, and now the ambition was to become a scientific advisory board to the Admiralty. The 1818 Longitude Act appointed three Fellows of the Royal Society and three salaried Resident Commissioners on top of the professors. This was, apart from packing the Board with Banksian sympathisers, a way to include other scientific fields.
I can’t comment on the internal politics but, despite obvious differences, there are some interesting similarities between the Board and the Longitude Committee. Firstly, of course, there is Lord Rees, who as Astronomer Royal links the two groups. (A few years ago, Rees had positions that would have earned him a seat on the Board of Longitude three times over: Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society and Plumian Professor).
Oxbridgian scientific gravitas remains, with Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge, and Kay Davies, Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy at Oxford. Also present is is Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at Southampton. The range of disciplines shows that, while longitude was seen as a mathematical and astronomical matter, the breadth of potential challenges this time around requires a broader mix. The presence of women also reveals social change, although at 4/18 of the Committee, perhaps less than we’d like.
Engineering had no academic or institutional presence in the early 18th century, but in the 21st it is clearly a field relevant to solving technical problems. Thus, rather than the President of the Royal Society, we haveMartyn Thomas, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
A novelty of the last century is the appointment of scientists directly to government. On the Committee are Chief Scientific Advisor Mark Walport, Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies and David Mackay, Regius Professor in Engineering at Cambridge and Chief Scientific Advisor to the DECC. Otherwise, the connection to government is down to John O’Reilly, Director General of Knowledge and Innovation (there’s a title!) at BIS.
From here the differences are significant, starting with those linking business, charity and government. In 1714, men who made their living through trade would not, unlike the propertied gentlemen MPs, have been seen as disinterested enough to guarantee their trustworthiness. In 2014, however, we have David Gibson, Head of Innovation at GlaxoSmithKline; Andrew Dunnett, Director of the Vodafone Foundation;Iain Gray of the Technology Strategy Board; and Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of the prize organisers Nesta.
Also included are individuals known for championing and communicating science. There is Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association; Roger Highfield, journalist and Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum; and Andrew Cohen, Head of the BBC Science Unit. Spanning different ends of science and technology publishing arePhil Campbell, Editor in Chief of Nature, and David Rowan, editor of Wired Magazine.
While 18th-century Britain had many significant popularisers of science, they would not have been Board members. Plenty was said about providing something of public utility, not to mention saving lives at sea, but there was no interest in consulting more widely. Indeed, it seems that the call for longitude rewards came from the scientific community – potential winners of money – rather than from mariners.
The role of the public has, therefore, changed. While in 1714 an interested public was the source of potential solutions, with the large reward of £20,000 designed to spread the word and catch the eye, in 2014 there is little sense that answers will come from outside a trained and professional group of scientists or engineers. Thus the public is brought on board to help (a little) with a choice from the six potential challenges.
What the result of the public choice is, and the response to the challenge, time will tell. Given that, unlike the original Commissioners of Longitude, the Longitude Committee has not been appointed ex officio, we might assume they hope it will all take less than half a century.