Who’s missing in modern academia: solitary geniuses or something much more significant?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 10 December 2013.

1974 portrait of Isaac Newton as solitary genius.

When Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, was quoted in the Guardian on Friday as saying “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job” because he would not “be regarded as productive enough”, it prompted much nodding and retweeting from academics.

Coming as it did on the tail of British academics’ rush to complete submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), in a term that has seen two strikes over fair pay in Higher and Further Education and at a time when there are reports of long working hours and other pressure on academics affecting wellbeing , it is hardly surprising that there was sympathy toward Higgs’s negative judgement of today’s focus on “productivity” and publication.

When Higgs was quoted as saying “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”, many academics undoubtedly heaved a sigh and got back to the marking, teaching preparation, grant application, or whatever other non-research-related activity they were currently engaged in.

It seems, though, that Higgs’s comments struck a wider chord, perhaps because of the extent to which they conform to the stereotype of the solitary scientific genius. His “peace and quiet” of 1964 (aged 35) brings to mind Newton’s escape to his Lincolnshire family home in 1666 (aged 24), and it is contrasted in the article with “expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. This is the kind of thing we want to hear our science Nobel winners saying.

Teaching, which takes up a huge proportion of most academics’ time, is not mentioned in this piece. I have no idea what kind of a teacher Higgs was, but Isaac “lecture to the walls” Newton clearly would have been a flop on Rate my Professor and a liability for a university anxious about its position in the National Student Survey. He would probably have been just as problematic for REF. Although he was to go on to have a staggering impact (or Impact), Newton was famously, for much of his life, reluctant to publish.

In many ways Newton and his mythology became a model for how we think of genius, particularly in the physical sciences. Stories of his youthful moment of inspiration, his forgetfulness, his oddness, his solitariness and his immersion in his work abound. Yet he was also someone who learned not just from books but also from his Cambridge tutors and colleagues and wide correspondence, who made his approaches to the Royal Society with scientific papers and the gift of his reflecting telescope, and who went on to become an MP and to lead the Royal Mint and Royal Society.

Science is profoundly collaborative, relying on communication to peers and students, and collaboration with colleagues and a whole range of other “stakeholders”. It goes without saying that there have, always, been many people doing scientific work who not only put up with but also thrived on all those other activities. Science would not have developed without them.

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Science and academia today remain embarrassingly homogeneous. However, the fear is not so much that we might be failing to find or support working class, black or female geniuses, but that we are more broadly missing out on other perspectives and experiences that would help frame different questions and solutions. It is for this – as well as the good health and useful productivity of academics – that we need to fight not just for better investment in Higher Education, supporting excellent outreach and teaching as well as research, but for a fairer society.

Clock change challenge

Cross-posted from The H Word, where this post first appeared on 27 October 2013.

Alarm clock

Spring forward; fall back. Or was that spring back and fall forward (equally possible)? And will we ever have a mnemonic that works for those of us who usually talk about autumn rather than fall? At least it’s always an hour and only twice a year, right?

It’s hard to imagine, but the person who lobbied most vigorously for the introduction of British Summer Time at the beginning of the last century actually suggested that this confusion be extended over the course of four weeks. At each end of the summer the clocks would be shifted 80 minutes, rather than an hour, in 20-minute chunks. This is what William Willett suggested in 1907 in a pamphlet that worried about The Waste of Daylight.

Imagine having to remember if we were in week 0 or 1, 4 or 5. Weeks worth of excuses for being late for that meeting or missing the train! Today, of course, things are markedly easier, since most of us have devices that update the time they display automatically, but keeping on top of that in the early 20th century would surely have been a significant challenge.

Willett’s enthusiasm for fiddling with the clocks apparently derived from a revelation that hit him when out riding early one morning in Petts Wood. It was a beautiful summer’s day but all around him were drawn curtains and closed blinds. His fellow men and women of were missing out on this joyful and healthful experience. Willett was sufficiently sure of the benefits of “early to bed and early to rise” to be convinced that it might make the whole nation “healthy, wealthy and wise”.

Thus, although people always moan about clocks changing (back to GMT) in autumn, with our evenings and afternoons plunged into increasing darkness, the idea is and was all about making the best of the available daylight in summer rather than worrying about farmers in Scotland or kids going to school on dark mornings in winter. Daylight in winter is scarce at high latitudes, and no amount of clock-fiddling will change that.

It was the additional light in summer that had the potential to improve the “health and strength of body and mind”, Willett thought. He therefore proposed:

that at 2 a.m. on each of four Sunday mornings in April, standard time shall advance 20 minutes; and on each of four Sundays in September, shall recede 20 minutes, or in other words that for eight Sundays of 24 hours each, we shall substitute four, each 20 minutes less than 24 hours, and four each 20 minutes more than 24 hours.

Easy peasy! Willetts pointed out that this adjusting of clock hands – which was, perhaps, a more familiar task in days when timepieces still had to be wound regularly – would provide an “extra” 9 hours and 20 minutes for beneficial activity each summer week. The 20-minutes-a-week-for-4-weeks idea was intended to make the switch less sudden and, therefore, less objectionable. It was, he suggested, akin to the change in time experienced, without ill effect, by those travelling east or west by ship.

He had a point: there was no “ship lag” akin to the jet lag that aeroplanes introduced. There has been research that suggests that the loss of an hour in spring can be enough to cause fatigue and increase road accidents. Perhaps gradual change would be better, so long as half our minds aren’t busy wondering which 20-minute increment we’re currently on.

There are, of course, alternative ideas. There’s so-called Single/Double Summer Time, which would put us in synch with Central European Time, and please a number of campaigners and interest groups. However, when we last tried sticking with BST in winter, in 1968-71, the even longer and deeper morning darkness proved to be a deal breaker.

We could, of course, do away with daylight savings altogether. Perhaps we could extend working hours in summer and reduce them in winter? Or simply shift business hours or starting times rather than clock time. This is what Benjamin Franklin suggested, as he joked that shutters could be taxed and candles rationed to “encourage” his fellow man to make better use of light. Church bells and cannon sounding as the Sun rose might reinforce the point:

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity.

Rebekah Higgitt scheduled this post last night in the fond hope that she might get her additional hour in bed this morning. If you check her@beckyfh, however, you’ll more than likely find her moaning about the fact that young children don’t take the blindest bit of notice of the clock.

Women in science: a difficult history

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 15 October 2013.

Caricature of women attending a 19th-century meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
Caricature of women attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


Today, as you’ll probably see from many tweets and blog posts, is Ada Lovelace Day. As the Finding Ada website explains, this

aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.

Many of the talks and posts that mark the day will be about mentors and leaders in science today. Many will highlight the sometimes overlooked work of women in the history of STEM.

As I discussed on this blog last year, I find myself somewhat conflicted about Ada Lovelace Day and similar projects that focus on highlighting women in the history of science. On the plus side, I am wholeheartedly supportive of the attempt to encourage young women to think about scientific careers and to appreciate the work of women in the past, when opportunities were even more circumscribed. I am also glad to see stories from the history of science getting wider attention.

However, I am also wary. In celebratory mode, there is a tendency to overplay the work that the women highlighted actually did. There is no better example of this than Lovelace herself, who is wrongly credited with writing the first computer program. Likewise, just as with the heroic “great man” mode of history, focusing on individuals can hide the extent to which science is always a collaborative enterprise. Finally, although some women are rescued from the background shadows, other individuals and groups, equally deserving of attention, remain ignored.

As a historian, I am always likely to be suspicious of the use of history to serve particular purposes, whether that is to get more women into ormore funding for British science. Laudable though those aims might be, there is a risk that the historical evidence will be selected or distorted to suit the current purpose.

Certainly there were (are) remarkable women in all spheres of life, but the more important story is the one that explores why there were so few and how and why their talents – and those of whom we’ll never hear – were wasted. While it’s good to encourage girls and women to have the confidence to succeed in science or elsewhere, we also need them to look at the societies that have made, and still make, this a difficult task.

It always strikes me that should women of the past read some of what is written about them today, they would be hugely surprised and perhaps even offended. Before the 20th century, and often after, women who did scientific work tended to present themselves as a support to science or men rather than as pioneers. Although this is a reflection of the patriarchal society in which they lived, and they may sometimes have said things they did not privately believe in order to appear acceptable, it was their chosen self-presentation.

Recently, for example, a post was published that claimed that William Whewell had coined the word “scientist” to describe Mary Somerville. The response suggested that this is something that people really wanted to believe. However, while it is true that the first published appearance of the word was in a review of Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), neither Whewell nor Somerville would have dreamed of its being applied to her. Women, Somerville suggested, did not have original ideas, but the female mind might, as Whewell wrote, provide a “peculiar illumination” in explaining the ideas of others.

Somerville undertook aspects of science that were “women’s work”: writing, translation, popularisation. She also frequently highlighted her role as a wife and mother. Others, who approved of and supported her, did likewise. The American astronomer Maria Mitchell met Somerville and wrote:

I could not but admire Mrs Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove.

Somerville and others underlined the distinction between men and women’s minds and appropriate spheres of activity because of the society in which they lived. Somerville was a supporter of women’s education and it was important to show that learning mathematics and the sciences would not turn young women into unattractive, barren spinsters. Those campaigning for women’s suffrage had a similar choice: emphasise your acceptable femininity or reinforce the stereotypes of Punch caricatures.

We like to think that we have moved on. In many ways we have: women in the UK can vote, be educated and enter careers and remain in them even after getting married or having children. Yet they are still radically underrepresented in the most highly paid and esteemed positions, and overrepresented at the other end of the scale. We are, as Alice Bell explained yesterday, still in a society that asks for female intelligence to be mitigated with the use of lipstick and a focus on domestic details.

By all means celebrate individuals, but understand them as they would have understood themselves. Make sure to think of the society in which they operated and look hard at what has and what has not changed.

Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 12 September 2013.

The collapsed Tay Bridge

This evening, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, will weigh into the debate about climate change and geoengineering in an address at the British Science Festival.

Finding such fixes, as well as more efficient forms of alternative energy, may well be problems focused on by the new challenge prize that Rees has helped set up. That he, as Astronomer Royal, will be judging what has been called a new ‘Longitude Prize’, seems appropriate, but the innovations under consideration may be a long way from his own field of astronomy and cosmology.

Today the post of Astronomer Royal is honorary. It means simply, as Alok Jha’s article on Rees’s speech suggests, that he is “one of Britain’s most senior scientists”. Like a Chief Scientific Advisor, or the head of a scientific society, the Astronomer Royal can be expected to give all sorts of opinions about science and science policy, straying at least occasionally, if they wish, well beyond their area of research.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Until the 1970s the post of Astronomer Royal was synonymous with director of the Greenwich Observatory (at GreenwichHerstmonceux and then Cambridge). Before the 19th century, the AR was also an active observer, in fact only one of two observers in the institution.

Nevertheless, Astronomers Royal were often called upon to make judgements and offer advice in areas that did not relate to making observations or managing an observatory. Because the Royal Observatory was funded by government, being under the administration of first the Board of Ordnance and then the Admiralty, there was potential for them to be asked to consider a whole range of technical and scientific issues.

For much of the AR’s history, the most obvious place in which this happened was the Board of Longitude. While many of the ideas under consideration were astronomical (involving knowledge of astronomical theory, mathematics, optics and instrumentation), others were based on geomagnetism or, of course, horology. Understanding clocks and timekeeping was essential to astronomy, but the specifics of horological theory and manufacture would have been beyond the AR’s experience.

ARs also advised on areas like cartography, instrument design and weights and measures, that involved techniques closely allied to astronomy. But they were also asked to consider a wide range of fields of interest to the Admiralty and other branches of government, simply because they ended up being their available scientific expert.

One of the ARs who most obviously became the government’s go-to scientific and technical guy was George Airy, who was in position from 1835 to 1881. Airy covered a great deal of ground, intellectually and practically. Unlike all his predecessors he was not much involved with daily observations and he had a significantly larger workforce at the Observatory, onto which observation, calculation and even management could be delegated.

Airy, for example, did a considerable amount of work on the effect of iron ships’ hulls on compass use and design. He also advised, like many other ARs, on education and he was involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. He was, perhaps most intriguingly, called in to advise the Great Western Railway on track gauges and the engineer Thomas Bouch about the pressures that might be exerted by wind on the planned rail bridge crossing the Forth.

That latter advice got him into trouble. It was first applied by Bouch to the Tay Bridge and, when that collapsed in 1879 [see image above], Airy was called in by the enquiry. He claimed that his advice had been specific to the circumstances of the Forth and the design for that bridge (which was now speedily discarded). The enquiry agreed, suggesting that Bouch had “must have misunderstood the nature of [Airy's] report”.

Airy did know quite a lot about engineering. He was, apart from anything else, closely involved with the design of large instruments and their mounts at Greenwich. Times and the nature and range of expertise have changed considerably since the 19th century, however. Lord Rees is not an Astronomer Royal who can offer specific or technical engineering expertise, rather he is calling for research and funding. Whether or not you agree with his statements is a different matter.

Barbados or bust: longitude on trial

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 9 September 2013.


Barbados beach scene (perhaps not quite what Nevil Maskelyne experienced in 1763)

On 9 September 1763 a young curate and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, set off for Portsmouth. He was to travel to Barbados on a voyage that would test the accuracy and practicality of three different methods of finding longitude at sea. At stake were potential rewards from the Board of Longitude.

The curate, Nevil Maskelyne, was also an astronomer and mathematician who became Astronomer Royal in 1765. I am currently editing a book of essays centred around Maskelyne, which, like the book I am co-authoring on the history of longitude, is due out next year for the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act. Working toward that anniversary, I spotted this one.

Back in 1763, Maskelyne was instructed to do two things. Firstly, he was to make longitude-determining astronomical observations during the voyage and, secondly, to make observations on land when the ship arrived in order to determine the island’s position, a prerequisite for an effective trial.

The three “methods” under trial in 1763 would be deemed successful if they succeeded in predicting Barbados’s longitude to within a degree or half a degree. They were:

1) A marine chair made by Christopher Irwin that was intended to steady an observer to allow him to measure the positions of Jupiter’s satellites at sea. (Eclipses of Jupiter’s moons were already used as a celestial timekeeper* to determine longitude on land: these were the observations Maskelyne made at Barbados.)

2) The latest version of the lunar tables of Tobias Mayer, which helped predict the position of the Moon and allow it to be used as a timekeeper using the lunar-distance method.

3) The latest mechanical marine timekeeper, and first sea watch, made by John Harrison.

Maskelyne and his assistant, Charles Green, were to make the ship-board observations and calculations necessary for the use of the first two methods. Harrison’s watch, now known as H4, would travel out separately with Harrison’s son William.

All of the methods worked in theory; the sea trial was to establish whether they worked reliably in practice. Only Irwin’s chair was a failure. Remarkably, two plausible methods of finding longitude had, finally, come to fruition at almost exactly the same time:

1757: Mayer sent his theory of the Moon’s motion to the Board of Longitude. It proved capable of making pretty good predictions – an object that had defeated Isaac Newton’s best efforts. Harrison, who had received rewards amounting to £2750 during 1737-1757, abandoned the development of his large marine clocks (H1H2H3) and thew his efforts into his watch.

1761: The potential of Mayer’s tables and the lunar-distance method was demonstrated by Maskelyne and his assistant, Robert Waddington, during a voyage to St Helena, where they had been sent by the Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus. Harrison sent his watch on trial to Jamaica and claimed an excellent result. Unfortunately, the trial was declared void because of uncertainties about the longitude of Jamaica and the watch’s rate, Harrison had to make do with another £1500.

1763: The Barbados trial was the really significant one – Mayer’s tables (via the lunar-distance method) and Harrison’s watch were both officially found to have met the necessary criteria. The Board of Longitude had two methods on their hands… potentially.

The lunar-distance method was complex and time-consuming and could only become useful if enough navigators were trained to undertake the required observations and calculations. Ideally, part of the work needed to be done for them, via the publication of regularly updated predictive and pre-calculated tables.

Harrison’s watch had worked well, but the question was whether another such machine could ever be made. Could one be made by another workshop? Could a marine timekeeper be made that was less costly than the exquisite H4?

In 1765, an Act was passed that divvied up the spoils and aimed to help make these potential methods “practicable and useful”. Harrison would receive £10,000 only if he revealed his method (i.e. the mechanism and the methods and materials involved in the construction of his watch) to other artisans. A further £10,000 would be paid out if more timekeepers could be made and successfully tried.

Tobias Mayer had died in 1762, but £3000 was paid to his widow in return for his papers. £300 went to the mathematician Leonhard Euler as a reward for his equations, which had greatly enhanced the accuracy of Mayer’s tables. A further £5000 was held out as a reward for the future improvement of the tables and, perhaps most significantly, the Board committed to the regular publishing of a Nautical Almanac, to be overseen by the brand new Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne.

The Barbados trial was not a competition or a race for a prize, although Christopher Irwin certainly found his marine chair out of the running. Rather, it confirmed two promising methods that required further investment. The Board of Longitude committed to this, seeing that they were not mutually exclusive. The lunar-distance method could be made available more quickly and was the only means of checking the performance of a ship-board timekeeper.

While Harrison’s paranoid belief that Maskelyne was prejudiced against him and his watch has become the dominant version of this story, it is not backed by the evidence. As Astronomer Royal and Commissioner of Longitude from 1765-1811, Maskelyne was to aid the development of both of the methods that his 1763 voyage had helped to prove.

* The difference in longitude of two places is equal to the difference in their local times.

Radio: Seven Ages of Science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Staircase inside the Monument to the Great Fire of London

Staircase in the Monument, London, designed by Robert Hooke. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Poised at my computer last night [6 August 2013], I listened to, and eagerly typed notes on the first episode of a new series on BBC Radio 4 that looks at the history of British science. Presented by Lisa Jardine, it will present Seven Ages of Science, kicking off with an Age of Ingenuity in Restoration England.

Much of the episode centred on Jardine’s “personal hero”, Robert Hooke, and argues that the ingenuity, interest and development of new explanations of the workings of nature that arose in the late 17th century came out of the thriving world of machines and instruments, centred on London’s west end.

Those who know Jardine’s work won’t be surprised that the episode opened at the Monument in London. It was Hooke and Christopher Wren’s memorial to the Great Fire of London, a statement of confidence that London would be rebuilt and thrive again and, as Jardine says, “a super-size scientific instrument”. It symbolised their belief that experimental science would lead to a renaissance of city and nation.

The Monument was to be a place for experiments with pendulums and a tube for a giant zenith telescope. While it wasn’t successful, Hooke spent a lifetime collaborating with makers and artisans to contrive instruments and experiments that would entertain the gentlemen of the Royal Society, pick apart the mechanisms of God’s creation and prove useful to mankind.

While Hooke and then Newton receive the main focus in this episode, the point is several times well-made that not only did artisans provide the tools and metaphors they adopted in the new experimental philosophy, but that they and a whole range of less well-known practical observers and mathematicians were vital collaborators. Newton’s faux-modest puff about “standing on the shoulders of giants” hid the fact that his work was absolutely dependent on a large network of other individuals.

There are, as Jardine says, no lone scientific heroes and eureka moments here. Newton’s apple story “could not be further from the truth”. The focus of the series is on weaving science back into the world rather than allowing it to be viewed apart from everyday life. The point is that scientists were/are “nurtured by the world in which they lived” and, rather than how science changed the world, the series will highlight how the world changed science.

This is history of science by (and I sincerely hope not just for) historians of science, featuring Simon SchafferFelicity HendersonPatricia Faraand Jim Bennett as well as Jardine. We have the clock-maker Thomas Tompion standing alongside Hooke, observation alongside theory, technology advancing science, entertainment of the wealthy as an essential element of the development of experiment, and politics shaping ideas.

All of this comes as a welcome relief – nay a deep draught of pure water from the deepest well – to this historian of science. In a guest post on my other blog today, John van Wyhe, an expert on Darwin and Wallace, explains what can happen to programmes on the history of science when delivered (and researched) by scientists and non-specialists. They all too often are. For every Schaffer Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, we have series on the history of science presented byphysicistsmathematicians and biologists.

This is not to say that they all do a rotten job, nor that they might not be interested in and sensitive to history as well as science, but it tends to shape the basic arc of the programme’s narrative. It becomes, almost inevitably, a looking back from present to past that picks out the route by which ideas arrived at those we have today.

While I appreciate that there may not be enough historians of science out there with the talent and charisma to present on TV (though we know Schaffer does and Henderson, Fara, Bennett and Jardine could all, I suspect, take on more than radio or TV talking head roles), the history in history of science programming should be taken seriously more often.

Rather than the narrative always being about someone who knows the science finding out about where it came from in the past, why not (if you really can’t find an historian of science) shape it around an historian who knows the period finding out about the science?

I hope that Seven Ages of Science will help change assumptions about how history of science can be made interesting and what narratives it encompasses. I’ll be interested to see how far the “Seven Ages” conform to or challenge expectations. So far it sticks to the expected by not, for example, including the medieval world. I also wondered about the statements of this “Age” being particularly ingenious or moving particularly fast: I suspect any age could seem like that to those who were there or those who study it more closely than others.

Choices have to be made, of course, and this is a history of British science from the 17th century. It is the bread and butter of our discipline, and I am delighted that a wider audience is getting a chance to taste this wholesome fare.

Navigating 18th-century science: Board of Longitude archive digitised

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Today [18 July 2013] the complete archive of the Board of Longitude is being launched online, with stories of innovation, exploration and endeavour – and much more than just John Harrison

Design for a marine chair

Design for a marine chair submitted to the Board of Longitude. Source: Cambridge University Library


Today Lord Rees will be launching the digitised archive of the Board of Longitude at Cambridge University Library. Stuffed full of the correspondence and work of those who preceded him as Astronomer Royal, it also contains letters and papers of artisans, inventors, expeditionary astronomers and maritime explorers.

For those not familiar with the story of the 18th-century search for a means to determine longitude at sea, this video, gives an introduction to the project and the story.

The digitisation project is a collaboration between CUL and the National Maritime Museum, funded by JISC, and is closely allied to an AHRC-funded project on the history of the Board of Longitude that brings together researchers from the NMM and History and Philosophy of Science department in Cambridge.

This association has meant that as well as digitising 48,596 pages from the archives and libraries at Cambridge and NMM, the content is supported by links to relevant object records at the Museum, summaries of all and transcriptions of some of the files and essays on key figures, places, institutions, objects and events.

Written by the project researchers, there is enough text there for a couple of PhDs (at least) and a really useful resource for users of the site. I was the laggard who has only contributed one essay so far, on Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. He was, though, an extremely significant figure both for the longitude story and in this project, which also includes selections from Maskelyne’s archive from the Royal Observatory and his personal papers held now at the NMM.

While historical researchers will undoubtedly find many ways to start digging into the archive, for those newer to the game there are, on top of the summaries and essays, resources for schools and some selected stories lifted from the archive. The content can take the reader to the observatory at Greenwich, meetings at the Admiralty, artisan workshops of London and the South Seas.

William Wales' map of Easter Island, from Cook's Second Voyage

William Wales’ map of Easter Island, from Cook’s Second Voyage. Source: Cambridge University Library

Key Stage 2 pupils will, we hope, learn about Captain Cook’s voyagesand Key Stage 3 will be able to think about inventors and enterprise.

For those who feel they are familiar with the story of longitude, having read about John Harrison and his sea clocks in Dava Sobel’s Longitude, they will find there is much more to explore. As my NMM colleague, Richard Dunn says,

The archive places the familiar story of Harrison in its richer context. He was a crucial figure but the story is much broader. It takes in the development of astronomy, exploration and technological innovation and creativity during the period of the Industrial Revolution, the work of the first government body devoted to scientific matters, and public reactions to a challenge many considered hopeless.

Simon Schaffer, who leads the research project, adds that

The longitude story is a spectacular example of expert disagreement and public participation. As well as attracting the greatest scientific minds of the day, the board enticed people who belong to one of the most important traditions in British society; the extreme eccentric.

Thus while there may be interest in reading the full story of the Board’s dealings with Harrison, eyes are likely to be caught by what were damned by the archive’s 19th-century compilers as “Impractical schemes”. Some of these are real green ink stuff, with perpetual motion and squaring the circle bound into the seemingly intractable problem of finding longitude.

Scheme for dead reckoning

Proposal for finding longitude by determining the ship’s rate of sailing. Source: Cambridge University Library

However, there are many other schemes that, while they did not come to fruition, were based on sound ideas. These included improvements todead reckoning – the educated estimate of position that was not displaced by chronometers until the 20th century – or ways to steady an observer sufficiently to allow them to use Jupiter’s satellites as a celestial timekeeper (the standard means of determining longitude on land).

In its later life, the Board supported the two successful methods of finding longitude at sea – chronometer and lunar distance – and broadened its remit into other fields. Thus those who explore the digital archive will also land on geomagnetic researchpendulum experiments measuring gravity, the search for the North-West Passage and a young Michael Faraday pulled in to investigate ways to improve optical glass.

And much more besides – go on, dive in!