New Perspectives on the Board of Longitude

This Saturday, three of us from the project on the History of the Board of Longitude gave papers at the BSHS Annual Conference. Here are the session and paper abstracts.

New Perspectives on the Board of Longitude, 1714-1828

For most, the word ‘longitude’ brings to mind the mind the mid-18th-century story of John Harrison’s sea clocks, and the contemporaneous development of the lunar distance method, as practical means of finding longitude at sea. However, the body we know as the Board of Longitude was in existence well before and long after this period and was involved in discussing, assessing and funding a wide range of other projects. The papers in this session with therefore explore previously unasked questions about the nature of the Board itself, from its origins in the 1714 Longitude Act to its subsequent remodelling and dissolution; the roles of the Commissioners and other staff; and its relationship with other bodies and institutions. The speakers are all contributors to a joint National Maritime Museum/ University of Cambridge project on the history of the Board of Longitude, funded by the ABRC. They represent both institutions and PhD, postdoctoral and investigator roles.

Alexi Baker: ‘Redefining the early nature and nomenclature of the ‘Board of Longitude’

In 1714, the British Parliament established a substantial reward of £20,000 to encourage the development of a more reliable method for finding the longitude at sea. While it was comparatively easy to estimate the latitude of a ship, the longitude required far more complex, temperamental and time-consuming observations and calculations. For centuries, mariners had successfully sailed the oceans despite this obstacle, but it did impact the safety and efficiency of maritime trade, travel and defence. The need to ‘find’ the longitude became a recurrent theme in public and political discourse during the eighteenth century. Our popular and academic understanding of the early search for the longitude has been limited by the scattered and uneven nature of the evidence available, and by the usage of anachronistic terminology and concepts.

Most authors and historians have represented the events following the Parliamentary Act of 1714, as 23 years of virtual inactivity followed by the long-belated sitting of a legislated body called ‘the Board of Longitude’. This interpretation falsely suggests that the events which occurred were inevitable, underestimates those which occurred before 1737, and neglects the continuity that existed between these and earlier efforts. For one thing, Parliament did not establish a group in 1714 that was expected to meet en masse. Instead it provided a laundry list of knowledgeable individuals, mostly familiar, whom projectors could consult about their longitude proposals. These Commissioners were not known as ‘the Board of Longitude’ even after they began to convene in one location in later decades.

Rebekah Higgitt:The 1818 Longitude Act: a watershed in government funding for science?’

It is often assumed that the Board of Longitude was a body without a role after finding or keeping longitude at sea became possible with the introduction of the Nautical Almanac and the development of the chronometer in the late 18th century. There were, however, good reasons for its continuing, not least in supporting these two methods by regulating chronometers and producing the Almanac, as well as a continued search for improvements to navigation. In an attempt to consolidate and extend the work of the Board, a new Act of Parliament was passed in 1818, affecting personnel, funding and remit.

This change to the Board did not, however, happen in isolation, but took place alongside the departmental shift of the Royal Observatory from the Board of Ordnance to the Admiralty, an increase in Observatory staff and a steady increase in Admiralty funding for science. This paper will argue that 1818 marks a new approach to scientific work within the Admiralty and was the result of the influence of key individuals there and in the Royal Society, who had an ambitious vision for the future of government-funded science. While the Board itself was dissolved a decade later, much of the new structure and enlarged funding remained in place, suggesting that the 1818 Act was of much greater importance than is usually recognised.

Sophie Waring: ‘Thomas Young and the end of the Board of Longitude’

In 1828 the Board of Longitude was abolished and one might expect disappointment among its Commissioners. Yet in a letter from Thomas Young, Secretary of the Board and Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, we see a calm and pleased response: ‘for my security they have put the Admiralty and Nautical Almanac together […] Croker has appointed Sabine, Faraday and me to constitute a Scientific Committee to advise the Admiralty which was all the Board of Longitude could do, and it is better that things should be called by their right names’. Alternatively in the Monthly Notices of the (Royal) Astronomical Society we find: ‘Some members of the Society, regretting that the late Board of Longitude was not remodelled instead of being dissolved, had […] several interviews with His Majesty’s ministers on the subject of a new one’.

It seems that those on the Board didn’t attempt to defend it, while those who had been critical of the Board and Young were disappointed by its abolition. This apparent contradiction will be elucidated by examining Young’s role as Secretary and Superintendent and his critics’ attacks. Challenges will be made to the explanations that the Board was dissolved for financial reasons or because it had fulfilled its purpose. Instead the controversy surrounding this early state funding of science will be used to offer a different explanation: the Board was replaced by a ‘Scientific Committee’ more secure within the Admiralty and less open to public comment, although it failed after Young’s death in 1829.


2 thoughts on “New Perspectives on the Board of Longitude

  1. Hi Becky,
    Did Sophie talk at all about how the advisers who replaced the Board were a major complaint in Babbage’s Decline of Science in England? I read this for the first time recently, and was fairly amazed about how Babbage goes on and on about how incompetent he thought Sabine was as an astronomer. (Faraday the “chemist” is amusingly irrelevant to Babbage’s assessment of the situation — which is of course fair since Faraday was not a mathematician.)

    Anyway, this turned out to be really interesting to me, because the reason I was reading was to get background on how fairly picky bureaucratic arguments about scientific advisers in the Second World War got placed in the broader frame of the question “is the state making good use of Britain’s scientific resources?” I was not expecting Babbage’s complaints about the closure of the Board to map so well onto the ones 100 years later, but his concern over whether a proper set of “scientific advisers” was in place maps on shockingly well.

    • Babbage’s book did not particularly make an appearance in her talk, although he and the book will certainly make an appearance in her work. It should be remembered that Babbage wrote in 1830, after the Board had already been removed and the Advisory Committee dropped. So, more relevant to the ‘end’ itself are the criticisms of the Nautical Almanac from Francis Baily and James South, and differences within the Board itself.

      Babbage was, of course, moving within these same reformist circles, connected with the Astronomical Society and criticism of the Royal Society-Admiralty stranglehold on patronage on science. There is much, though, for Babbage that is entirely personal and extremely bitter. He always seems a difficult person to generalise from, so I’m interested to hear of the later echoes that you spotted.

      Sabine is an interesting figure – he got himself a career, important role at the British Association and the Presidency of the Royal Society despite never being anyone’s first choice and receiving some stinging criticism!

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