Did the Longitude Act speed up the solution to the longitude problem?

Cross-posted from The Longitude Project Blog.


I recently did a brief talk for some of the staff at Nesta, including their Centre for Challenge Prizes, on our project and  outcomes of our research. During the discussion, someone asked what is, particularly for them, a very pertinent question: “Did the Longitude Act speed up the arrival of a solution?”.

My answer was something along the lines of “sort of, possibly, probably no…”. It is not the kind of question that we historians are necessarily very good at answering, involving as it does the counter-factual world in which no such Act was ever passed by the British parliament. Still, it’s an interesting idea to play around with.

All the things that first came to my mind were the reasons why it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference. For a start, it was not the only potential reward available for whoever should come up with a viable longitude solution. As well as the earlier Spanish reward system, the Dutch version was still on-going, as were prizes on offer from the French Académie des Sciences. Had there not been the 1714 Act in Britain there might have been another one or initiatives organised through private individuals or institutions like the Royal Society.

Even without these schemes, plausible navigation-related ideas were always a potential means of gaining patronage and, if successful, could lead to honours, rewards, customers and a viable business. While the Longitude Act held out the possibility of a very large reward, it was certainly not the only or – for most people – the most likely way to make new ideas around longitude pay.

The question of “speed” is an interesting one. It is impossible to predict how long new ideas should take to develop, but when we consider that it is two decades before the Commissioners of Longitude met as a group, and another three before serious money was dispensed, it doesn’t sound particularly speedy. The 1714 Act had looked for a “practicable and useful” solution for the public, but there wasn’t anything widely available until a century later.

Something else that disrupts the idea of a prize having a quick and direct impact is the very international and collaborative nature of the potential solutions. The astronomical knowledge and mathematical tools required to make the lunar distance method workable were the product of many minds, in several countries. It was a process that might have been sped up by much larger sums of money being thrown at observatories to employ many more astronomers, but probably not by the possibility of a future prize.

The timekeeping method was also more international and collaborative than is often remembered. While a single clock can seem obviously the work of an individual, it incorporates the skills of many piece-workers and collaborators, knowledge of predecessors and availability of particular materials. These things are specific to time and place, meaning that new technologies only become possible in those circumstances. If the time was ripe for Harrison, so too was it for Ferdinand Berthoud and Pierre Le Roy in Paris and (possibly, or in time) for Thomas MudgeLarcum Kendall and John Arnold in London.

However, it is certainly true that the Longitude Act gained lots of attention and provoked lots of interest. It would also seem that the key players in the story – like John HarrisonJohn Hadley and Tobias Mayer – were, it not directly inspired to look at the problem as a result of the Act, certainly quickly interested in making contact with the Commissioners. Over time, their work was also to become of greater public interest and, therefore, better known as a result of the fame of the Act and all those involved in it.

It is probably also fair to say that Harrison would not have had the time or money to dedicate so much of his life to the problem without the financial assistance of the Board. I would also argue that investment in the later 18th century in the two methods – through the Nautical Almanac and other publications, trials, further rewards, training and so on – probably did speed up or at least allow their wider adoption. This, however, was only through new Acts and a changing understanding of the Board’s purpose.

All in all, my view is that had the 1714 Act, Harrison, Hadley and Mayer not existed, others would very probably have (and sometimes did) come up with similar solutions to the problems they tackled within somewhere around the same time frame. However, this is not necessarily a conclusion that I would claim for the progress of all reward schemes and challenge prizes. Things would be different should a prize, for example, highlight an issue people were unlikely otherwise to be working on or in a period with a much larger and more professionalised workforce than in the 18th century.

But that is only my view and, like all counter-factuals, probably begs to be shot down. I’d love to know what others think.

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