Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal – book now available

Now available from the publisher, Robert Hale Books currently cheaper than AmazonMaskelyne: Astronomer Royal has been edited and partly written by me, with contributions from seven other curators and historians of science.



Stemming from a public symposium at the National Maritime Museum in 2011, marking the bicentenary of Maskelyne’s death, the book aims to be readable. It is also very well illustrated, particularly with photographs of objects, drawings and papers from the Museum’s Maskelyne collection. The full contents are as follows:

Introduction (Rebekah Higgitt)

Chapter 1: Revisiting and Revising Maskelyne’s Reputation (RH)

Case study A: The longitude problem (RH)

Chapter 2: ‘The Rev. Mr. Nevil Maskelyne, F.R.S. and Myself’: The Story of Robert Waddington (Jim Bennett)

Case study B: The projects of eighteenth-century astronomy (RH)

Chapter 3: Maskelyne the Manager (Nicky Reeves)

Case study C: The Astronomer Royal at Greenwich (RH)

Chapter 4: Nevil Maskelyne and his Human Computers (Mary Croarken)

Case study D: Maskelyne and the marine timekeeper (RH)

Chapter 5: Maskelyne’s Time (Rory McEvoy)

Case study E: Instruments of exploration (RH)

Chapter 6: ‘Humble servants’, ‘loving friends’, and Nevil Maskelyne’s Invention of the Board of Longitude (Alexi Baker)

Case study F: The Royal Society and Georgian science (RH)

Chapter 7: Friend and foe: The Tempestuous Relationship Between Nevil Maskelyne and Joseph Banks (Caitlin Homes)

Case study G: Visualizing and collecting the Maskelynes (RH) 

Chapter 8: The Maskelynes at Home (Amy Miller)

Coda: A life well lived (RH)

Update: recent(ish) H Word posts

Rather than cross-posting the H Word posts that I seem to have missed adding to this blog, I’m going to give the links here for anyone who might have missed them.

Matthew Flinders bicentenary: statue unveiled to the most famous navigator you’ve probably never heard of (published 18 July 2014), introduced the story of the naval officer and talented surveyor and his circumnavigating cat, Trim. Their statue is now at Euston station, near where Flinders was buried in 1814.

Flinders, who surveyed much of the Australian coast, is better known down under, although even there The big Australian science picnic of 1914 (published 3 September 2014) was a forgotten story. I spoke about it on ABC Radio as well as blogging, drawing on research I did in Australia back in 2007, on the 1914 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Christopher Wren’s anniversary was recently marked by a well-known search engine, with a drawing of St Paul’s. I took the opportunity to point out that Google Doodle forgot to celebrate Christopher Wren the man of science (published 20 October 2014).

Public engagement with science, Victorian style

A new book on John Tyndall and 19th century scientific naturalism raises questions that are still relevant to how we communicate science and authority today. Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Michael Faraday's 1856 Christmas Lecture
Michael Faraday’s 1856 Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Most people are familiar with some Victorian attempts to popularise science. Perhaps best known are the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, begun by Michael Faraday and continued by successors including John Tyndall. They helped make science fashionable and the lecturers famous, also instilling a particular view of science, its authority and its relationship to the public.

The 19th century was, though, also a boom time for publishing about science, in books and periodicals aimed at all sorts of readers: budding researchers, interested amateurs, women, children, self-improving workers, pious admirers of God’s work and political radicals. Because of this plethora of audiences – and the still fuzzy lines between amateur/professional, researcher/populariser, man of science/man of letters – there was room for a diverse range of approaches.

I was struck afresh by this multitude of voices speaking for and about science when reviewing a new book, edited by Bernard Lightman and Michael Reidy, for an academic journal. It focuses on the world of the scientific naturalists, including Tyndall, as they sought to establish a science they claimed was based purely on naturalistic explanations. In limiting science to empirical investigation, they asserted a unique authority in speaking about science.

Tyndall and others such as T H Huxley are seen as heroes of rational, secularised science, heralding the arrival of a trained and professionalised scientific workforce. This book, like others in the history of science, complicates this narrative in various ways. It is impossible to fit individuals into neat boxes with regard to their views on science, metaphysics and theology, and thinking in terms of science versus religion, rationalism versus dogmatism, or even professionalism and amateurism, is deeply misleading.

One chapter particularly caught my attention with its clear illumination of something I have always felt made the legacy of Tyndall and his close allies interestingly problematic for us today. Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton do this by comparing the popular writings on science of Tyndall and G H Lewes (better known as a critic and George Eliot’s partner).

Rankin and Barton make a convincing case that we should treat both men as being simultaneously men of science and men of letters – both carried out scientific observation and experiment and both wrote about science for a general readership. They can also both be described as scientific naturalists, promoting evolution and other naturalistic accounts of the formation and workings of the physical world.

As the essay shows, though, there were significant differences between the two with regard to how they portrayed men of science and their relationship to the wider public. While Tyndall emphasised all the trappings of authoritative science – specialist laboratory space, equipment, techniques – Lewes discussed observation and experiment that could be carried out in the field or at home.

While this can be put down to the different kinds of science they were discussing – physical sciences and physiology – and their differing status within the scientific world, there is more to it than this. Both men made use of laboratories and a community of experts, but only Tyndall sought to emphasise this, along with the distance and difference between elite men of science and his readers. His approach was what we might now call “deficit model”, and he saw his role as guiding his readers around the complexity of knowledge that only a few people could speak about with authority.

Lewes, by contrast, was much closer to today’s favoured model of public engagement with science (see this short post on PUS to PEST). He was inviting readers to be present and, potentially, participating in science, rather than simply receiving the words of an expert. Tyndall’s elite, specialised and closed world was met by Lewes’s inclusive, democratic and accessible vision of science.

Tyndall expected, above all, for his audiences and readers to be impressed with his ability to understand and manipulate natural phenomena. Experiments performed in lectures were less about revealing processes and more about proving his skill and knowledge. As Rankin and Barton suggest, he “promoted a conception of science that largely excluded the public from the production of scientific knowledge”.

Lewes, on the other hand, expected his audience to question, challenge or verify what they were told, to engage, participate and make discoveries of their own. He insisted that science should be opened up more widely, fearing it might otherwise “degenerate into immoveable dogma”. Only broad participation would ensure the validity of scientific work.

While historians are wary about applying lessons from the past, history does help us to question present assumptions. It gives us pause to reflect on how much attempts to establish the authority of particular groups and approaches have been about excluding others from the conversation. Tyndall was right that we can’t all be scientific researchers, but Lewes’s democratic vision for science might still inspire us to reopen channels of communication that have since been shut down.

Longitude in Lisbon

Cross-posted from the Longitude Project Blog.

I have just returned from a visit to Lisbon, where I had been invited to speak about the Longitude Act and project at the Seminário Nacional de Historia da Matemática. An added bonus of the visit was that an exhibition marking the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act had just opened at the Museu da Marinha.

It was a small display on the first floor that succeeding in getting across many of the key points about the Act, the various contenders for rewards and the Portuguese context. There were three cases of books, tables and charts, two of navigational instruments and a series of wall text and graphic panels.

The first panel was welcome reading, pointing out a long history, several valid areas of research and the development of two of these – the chronometer and lunar distances – as workable solutions in the second half of the 18th century. Although John Harrison was mentioned in the panel dealing with the development of timekeepers, the exhibition did not present either him or chronometers as the most significant part of the story.


Other panels were devoted to the navigational methods used before the Act, magnetic variation, Jupiter’s satellites, lunar distances, chronometers and the Portuguese context. The last of these included the role of Jupiter’s satellites in settling longitudes on land, especially those that had been contested by Spain and Portugal.

IMG_0147Objects included an altaziumth compass (to measure magnetic variation), a telescope (linking to Jupiter’s satellites, but not a type that could have been used for this tricky observation) a box chronometer and several instruments for astronomical observation.

Included among the printed material were books on navigation, ephemerides and almanacs. Among them were an 18th-century edition of the Nautical Almanac, a French account of testing timekeepers at sea, and several Portuguese ephemerides, including those based on the observations of the observatory at Coimbra University.

Two early charts on display also made use of a Portuguese prime meridian, and theIMG_0152 19th-century almanacs clearly played on a sense of history – a reminder of Portugal’s stellar role in maritime navigation in the past – and a claim to a central position in the globe, marking the division of the two hemispheres and the old and new worlds.

I got a good sense of the importance of Portugal’s maritime past to the nation during my visit to Lisbon. The conference was held at the Escola Naval where naval history and, by extension, the histories of navigation, mathematics and astronomy, were very evident. While Greenwich and other maritime location in Britain tend to celebrate the 18th-century Navy above all, many sites in Lisbon have (mostly 20th-century) paintings, mosaics and statues to the heroic navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries.

I was fascinated to learn about the myth-making surrounding the Sagres “School of Navigation“, supposedly founded by Henry the Navigator, and also the extent to which the regime of the 20th-century dictatorship had consciously developed and celebrated this heroic maritime and imperial history – to the benefit of institutions like the Naval School, observatory, museum and planetarium.


Being a guest at the naval base, and visiting the naval museum (still directed by a uniformed naval officer, who was kind enough to guide me around), was a truly memorable experience. I particularly enjoyed being entertained over lunch in the officers’ dining room with stories of the school, and having to teach and learn lunar navigation techniques.

The saying in the Portuguese Navy is that “the moon lies”, emphasising all the many things that can go wrong with instruments, observations and calculations, especially when officers are less and less used to performing them. However, the tables and sextants are still there as back up, not least because of concern about the ease with which GPS signals can be blocked or (more dangerously) tampered with.

Best of all, I was told a story of a ship’s commander, making for a large island but hampered by very poor weather and the loss of one navigation system after another. Left with just radar and dead reckoning, for a moment the moon appeared and he took his chance to take observations. Making his calculations, he couldn’t believe the result: “the moon lies”, he said to himself. But, continuing on his course, the island still didn’t appear and, eventually, he decided to go back to the lunar observation and try his luck – radar soon picked up the target destination.

It sounded like the tale of an old salty sea dog but, later that day, I met the man himself. He was in youthful middle age. The moon sometimes lies but, it turns out, sometimes, even now, she can still be pretty helpful.


Coming your way, 19 June… Finding Longitude

Yes, this is one big advert – but hey, this is my blog and you all know that I’ve been going on about longitude for long enough…

19 June 2014 sees the publication of Finding Longitude: How Clocks and Stars Helped Solve the Longitude Problem, written by me and my former National Maritime Museum colleague, Richard Dunn. It accompanies the exhibition Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude, on at the NMM from 11 July 2014 – 4 January 2015.

Finding Longitude

I will admit that the front cover’s stormy seas, echoed in the exhibition publicity, is a little off the mark for longitude (stormy seas will get you whether or not you know where you are), but evidently drama and peril sell. We authors did, however, have (mostly) full control over the contents and many images that are inside. You can get a flavour of this from the “See Inside” feature on a well-known book-selling website that you will otherwise undoubtedly eschew.

Finding Longitude 2

The book largely follows the flow of the exhibition, but gives us a chance to go into more depth, provide additional stories and name more names : longitude was a very collective endeavour. It’s a story that starts well before the Longitude Act of 1714 and goes on until the middle of the 19th century: the voyages of HMS Beagle, which girded the Earth with a series of accurately determined locations, are our symbolic stopping point. We have space to be a little more international, although this is still certainly the story from the British perspective, and we have the luxury of being able to illustrate objects that could not fit in the exhibition or travel overseas.
It’s available as a hardback (RRP £25), as a paperback special edition available at the Museum for the exhibition (titled Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude) and as an eBook (RRP £9.99).

The Longitude Prize Committee: a new Board of Longitude?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

The Board of Longitude brought to life at Greenwich Theatre in 2005.
The Board of Longitude brought to life at Greenwich Theatre in 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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 Commissioners

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 SavilianLucasian 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 Board

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.

The Committee

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.

The public

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.


There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize #2

I am reposting part of this post from the Longitude Project blog, as a timely reminder, because there *is* now such a thing as the Longitude Prize. It is also on Twitter and much in the media as it heads toward official launch next week. The six potential challenges for the new £10 million prize will be explored on Horizon on 22 May, in a programme that will also look back at the original longitude story. I will appear briefly as a talking head in a film on challenge prizes on The One Show tonight, failing to make the points outlined below. [Update: just heard that my contribution has been cut from the brief film – boo!]

Despite having, back stage, had some impact on how Nesta have been thinking about their prize, the media focus remains on the story of a “prize” that was won by John Harrison. Having just done a talk last night pointing out that Newton was right to say longitude was “not to be found by Clock-work alone” – and that, in fact, the timekeeping method could never have taken off without the complementary lunar-distance method working in tandem with it – I turn back to this post. There was no prize. Harrison did not win it. He did not solve the longitude problem single handed. It made sense for the Board of Longitude to back both methods.


There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize. From the beginning, as well as using the term “reward” not “prize”, the Longitude Act offered a range of sums depending on the accuracy achieved. Later on, with subsequent acts, the possible rewards proliferated, initially with the realisation that Harrison needed to be supported with ‘grants’ of money while developing his clocks and, by the 1770s, with knowledge that a handful of sea watches was not a complete solution and that benefit would be gained by offering further rewards for improvements to techniques and hardware.

Derek Howse’s article on the Finances of the Board of Longitude reveals what was spent by the Commissioners. Between 1714 and 1828, rewards accounted for only 33% of spending, while overheads (23%), expeditions (15%) and publications (29%) made up the rest. The total spent on rewards was £52,534, of which £22,000 went to Harrison. This sum was made up of a number of payments between 1737 and 1764 to improve and test his timekeepers, £7500 paid in 1765 (a further sum being on offer to take this up to a £20,000 reward if two more sea watches could be made, one by Harrison and one by another maker) and £8750 was awarded by an act of parliament in 1773.

It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether this process constitutes receiving the maximum reward. A number of the payments to Harrison had required additional acts (in 1762, 1754 and 1765) and, ultimately, all the money came from government as a result of the original Act of Parliament. However, the final payment did not appear in the Board’s accounts, which confirms the fact that this final move took place outside the Commissioners’ decision-making process.

More interesting to me is who received the other £30,534. Happily, Howse’s article lists all the reward recipients in an appendix. The bulk of the rewards post-date 1765, when the Board played its hand and divided out rewards between the two successful methods, timekeeping and lunar distances. While Harrison received his £7500 in October 1765, in May:

  • Leonhard Euler was paid £300 “for Theorums furnished by him to assist Professor Mayer in the Construction of Lunar tables”
  • Maria Mayer was paid £3000 as a posthumous reward to her husband Tobias “for his having constructed a Set of Lunar Tables” and to her for making them property of the Commissioners
  • Catherine Price, Edmond Halley‘s daughter, was paid £100 for handing over several of Halley’s manuscripts, which the Commissioners believed “may lead to discoveries useful to navigation”.

While Harrison’s work was the cause of the Commissioners beginning to meet, keep minutes and spend money, there were other pre-1765 pay-outs. Christopher Irwin received £600 in 1762-3 for his marine chair (designed to allow observations of Jupiter’s satellites on board ship) and way back in 1741, William Whiston was paid £500 “For procuring a new Sett of Astronomical Instruments for finding out the Longitude on the Coasts of this Kingdom with the Variations of the Needle and for enabling him to make Observations with them”.

Harrison was certainly the biggest single beneficiary of the Longitude Acts, but balanced against that are the many involved in lunar distances. There are the rewards to Euler and Mayer, but 1765 also saw the beginning of investment in the computing work (£35,559 to 1828) and publication of the Nautical Almanac. There had already been expenditure on lunar-distance-related hardware, salaries for trials and expeditions and later sums were paid out for work on astronomical tables, for example £1537 between 1770-93 for Charles Mason‘s efforts and £1,200 to Josef de Mendoza y Rios for his longitude tables in 1814.

Post-1765 there were numerous rewards, mostly of tens or hundreds of pounds. The largest, after Harrison’s, was divvied up among the officers and crew of HMS Hecla and Griper in 1820, who received £5000 for reaching 110°W within the Article Circle, after discovery of the North West Passage became one of the Board’s interests in the 1818 Act. The Arctic voyages also led to Edward Sabine being given £1000 in 1826 for his pendulum experiments. Those who helped develop the chronometer as a commercial product, John ArnoldThomas Earnshaw and Thomas Mudge, were each rewarded with £3000.

Although there was in the 18th-century a sense of competitiveness and occasional reference to a longitude prize (of which more in a later post [since published here]), suggesting that there was a single pay-out that Harrison did or did not win misses both the richness of the history of the Board of Longitude and obscures the way that longitude solutions were developed and used.


Happy birthday Robinson Crusoe: the fictional author of a “History of Fact”

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published 295 years ago today [25 April], marking the birth of the author Robinson Crusoe and a seriously playful entanglement of fact and fiction.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Frontispiece and title page from original 1719 edition

I hope plans are afoot to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 2019. With five years to go, however, 2014 also seems an apt time to take a look at this famous book, not least because this year is a celebration of all things Georgian: marking the accession of George I, we have the BBC’s Georgian Season, and exhibitions at the British Library and Queen’s Gallery. Signed just before George’s arrival, was the 1714 Longitude Act, the tercentenary of which is being marked with a Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich.

Robinson Crusoe sits perfectly in the midst of this, highlighting new literary forms available to a growing reading public, and the interest in travel and the exotic at a time of expansion of maritime trade and empire.

While the book is seen today as an important precursor to the novel, as part of a new genre of realistic fiction, it was designed, at least in part, to confuse and to question. Robinson Crusoe was its purported author, not its title. The actual title of the first edition placed the book squarely in the realm of genuine (if sometimes embellished) travel narratives:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

Full of geographical detail, with the “author” clearly identified, there was nothing to distinguish this as fiction. The picturesque image on the frontispiece pointed to the remarkable experiences to be related, but would have reminded readers of images of peoples from other parts of the world, shown as “other” but rendered strangely familiar by European artists, used to depicting European faces, landscapes and dress.

Defoe’s title is worth comparing to those of other travel and adventure narratives. For example, that published in 1681, by a real sea captain: Robert Knox of the East India Company. Alongside the experiences ofAlexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an uninhabited island until being rescued in 1709, Knox’s adventures and narrative have been seen as one of Defoe’s inspirations:

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon, in the East-Indies: Together, With an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and of the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Illustrated with Figures, and a Map of the Island. By Robert Knox, Captive there near Twenty Years.

Knox’s book had been published by Richard Chiswell, identified on the title page as “Printer to the Royal Society”. As was typical of that Society’s tactics for underscoring the trustworthiness of new knowledge, emphasis was placed on the status of the author, the importance of eye-witness accounts and personal observation, told in plain writing and, as a bonus, supported by a map and illustrations.

Knox’s “Truth”, “Integrity” and “Credit” were attested to in statements from the very credit-worthy Christopher Wren and the Governor, Deputy-Governor and 24 named members of the Court of Committees of theEast India Company, who included a fair sprinkling of baronets and knights. A preface by Robert Hooke lauded Knox’s efforts, not least for doing what the Royal Society repeatedly asked of travellers by sharing potentially useful observations and experience of foreign lands with the public.

Defoe naturally also made use of such devices, playing with his readers’ understanding of truth and credibility in a way that alarmed some but was so popular with the public that the book went through several editions in its first year. In a preface the book’s “editor” commended it to the public as “a just History of Fact”, noting that “The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to which Wise Men always apply them”.

Rather than as simply a novel, then, Robinson Crusoe should also be read as a hoax or, perhaps more accurately, as a satire on travel narratives and other texts attempting to present reliable knowledge. Whether readers took his fiction as truth, or they doubted it effects, it raised questions about the acceptance of the words put down, however plain the language, by other travellers, experimenters and observers. This uncertainty was, as much as the adventure and exoticism, part of the book’s appeal.

Crusoe is our perfect guide to this year of Georgian exploration.

Science fictions and the history of science

Cross-posted from Science Comma blog.

For those who are fans of sci-fi, or interested in how sci-fi plays into the history of science, there are some things you might want to take a look at.

Firstly, this Friday there is a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Society on “The Royal Society and science fiction”, being given by Professor Farah Mendlesohn, who is head of department for English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University. The blurb reads:

The lone (mad) scientist is a common trope in science fiction, but hidden away is a fascination with secret and semi-secret societies who work for the future of all mankind. This talk will look at the representation of the Royal Society in science fiction and fantasy as fact, fantasy and metaphor.

For those who can’t make it to London, the talk should be available, like the Society’s other events, as a video afterwards.

Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon
Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon

The original story is about an artificial satellite, the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian and possible solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. It is a perfect accompaniment to the Longitude Season, just getting underway in Greenwich.Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Finally, as well as a major exhibition on the longitude story (opening in July), this season also includes an art and fiction response. Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, an intervention in, or takeover of, the pre-existing longitude galleries. Author Robert Rankin and other artists and makers have come up with a whole range of more or less ludicrous or plausible ideas about solving longitude or alternative realities in which clock maker John Arnold made himself clockwork legs and Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne built an airship and hoped to contact parallel universes – just in case they knew his longitude. Read more from the curator here.

Longitude Season has started…

There has already been plenty of longitude on this blog, The H Word and the Longitude Project blog, so apologies that there is more to come. This has all been leading up to 2014, the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act, and the start of Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich. It seems like a good idea to put in one place where we’ve been and some of what’s happening this year.

The Board of Longitude Project logo.
The Board of Longitude Project logo.

First came the Board of Longitude Project. A five year, AHRC-funded research collaboration between the National Maritime Museum and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The team is/was: Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer, Co-Investigators Richard Dunn (Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at NMM) and me; two postdocs (Alexi Baker and Nicky Reeves) and three PhD students (Katy Barrett, Eoin Phillps and Sophie Waring). Very shortly joining us as engagement officer is Katherine McAlpine.

Then came the brilliant digitisation project, a JISC-funded digitisation of the Board of Longitude archive, together with related papers from Cambridge University Library and the NMM. Because of its association with the research project and the Museum, this came with lots of add-ons beyond the scanning and listing, and you can read more on the site and at my Guardian post here.

This year is about delivery and public engagement: four exhibitions, two books and a conference (although there’ll be more scholarly books, collections and articles to come out of the project in following years).


Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, which is a steampunk intervention (invasion?) into the courtyard and Flamsteed House that plays with existing spaces and displays, the themes of travel and longitude and with art/science, fact/fiction, real/fabricated. You can read more about it in this post by curator Heloise Finch-Boyer. It is inventive, playful and very funny, but can also confuse and is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. As a response to the problem of denuding the existing galleries in order to put on the main longitude exhibition (see below), it is really brilliant. Once the two exhibitions exist together I hope everyone will be happy! Hashtag is #LongitudePunk’d

Also at the Observatory is a small image and text display, Start to Satellites, about the development of satellite navigation, which takes the story of navigation well beyond the 18th and 19th one about longitude.

Next up will be the main event: Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude, opening to the public on 11 July. It is an object-rich, historical telling of the story, supported by AV and interactives, with Richard Dunn as the lead curator, me (though my involvement has somewhat diminished since I left the museum) and an NMM team involving Kris Martin, Claire Warrior and Matt Lawrence. I hope it will be fab, and you will hear more anon! Hashtag is #ShipsClocksStars

Last to open will be Art and Science of Exploration, a rehang in The Queen’s House that focuses on the art surrounding the voyages of James Cook. It will be the first opportunity to have Stubbs’s kangaroo and dingo properly on show, alongside paintings by Hodges and Webber. In many ways it will be a natural extension of the main exhibition, which features a section on Cook’s voyages, a key testing ground for new longitude techniques. Hashtag is #ArtSciEx

There will be lots of events on during the run of the exhibitions, so keen an eye on the website. The hashtag for the season as a whole is #WhereOnEarth.


The official book accompanying the exhibition has been written by Richard Dunn and me, and is published by Collins. Called Finding Longitude, it is already available on Amazon for pre-order. It’s available on Kindle and a paperback edition will be sold in the exhibition shop (with luck the hardback trade edition will also make it to paperback?). This follows the same narrative as the exhibition, taking the story well beyond Sobel’s John Harrison focus, and is beautifully illustrated with historical painting and objects. It is out on 19 June.

Out in the autumn is a collection of essays on Nevil Maskelyne, published by Hale Books, called Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal. I have edited it and there are chapters and sections by me, plus chapters by Jim Bennett, Mary Croarken, Nicky Reeves, Rory McEvoy, Alexi Baker, Caitlin Homes and Amy Miller, largely coming out of the symposium we held back in 2011. This should also be well-illustrated with images from the NMM’s collections and, although not in any way replacing Derek’s Howse’s biography of Maskelyne, adds some interesting different angles.


The big conference for the project, and the exhibition, is Longitudes Examined: Tercentenary Conference on the History of the Board of Longitude and the Determination of Longitude at Sea. The programme is now available online and looks brilliant (I’m not speaking, although will be part of the final discussion panel, so I’m allowed to say that)!