Scheming Jack

Some time back, Adrian Teal was good enough to share a great quote with me, and it is high time that I got it up onto this blog. It is nice because it gives us a very different view of John Harrison, the humble carpenter from the provinces who dared to stand up to the scientific elite of the Royal Society and Board of Longitude.

The quote is from a biography of the aritist Thomas Gainsborough by his friend, Captain Philip Thicknesse, and reports the comments of Gainsborough’s brother John, known as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his wild and somewhat outrageous inventions. [Read more]

The virtue of simplicity

A week or so ago I was fortunate enough to be included in the annual Research Day at UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies, where staff, students and Honorary Fellows get together to hear what everyone is up to. I presented a brief overview of some of the themes of our project (rather less adequately than Richard did at the Joseph Banks conference) but, more importantly, was inspired by some of the papers I heard.

One of these was from Matthew Paskins, who is a doctoral student working on ‘The Society of Arts and cultures of invention and experiment’. His paper was called ‘Simple machines’, and highlighted the frequency with which machines and tools considered by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (f. 1754) were praised for their simplicity.  [Read more]

A mystery astronomer?

The National Maritime Museum owns a painting that is something of a mystery, so I thought I would open the question up to readers of the blog. It was in the Museum’s foundational collection, donated by its major benefactor, Sir James Caird, and was at that time believed to be a portrait of Nevil Maskelyne. This explains why I have come across it again recently, for it is included in both the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry and Derek’s Howse’s 1989 biography, The Seaman’s Astronomer. Howse, however, had his doubts about the attribution, for the sensible reason that it does not look all that much like the other known portraits. It now appears in the NMM’s online catalogue as “Formerly called Nevil Maskelyne“. If you do a Google image search you will find both attributions – you will also, bizarrely, find that you can buy a Photo Mug of Formerly Called Nevil Maskelyne from Amazon. [Read more…]

Three in one, and all alone

On Saturday I was in Cambridge, with the Cambridge Science Festival in full flow. I was there to be a panelist for an event called Can You Make A Difference? but during the afternoon I also took in the play Let Newton Be!, written by Craig Baxter and put on by the Menagerie Theatre Company in the lovely surroundings of Downing College and its Howard Theatre. Now, since representations of Newton are right up my street, it seems only sensible that I should share some comments.Read More »

Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne

Today is the bicentenary of the death of the fifth Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. He is best known as the villain of Dava Sobel’s Longitude. This depiction is unfair, as is this book’s suggestion that astronomical and chronometric solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea were rival rather than complementary approaches.

The Longitude Project Blog is presenting four posts by Alexi Baker that exaine the reasons why the popular view of his dealings with John Harrison is inadequate. The first post, Assessing the accusations, is already up and the rest will follow over the next three days.

Hands-on science

Visitors to the Science Museum are often either delighted or slightly bemused by the contrasts provided by its exhibits. The oldest gallery, containing delightfully old-fashioned dioramas of agricultural machinery at work, faces one of the newer, on plastics. Both the topics and their method of display are entirely different, and entirely of their time.

Another striking juxtaposition is provided by the positioning of the noisy, and packed, hands-on Launch Pad, aimed at 8-14-year-olds, next to the sedate, and usually completely empty, display of the Science in the 18th Century. It had always seemed odd, and rather unjust to the beautiful 18th-century instruments, that the gallery entrance should be placed on a landing through which parents are quickly dragged by their impatient children to the more enticing activity beyond, and where child-free adults almost fear to tread. On my last visit, however, I finally got it. Read More »

Longitude ups and downs

The Longitude Project blog is now taking off nicely and, even at this early stage, it is demonstrating how the, possibly stale-sounding, topic of the history of the Board of Longitude reaches into all sorts of interesting areas in Georgian history of science, and beyond. In recent posts Alexi Baker has looked at the frequent connection made between longitude projectors and madness, in Longitude and Lunacy, and the danger of leaping to conclusions about historical terminology, in Dangerous Definitions; Nicky Reeves has considered what may be a parallel case of government rewards for technical and scientific innovation, in Mrs Stephen’s Cure for the Stone; Katy Barrett wins top post title with Cucumbers in the History of Science; I took the opportunity to post a great picture of Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne‘s observing suit in Maskelyne, anniversaries and the observing suit; and Simon Schaffer has added a nice post, Reaching for the Moon, with typically colourful language from Reuben Burrow, about the difficulties faced by those who attempted to use lunar distances when the methods, instruments and tables were still novelties aboard ship.

However, all is not yet bliss. We are currently being frustrated by various glitches with the software and, as Will Thomas found out recently, commenting is currently impossible for people outside the NMM network. I hate to think of good comments going to waste, so I have put up Will’s on his behalf and would encouarge anyone who has anything to say about any of these posts to either contact me directly or to add it as a comment to this post. If you want me to put it up on the Longitude site just let me know (and add on which post it should appear). Our sincere apologies to anyone who has wasted time trying to comment so far. It is likely that we will be migrating the blog elsewhere in the near future (probably WordPress) and I do my best to keep everyone updated.