On longitude in BBC History Magazine

A piece that I wrote for BBC History Magazine, which appeared in 2014, has been made available by someone (Morgan High History Academy, anyone?) as a PDF online here. With some nice pictures, courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, and some good editing, courtesy of the magazine’s editors, it’s perhaps worth a look.

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.


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)! 

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.

Leonhard Euler, longitude winner

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, first appeared 15 April 2013.

18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler
Leonhard Euler, the influential Swiss mathematician, has had the 306th anniversary of his birth honoured by a Google doodle. Photograph: Google. Photograph: Kunstmuseum Basel/Wikimedia Commons

I was delighted to spot today’s Google doodle, celebrating the Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler. The Guardian’s brief piece today states that:

Euler was arguably the most important mathematician of the 18th century and one of the greatest of all time. He introduced most modern mathematical terminology and notation and was also renowned for his work in mechanics, fluid dynamics, optics, and astronomy.

What is not noted, but is well-known to those of us working on the history of the Board of Longitude project, is that Euler is one of those who received a financial reward from the Board in 1765.

In the aftermath of a sea trial of three possible approaches to solving the problem of finding longitude at sea, two emerged as worthy of further investment. One was John Harrison’s sea watch, for which the maker received £7500 in October 1765. Any further reward would depend on his showing that this was a machine that could be replicated.

Back in May 1765, however, the Board also worked out how to reward and support the lunar distance method. This, much more obviously than Harrison’s work, was a method produced through the work of many individuals, several already deceased. However, as well as setting up the future publication of digested astronomical data in the form of theNautical Almanac, they opted to flag up some key contributions.

Tobias Mayer’s widow, Maria was paid £3000 as a posthumous reward to her husband “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”.

Still living, however, was Leonhard Euler, who received £300 “for Theorums furnished by him to assist Professor Mayer in the Construction of Lunar tables”.

Euler’s important mathematical work had very practical applications, of which he and the Board were well aware. It was this work, building on that of Johann Bernoulli and Gottfried Leibniz that allowed Mayer to do what had always eluded Isaac Newton: produce a usable theory of the moon.

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.

The benefits of hindsight: how history can contribute to science policy

By Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon and first posted at The H Word blog. It is an edited version of their contribution to the book Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall, which is free to download here.

Long-term support, not a one-off reward, allowed John Harrison to build his sea clocks. Could research on the history of the Board of Longitude inform our thinking about science policy? Photograph: National Maritime Museum
Long-term support, not a one-off reward, allowed John Harrison to build his sea clocks. Could research on the history of the Board of Longitude inform our thinking about science policy? Photograph: National Maritime Museum

It is easy to chant the mantras of evidence-based policy, but less straightforward to determine which forms of expertise and evidence should count. There is now a welcome recognition across government that many policy problems benefit from multidisciplinary perspectives. But implicit hierarchies between disciplines persist, which are rarely explained or written down.

There have been several efforts to demonstrate the value of the humanities to policy in recent years, including helpful contributions from the British Academythe Arts and Humanities Research Council and individual humanities scholars.

Some progress has been made, but as the historian Roger Kain put it in his October 2011 oral evidence to the House of Lords inquiry into chief scientific advisers (speaking on behalf of the British Academy): “The term science and engineering seems at the moment to not exclude but marginalise the humanities and social science in relation to advice and expertise: culture, history, language, psychology, and political science”.

The potential contribution of a number of “marginalised” disciplines merits discussion. Here we want to focus on history, and call for the evidence and expertise of historians to be taken more seriously in policy – particularly science policy – alongside evidence from the natural and social sciences. Given Sir Mark Walport’s support for the medical humanities and the history of science during his decade as director of the Wellcome Trust, we hope this is an agenda where he will want to demonstrate some leadership during his tenure as government chief scientific adviser. We suggest that one way he could signal his commitment to the value of historical methods and insights in science policy would be to pilot a “hindsight project” within the government’s existing Foresight Programme.

Finding a place for history in science policy

In science policy, history often plays a role as example or justification, based on assumptions about how science is done or how innovation occurs that misrepresent our knowledge of the past. As Virgina Berridge notes in her study of history in health policy, there can be a “totemic role” for historians, where historical messages are “misunderstood or used for particular policy purposes”. Historians, naturally, aim to mediate the history used in the public sphere, ensuring that is not completely divorced from their research, most of which is publicly funded.

Initiatives like History and Policy are focused on encouraging historians to see the potential relevance of their work and, through policy-friendly reports, aim to show that “historians can shed light on the causes of current problems and even suggest innovative solutions”.

Historians have occasionally found a role within policymaking through research focused on topics of recent history and obvious relevance. One example is Catherine Haddon who, having produced a thesis on Whitehall and cold war defence, is now a research fellow at the Institute for Government. Similarly, there was interest in historian Abigail Wood’s work on foot and mouth disease, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis of 2001.

However, there is a role for broader input from the history of science and allied disciplines, if a mechanism can be found to bring this evidence into the policymaking process. Last month, the case for historical advisers in government departments received a high-profile endorsement from Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary. “Those who take major policy decisions in ignorance of relevant history,” he wrote, “are like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror.”

His timing was deliberate: with momentum building around the use of evidence in policy and new initiatives such as the Cabinet Office’s network of “what works” centres, historians feel they are in danger of being undervalued as an asset to the policy process.

Dispelling myths and challenging assumptions

History of science can provide insights that may have general agreement within the discipline but sharper divergence from more popular accounts. Historians are good at judging the interests that lie behind differing interpretations of the past, as well as exploring their validity. One example is the work of David Edgerton, who has highlighted a number of areas in which common assumptions in science policy are shown to be problematic. These include challenging the perceived economic and technological significance of publicly funded research, and cherished notions of researcher autonomy such as the “Haldane Principle”.

Although Edgerton has shown that the so-called “linear model” of innovation is a recent academic construct, created as a foil to better models, there is frequent recourse, both by science lobbyists and austerity-juggling politicians, to economic arguments for science funding that sound suspiciously similar. The argument that pure scientific research is the best means of producing new and unexpected technologies dates back to the 19th century and has been corralled into support for increased state funding of science ever since.

Historical research has, however, shown that what is classed as “pure” science can often be seen as the product of work focused either on specific outcomes, or existing within what Jon Agar has called “working worlds” or “projects that generate problems”.

Historical myths, assumptions and analogies frequently find their way into policy announcements and, even if merely as throwaway devices to help frame a speech, can by repetition serve to cloud important issues. One example is the persistent myth of Britain being good at discovery and poor at supporting innovation, referred to in a 2010 speech by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, as “that old British problem of failing to make the most of our own discoveries and inventions”. James Sumner pointed out that his example – Joseph Priestley, Johann Jacob Schweppe and the production of carbonated drinks – completely undermined Willetts’s point.

Eyes on the prize

One opportunity for the input of historical expertise to discussions about science, technology and innovation is in the recently established Centre for Challenge Prizes within Nesta, the UK innovation foundations. As the Centre’s Landscape Review explains, one of its activities will be research into the effectiveness of challenge prizes, past and present.

The emblematic example of challenge prizes is the 1714 Longitude Act. The meaning and usefulness of this choice is something that a current AHRC-funded research project on the history of the Board of Longitude, based at the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum, is well-placed to examine. While the well-known version of the story appears to back claims about the efficacy of one-off inducement prizes, research shows that in order to provide a practical solution to the problem of finding longitude at sea, the Board was necessarily much more flexible in the range of funding mechanisms they used.

Given the focus on challenge prizes as economically efficient, perhaps the most problematic claim is that they “generate commercial activity”. It was the already-thriving commercial activity surrounding instrument making in 18th-century London that enabled production of potential longitude solutions, rather than the large reward acting as an incentive to commerce. Where the Board of Longitude was particularly significant was not in a one-off reward but through long-term support, as the longitude solutions were gradually accepted, embedded and made commercially viable.

The idea that financial risk can be limited “by awarding a prize only when the challenge is successfully met” raises pertinent questions, which troubled the Board greatly, about how to judge success. As well as paying out smaller rewards for promising ideas, the Board paid Harrison a very large reward despite the fact that his single, expensive and complex product was a long way from solving the problem for every naval vessel. The lessons to be learned are that prize criteria must be drawn up with extreme caution, and organisers must be clear about how much money is worth risking on a potentially prize-winning but not problem-solving solution.

The longitude case is one in which the history is partially known, in ways that are informed by erroneous assumptions about the nature of innovation. Familiar stories of geniuses who work alone to produce products that solve problems, more or less at a stroke, could hardly be less useful. Harrison was remarkable, but he and the successful longitude solutions required the skills of others and long-term support. Similar stories can be unearthed about other, more recent examples of challenge prizes and should be incorporated into thinking about what can be expected from such initiatives.

Hindsight enriching foresight

Of course, historians are not likely to be welcomed to the party if their only contribution is “but it’s more complicated than that.” An ability to unpack assumptions, myths and the lost contexts in which particular policy ideas were formed can be particularly useful. Dealing with nuance and complexity in evidence, and how perspective changes its interpretation, are commonplace skills in historical research and could be invaluable for mitigating potential policy failures and controversies, for example around new and emerging technologies.

As Geoff Mulgan has argued in this series of posts, historians and political scientists have also made important contributions to the field of “evidence about evidence”, helping policymakers to understand how knowledge is formed, exchanged and used in policymaking.

All of this leads to our modest concluding proposal. As Sir Mark Walport takes over at the Government Office for Science, one small but significant way in which he could signal his commitment to the value of historical methods and insights would be to pilot a “hindsight project” within the existing Foresight Programme. Adding one or two historians of science to the policy mix could provide the Government Office for Science, and the wider science and engineering profession in Whitehall, with the “rear mirror” on which, as Lord Butler argues, every good driver should rely.

Prize fights: animadversions on the almanac

Cross-posted from the Longitude Project Blog.

A long time ago, in a post far, far away, I stated that “There was no such thing as the longitude prize”. In the same post I also mentioned that I would, nevertheless, have more to say about 18th-century references to a longitude prize. It is high time I fulfilled that promise.

In fact, there are just two mentions of a “Longitude Prize” picked up in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), which includes millions of searchable, digitised pages from over 180,000 books, pamphlets, essays and broadsides. I think we can safely say that it was not a commonplace term at that time. [A Google Books Ngram search on Longitude Prize and longitude prize gives us nothing between 1800 and the 1890s, and has peaks in the 1960s (after Gould’s chronometer history and Quill’s Harrison biography appeared) and the 1990s (post-Sobel).]

Chasing this reference did, however, lead me to learn about some rather public dissatisfaction with the Board of Longitude and its Nautical Almanac. It also reveals another dispute that hit Nevil Maskelyne.

Both 18th-century uses of the phrase are from Robert Heath’s The British palladium; or, Annual miscellany, for the years 1768 and 1774. Heath was an army officer and a mathematician, best known as a frequent contributor to and subsequently the editor of the Ladies’ Diary. This was an annual publication that contained useful information, calendars and mathematical puzzles. Many of these puzzles and problems, for which prizes were offered, were set by Heath, who initially marketed the British Palladium as an appendix.

Heath’s major publications were, however, Astronomia accurata, or, The Royal Astronomer and Navigator (1760), and The Seaman’s Guide to the Longitude (1770). These were both very combative publications, the first accusing  James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin of making errors in their astronomical tables, and the second attacking Maskelyne for having failed to publish Tobias Mayer‘s lunar tables. The tables, which were nearly ready, actually appeared that year, but Maskelyne and Heath subsequently remained on bad terms, disputing mathematics and table production.

From this disputatious context, we can imagine that the use of the term “Longitude prize” was a loaded one. The 1768 instance leads to a piece of Longitude doggerel, which, for your edification, I will reproduce below. The “prize” here produces a rhyme, but also reveals a negative judgement of the competitive, argumentative and money-grabbing nature of the longitude search.

The 1774 instance occurs within  a piece that compared the British Nautical Almanac with the FrenchConnaissance des Temps. The sub-title is “The Discoverers of the Longitude discovered” and, as we might guess, was critical of the Board of Longitude. It suggested that public money wasted, noting that as aspects of the British ephemeris appeared to be the same as the French, it must have been copied (I think I’m right to say that it was actually the other way round). The article, attributed to “A Sea Officer”, goes on:

The British Computers make as puzzling a Mystery of their mixed and borrowedCalculations (and some no Use at Sea) as of the Longitude they seek. But we, on-board the Navy, make the same Use of the Nautical Ephemeris as we do of a Pack of Cards or the Back-gammon Tables; to pass an idle Hour or to kill Time! For, as we find none is paid for chacing the Longitude-Prize but Longitude Schemers and Projectors, (for whose Profit we are annually out of Pocket by being compelled to buy their Work,) we have long given over the Chace ourselves, without endeavouring to come up with what is not worth ourpicking up.

It was clearly Heath himself: his chief target, Maskelyne, is referred to as “the reverend Superintendentor Commander in Chief of Longitude”. It is unsurprising that Maskelyne, in his autobiographical notes, chose to underline the fact that he never benefited financially from taking on the extra work surrounding the publication of the Nautical Almanac. It was not only Harrison who suspected him of being motivated by money.

These publications, produced after the date that the “Longitude Prize” is usually considered to have been awarded and the problem solved, are very clear in their view that the solution was still elusive.


Tune of the Ass. Or otherwise to be set to MUSIC by Seig. Chrisstiano Longitudiano.

Disputes still arise,
For the Longitude Prize,
Since Whiston and Ditton are fled;
And H__r__n’s W___h,
Have prov’d a mere Catch,
And goes like one out of it’s Head, its Head,
And goes like one out of it’s Head [Note: See Mr. Maskelyne’s Observations.]

Irwin’s Chair lost it’s Fame,
And has now but a Name,
Was surpassed by the Scheme of the Moon;
W_tch_l beat up a Breeze,
For the Longitude Fees,
But to School he was sent away soon, aye soon,
But to School he was sent away soon.

For D__nth__e of Sages,
With one Dozen Pages,
That voluminous Scheme quite knock’d down;
He shew’d where it err’d,
Got his own Scheme preferr’d,
Which made the Watchmaker to frown, to frown,
Which made the poor Q_____r to frown.

Yet D___nth_e, or Ly___n,
We cannot rely on,
Tho’ Cambridge of Oxford takes Place;
Parallax and Refraction,
Are but a Distraction,
Till prov’d to agree with the Case, the Case,
Till proved to agree with the Case.

The Palladium Brother
Has gone little further, [Note: See p.53, & Suppt to Royal Astron. &  Navigator, p.8]
Till his Theory and Practice unite:
Then, by Observation,
He can serve his Nation,
Without his being a Bite, a Bite,
Without his being a Bite.

Of the Longitude Hoard,
Which is rul’d by the Board,
No Em___rs__n ever yet shar’d;
And the Nautical Nac,
Is but a fam’d Crack,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d, appear’d,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d.

Of Cambridge and Lyon,
And Oxford, cry fye on!
No Longitude yet has been found;
The learned Professors,
Have all been Aggressors,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d, renown’d,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d!

(I’ll admit that there are a few references there that I haven’t yet worked out – all suggestions on these names and allusions are gratefully received!)

Science prizes: what are they for?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Detail of Harrison's H4 sea watch
Prizes can recognise achievements (like the Nobels) or induce researchers to focus on particular problems. John Harrison’s 1759 sea watch was a result of the latter approach. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

On Tuesday, the Nobel prize for physics was announced. Like all the Nobels, it will attract considerable interest, publicity and debate. But what are the roles of prizes – as rewards or as incentives – in science?

Because of the large amount of money involved, and the international remit, the Nobels have become hugely prestigious, if often controversial. Yet they are an oddity, founded on an individual’s whim, with no consultation with governments or institutions, and resting, as the Guardian’s Ian Sample puts it, “on the words of a secretive bunch of Scandinavians”. Despite this, the Nobels are typical of the many prizes established within science that reward success, mark approval, consolidate a sense of community and, often, create public interest.

Although numerous, the very notion of prizes in science can be controversial. Making choices about winners and losers is bound to encourage dissent, but prizes also seem to undermine some of the basic assumptions about how science works. They stimulate competition in an endeavour that is often celebrated as collaborative. Sometimes they act to focus minds on particular problems, implying that serendipitous discovery through “blue skies” research is insufficient in meeting society’s needs. Finally, offering money suggests that financial success through the market may be elusive, or that the joy of intellectual discovery is not necessarily sufficient reward.

The way that prizes have been awarded and publicised can offer clues about the status of science through history. The Royal Society, which now offers a huge number of prizes and honours, first awarded its Copley Medal in 1731. The list of winners is wonderfully eclectic, and shows that in the early days the “most important scientific discovery” was often judged to relate to a practical problem. It shows a Society that was keen to demonstrate the public utility of science.

This was typical of the period. The Society of Arts, for example, offered premiums for specific challenges, such as improvements to machines or techniques in agriculture and navigation. Similarly, in 1796, the American Philosophical Society announced rewards for “the best performances, inventions, or improvements” in ships’ pumps, calculating longitude by lunar distance, stoves, preventing decay in peach trees, studying native American vegetable diets, and street lighting. Famously, Napoleon offered a prize for the invention of a method of food preservation that would facilitate the feeding of his armies.

Such challenge prizes did not disappear, although, in the following centuries, the most high-profile were offered by individuals and companies and focused on exciting and popular areas of innovation like railways and flight. The X Prize, for commercial space flight, is clearly of the same lineage as the Orteig Prize for flying non-stop between Paris and New York.

Increasingly, though, as science began to offer careers rather than haphazard opportunities, institutional and governmental rewards for science recognised outstanding achievements, rather than attempting to push people and teams into working on particular problems. In part this resulted from the rise of the notion that science benefits mankind as the unpredictable (but nevertheless ultimately assured) result of undirected, curiosity-driven research.

Recently, however, we seem to have stepped back into the 18th century.Nesta, which has set up a Centre for Challenge Prizes with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, sets the tone in this overview of the history and recent rise of challenge prizes. It points to the findings of a recent report that “before 1991, 97% of the prize money offered took the form of recognition prizes for past achievements. Since then, 78% of new prize money has been offered for the future solution of problems.”

Inducement prizes are proliferating, and the UK and the US governments are showing increasing interest. They are a particularly good way of getting attention from both public and STEM community, while being seen to be making positive noises about important problems or opportunities, all at a cost greatly lower than that of fully supporting and investing in the required R&D. The winners of the X-Prize put in far more money than they got back and, adding in the amount invested by other competitors for this or, for example, the Saltire Prize, we might see this is a bargain. But is this really how things work?

Nearly every time such prizes are mentioned, as if in proof of their effectiveness, the great granddaddy of them all – the so-called Longitude Prize – is alluded to. In 1714 the British government offered a great deal of money to anyone who could find a practical and more accurate means of finding longitude (i.e. east-west position) at sea. The sum specified, £20,000, was ultimately given to John Harrison for his sea watch. Bingo! Significant issue resolved as the result of a one-off inducement prize.

Well, yes and no. As I have written before, the story is more complicated and the Commissioners of Longitude and Admiralty had to be considerably more flexible in their approach. As far as the development of Harrison’s clocks goes, long-term financial support, in the form of a series of smaller rewards between 1737 and 1764, was probably more important than the distant carrot of the ultimate reward. Likewise, it was subsequently necessary to invest in further product development and basic infrastructure to make the use of timekeepers and the (necessary and complementary) astronomical techniques a practical possibility.

If the Longitude Act of 1714 is to be an inspiration for current initiatives, then prize-givers should recall these facts and be in a position to offer a mixed funding model. Unless backed by grants, profitable companies or other institutions, researchers will not have time and leisure to develop new ideas. And those ideas are nothing without further investment. Without these other elements, challenge prizes will reward the already-successful, just as Nobels and other recognition prizes do.