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.

 

Will David Cameron’s ‘Longitude Prize’ for innovation achieve its aim?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 14 June 2013.

Detail of John Harrison's H3 sea clock

Today we will hear from the prime minister, David Cameron, about the launch of a new “Longitude Prize”. The £1m top prize is, he will say, intended to help the search “for the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web”, according to the BBC report. Lord Rees, the current Astronomer Royal, will head a “Longitude Committee” to judge ideas.

It seems likely that, as we hear more about the design of the competition, the foci of the scheme will be narrowed and, I hope, that some ongoing means of aiding potential competitors will be brought in. We, and they, should recall that the original Longitude Prize was focused on one very specific problem with a number of understood technical challenges. In addition, as I have written elsewhere, John Harrison’s timekeepers would not have been produced without long-term financial investment. A prize is not enough.

Nevertheless, the public face of this project is interesting so far for its hugely wide range. Part of the competition seems to be coming up with a good challenge: what is it we actually want to have solved? Cameron will be asking, “What is the biggest challenge the world faces in the coming years, and how do we solve it?”. The other key theme, of course, is the very obvious connection with the longitude story.

The timing of the prize coincides with the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act next year. I assume that Cameron and Rees would like to have their problem defined and perhaps solved rather quicker that the century it took for the astronomical and timekeeping longitude solutions to become “practicable and useful at sea” – the demand of the 1714 Act.

As I have written elsewhere, though, there was no such thing as the Longitude Prize, and the Longitude Act may actually have had very little effect in speeding up the process of innovation. The history of longitude suggests that new ideas and technologies depend on communities of educated and/or skilled people, on the ability to share and discuss ideas, the possibility of making use of others’ skills and sufficient time and funding for research and development. New products either need a ready market or they must be supported and subsidised.

Nevertheless, as one of the team researching the history of the Board of Longitude, I am fascinated by the notion that a new Longitude Committee will be formed. Having the Astronomer Royal on board is entirely appropriate. All the Astronomers Royal between the 1714 Act and the closure of the Board in 1828 were key individuals for longitude projects to approach. All were ex officio Commissioners of Longitude and some, most especially Nevil Maskelyne, were essential drivers for all the Board’s activity.

For most of the Board of Longitude’s existence the most active members beyond the Astronomer Royal were the President of the Royal Society, the Oxbridge (later also London) professors of astronomy and mathematics, the First Lord and Secretaries of the Admiralty. Late in its life, after the penultimate in a long line of additional Longitude Acts was passed in 1818, there was an attempt to transform the Board into a scientific advisory committee, including paid positions for six advisers, three of whom were chosen from among the Fellows of the Royal Society. For more technical and practical knowledge, expert instrument makers and practical seamen might also be called as committee members or witnesses.

Who, apart from Lord Rees, will be included in the new committee? And what might a comparison of the Board then with the Committee today tell us about where authority and expertise – or good PR – rest today?

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.