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.

 

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?