Update: H Word posts on books, hoaxes, lives and laptops

Posts over on The H Word, from the last little while. Comments on all of these are now closed, but please feel free to continue any of the conversations in the comments here – particularly on reading about science, discussed in the last post listed here.  On that theme, see also Georgina Voss’s post asking for suggestions of fictional works that help explore the politics of science and technology.


Twenty years on from Longitude… rewriting the “villainous” Nevil Maskelyne

A new book on a Georgian Astronomer Royal reveals that there was a great deal more to Nevil Maskelyne than being clockmaker John Harrison’s bête noire.

The Great Moon Hoax and the Christian Philosopher

180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. Why were people convinced, was it a hoax, and why was it written? Was it a satire that went wrong?

Anna Atkins: Google’s tribute to a pioneer of botany and photography

One of the few women to gain presence in 19th-century science, her book, containing cyanotypes of botanical specimens, was the first to contain photographic images.

Destroyed Snowden laptop: the curatorial view

The Snowden MacBook, destroyed in the basement of the Guardian, is on display at the V&A. I asked some experts for their opinion of this unusual and provocative display of technology.

An alternative 13 best books about science?

What books do you think people should read to understand science – not just its content, but also its history and place in society?

Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal – book now available

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



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

Introduction (Rebekah Higgitt)

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

Case study A: The longitude problem (RH)

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

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

Chapter 3: Maskelyne the Manager (Nicky Reeves)

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

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

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

Chapter 5: Maskelyne’s Time (Rory McEvoy)

Case study E: Instruments of exploration (RH)

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8: The Maskelynes at Home (Amy Miller)

Coda: A life well lived (RH)

Farewell Greenwich Mean Time (see you in October)

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first published on 30 March 2014.

The 24-hour Shepherd Gate Clock outside the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, displaying Greenwich Mean Time to the public.
The 24-hour Shepherd Gate Clock outside the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, displaying Greenwich Mean Time to the public.

It has become something of a tradition on this blog to mark the biannual change of the clocks and, although I no longer work at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, it’s a habit that sticks. This time, as we say farewell to it until the autumn, it seems a good opportunity to reminisce about Greenwich Mean Time.*

Why Greenwich time? And what’s mean about it?

Mean time is clock time. It is a regularised, idealised version of solar time that is tracked not by the apparent motions of the Sun, observed by shadows on sundials, but by a mechanical device that splits the solar day into equal parts. Mean time ticks away at the same pace no matter the season. The difference between the two is described by the equation of time.

Establishing the relationship between mean solar time and apparent solar time only really became possible, or useful, with the arrival of the pendulum clock in the 1650s. This made the mechanical clock, for the first time, a scientific instrument. Christiaan Huygens, who developed the first prototype pendulum clock in 1656, was able to produce reasonably accurate tables of the equation of time in 1665.

However, it fell to John Flamsteed to publish tables in 1672-3 that tackled the problem in what became the standard way. He provided the formula by which apparent solar time could be converted into Mean Time.

Just a couple of years later, Flamsteed was appointed the first Astronomer Royal and moved into the newly built observatory in Greenwich. There, he and his patrons had installed state-of-the-art pendulum clocks by the best clockmaker available, Thomas Tompion. With observations of the Sun and the help of his tables, Flamsteed set these clocks to the local time: Greenwich Mean Time.

Greenwich time became important because there were people measuring it and because other people made use of astronomical observations based on it. Flamsteed’s catalogue of stars, which was to become a standard reference work for the following decades, listed their positions based on Greenwich time.

It was one of Flamsteed’s successors, Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811, who did most to ensure that GMT mattered to more than just astronomers. Under his initiative, observations made at Greenwich were processed into tables that could be used by navigators and cartographers to establish positions at sea or on land. This was the Nautical Almanac, first published for the year 1767.

Surveyors of the Royal Navy and the Ordnance Survey relied on data that was based on observations made at Greenwich, meaning that their charts and maps used Greenwich as a reference point. More precisely, this was the meridian (north-south line) on which the chief telescope at Greenwich was mounted. The Greenwich meridian thus became a prime meridian for British mapping, and east-west position was measured from there. To establish longitudes it was necessary to know the difference between local time and GMT. This could be worked out with astronomical observations and the tables of the Nautical Almanac and, increasingly, with chronometers set to GMT.

The move of GMT from the specialist worlds of astronomy, navigation and surveying into civilian life was down to the increasing role of technologies and cultures that demanded standardization. The arrival of railways made timetabling a necessity. Telegraph systems made it both desirable and possible to know what time it was elsewhere. Factory work made production and payment dependent on timekeeping.

GMT became “Railway Time” in the 1840s, and Britain’s legal standard time in 1880. Despite what you’ll often read, it did not become an international standard in 1884. In that year an international conferencedid recommend the adoption of the Greenwich meridian as the world’s reference point for time and longitude, but it was just a recommendation.

What actually happened as a result of the International Meridian Conference, and what did not, is a story for another post. See you back here on 26 October.

* Our standard time is now in fact Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), derived from International Atomic Time but as close as darn it to GMT.

Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 12 September 2013.

The collapsed Tay Bridge

This evening, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, will weigh into the debate about climate change and geoengineering in an address at the British Science Festival.

Finding such fixes, as well as more efficient forms of alternative energy, may well be problems focused on by the new challenge prize that Rees has helped set up. That he, as Astronomer Royal, will be judging what has been called a new ‘Longitude Prize’, seems appropriate, but the innovations under consideration may be a long way from his own field of astronomy and cosmology.

Today the post of Astronomer Royal is honorary. It means simply, as Alok Jha’s article on Rees’s speech suggests, that he is “one of Britain’s most senior scientists”. Like a Chief Scientific Advisor, or the head of a scientific society, the Astronomer Royal can be expected to give all sorts of opinions about science and science policy, straying at least occasionally, if they wish, well beyond their area of research.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Until the 1970s the post of Astronomer Royal was synonymous with director of the Greenwich Observatory (at GreenwichHerstmonceux and then Cambridge). Before the 19th century, the AR was also an active observer, in fact only one of two observers in the institution.

Nevertheless, Astronomers Royal were often called upon to make judgements and offer advice in areas that did not relate to making observations or managing an observatory. Because the Royal Observatory was funded by government, being under the administration of first the Board of Ordnance and then the Admiralty, there was potential for them to be asked to consider a whole range of technical and scientific issues.

For much of the AR’s history, the most obvious place in which this happened was the Board of Longitude. While many of the ideas under consideration were astronomical (involving knowledge of astronomical theory, mathematics, optics and instrumentation), others were based on geomagnetism or, of course, horology. Understanding clocks and timekeeping was essential to astronomy, but the specifics of horological theory and manufacture would have been beyond the AR’s experience.

ARs also advised on areas like cartography, instrument design and weights and measures, that involved techniques closely allied to astronomy. But they were also asked to consider a wide range of fields of interest to the Admiralty and other branches of government, simply because they ended up being their available scientific expert.

One of the ARs who most obviously became the government’s go-to scientific and technical guy was George Airy, who was in position from 1835 to 1881. Airy covered a great deal of ground, intellectually and practically. Unlike all his predecessors he was not much involved with daily observations and he had a significantly larger workforce at the Observatory, onto which observation, calculation and even management could be delegated.

Airy, for example, did a considerable amount of work on the effect of iron ships’ hulls on compass use and design. He also advised, like many other ARs, on education and he was involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. He was, perhaps most intriguingly, called in to advise the Great Western Railway on track gauges and the engineer Thomas Bouch about the pressures that might be exerted by wind on the planned rail bridge crossing the Forth.

That latter advice got him into trouble. It was first applied by Bouch to the Tay Bridge and, when that collapsed in 1879 [see image above], Airy was called in by the enquiry. He claimed that his advice had been specific to the circumstances of the Forth and the design for that bridge (which was now speedily discarded). The enquiry agreed, suggesting that Bouch had “must have misunderstood the nature of [Airy’s] report”.

Airy did know quite a lot about engineering. He was, apart from anything else, closely involved with the design of large instruments and their mounts at Greenwich. Times and the nature and range of expertise have changed considerably since the 19th century, however. Lord Rees is not an Astronomer Royal who can offer specific or technical engineering expertise, rather he is calling for research and funding. Whether or not you agree with his statements is a different matter.

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.

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!)

My Royal Society talk: Maskleyne’s reputation

[Cross-posted from the Longitude Project blog]

Readers of this blog may be interested to listen to a talk I gave at the Royal Society last week. Audio and slideshow versions are available here. The talk was entitled “Hero or villain? Nevil Maskelyne’s posthumous reputation” and, while pointing out that ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are hardly historiographically useful categories I discussed how Maskelyne has come to be most commonly known as the villain of the story of longitude.

I began by briefly introducing the man and his life, before discussing the two early and influential accounts of his life, which demonstrate the range of Maskleyne work and his high international reputation. These were a 1812 article inRees’s Cyclopaedia by Patrick Kelly, who was master of Finsbury Square Academy and an author on nautical astronomy, and the Eloge produced for the French Institute in 1813 by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, permanent secretary for mathematical sciences, director of the Paris Observatory.

Kelly was one of Maskelyne’s close acquaintances and Delambre, according to Lalande in a letter to Maskelyne held in the NMM’s Caird Library, once considered Nevil “le dieu de l’astronomie”. It’s unsurprising that Maskelyne comes out well of these accounts, but it is typical that early 19th-century biography should be sympathetic to its subject and that it should be produced by friends, family or colleagues. They are the sources that were taken up, and thus my talk explored why and at what point the image of this significant figure of British science, who was acclaimed for his dedicated hard work and for making the Royal Observatory useful to the public, became one of elitism and obstructiveness.

As I hope I show, it can’t all be blamed on Sobel’s Longitude but, rather, dates back to earlier rediscoveries of John Harrison, and to horological histories that have tended to ignore significant aspects of the contemporary context.

My talk also dwells a little on my dual response to this. On the one hand there is an academic one that seeks to avoid historical goodies and baddies, to explore fully contexts and motivations and to replace simplistic accounts with more nuanced ones. On the other, there is a sense of injustice which, of course, must mirror that felt by those championing Harrison. There seems to be ample evidence that Maskelyne was a pretty nice, and fair, man but it’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge! I hope, at least, that future displays at the Royal Observatory – Maskelyne’s home – can take advantage of the objects, manuscripts and accounts that the Museum has to reflect something of Maskelyne’s significance in his own time and his life with friends, colleagues and family as well as antagonists.

While over at the Royal Society’s list of history of science podcasts, do take a look at some of the others on offer. 18th-century enthusiasts will enjoy James Sumner’s “‘How should a chemist understand brewing?’ Beer and theory around 1800”; material culture/materials folk should listen to Susan Mossman on plastics; more on someone closely connected to the history of the Royal Observatory can be found in Frances Willmoth’s talk on Jonas Moore; early 17th-century instruments and clocks are discussed by Rebecca Pohancenik. And much, much more. Many thanks to Felicity Henderson at the Royal Society for inviting me to join them.