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Board of Longitude

last modified Feb 23, 2012 09:14 AM
Navigating 18th Century Science and Technology: the Board of Longitude

In a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, researchers will embark on the first full investigation of the barely-studied archives of the British Board of Longitude, the eighteenth century organisation which oversaw the search for an accurate method of determining how far east or west a ship was at sea.

The aim is not just to write the first history of the Board, but to reclaim its place in the story of a long series of breakthroughs, arguments, projects and schemes that until now have largely been associated with the efforts of a lone, self-educated clockmaker, John Harrison.

Harrison, whose life has been the subject of both a best-selling book and a film, was responsible for the development of a marine timekeeper, later called the chronometer. This key piece of technology enabled Longitude’s accurate measurement and thus helped crack a conundrum that had baffled the world’s most eminent scholars and navigators for generations.

As the project will seek to prove, however, the achievement was not his alone. Researchers will examine how he was one of an array of astronomers, inventors and craftspeople whose talents were harnessed and exploited by the Board’s actions, and how it continued to sponsor innovations in science, exploration and industry long after Harrison had claimed his prize.

The study, which is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, will produce the first ever complete history of the British Board of Longitude in time for 2014, the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act that established it. To mark the launch, a short film about the project will be available from today on the University’s YouTube Channel.

“The Board of Longitude has had a pretty bad career in history, because it has either been forgotten or condemned,” Professor Simon Schaffer, from the University of Cambridge, who will lead the research, said. “Its creation was a turning point in British history, but after it was abolished in 1828 it was largely forgotten and its impact was never properly assessed.”

“Part of the reason is that we still like to believe that we are a nation of enthusiastic amateurs like Harrison, making huge breakthroughs against the odds and in spite of a state hostile to scientific progress. In fact, we have a long history of state-sponsored ingenuity which made Britain into a military and technological world player. The Board is in many ways that history. By writing it we want to change the narrative.”

The Board of Longitude was set up to administer a prize of £20,000 (almost £3 million in modern money) to anyone who could solve the Longitude Problem. In addition, however, it had the discretion to support any sufficiently “promising” experimental work that might help along the way.

After Harrison claimed the prize, its patronage extended further still. The Board became involved with a wide range of scientific and maritime initiatives, including Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration, the worldwide survey of geomagnetism, the establishment of the first overseas state observatory and the search for a North-West passage.

The research will attempt to piece together its entire story, from 1714 to 1828, by focusing on two collections that represent the Board’s Legacy.

The first, an internationally-important collection of instruments and materials at the National Maritime Museum, attracts two million visitors a year, not least because it includes Harrison’s own timekeepers. In addition, the team will open up the Board of Longitude papers at Cambridge’s University Library; a vast archive of manuscripts, letters, log-books (including those of Captain Cook) and other documents that have never been systematically studied. These papers include invaluable material ranging from climate records across the world to reports of encounters between Europeans and other peoples.

Researchers argue that while Harrison has been hugely important in popularising Longitude, it is important to rectify what they claim is a national myth that elevates his heroic role at the expense of the whole truth.

“One of the things we will be doing is taking apart the timekeepers Harrison made, which can give us an alternative version of the story,” Richard Dunn, Curator of the History of Navigation at the National Maritime Museum, said. “If you look inside the first clock, it quickly becomes clear that several people were involved in making it. Clearly this wasn’t just about a lone genius working by himself.”

The project also promises to illuminate the lives of a multitude of people who worked with the Board, corresponded with it, or wrote about and sometimes satirised it in newspapers and magazines of the time. The majority – artisans vying for the prize – would have been lost to history themselves without the archive’s existence.

“Essentially the Board represents the germs of our national science policy,” Professor Schaffer added. “The materials and correspondence it left behind is a window on to the cosmology of an entire class of people, and also on to the beginnings of Government-sponsored science in Britain.”

“State-backed science is still an issue which matters a lot now, whether it’s on stem cell research or climate change. We don’t always know whether to trust it, and we don’t know how to respond when scientists and the state fall out. If we can find out what worked as that relationship was beginning – and why – then we will have lessons to teach from the project we are starting now.”

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