Cambridge University puts "18th century X Factor" Board of Longitude archive online

By Culture24 Reporter | 23 July 2013

From the early 18th century, scientists faced endless tribulations in attempting to find a reliable way of measuring longitude aboard ships.

An image of an ancient painting of rowing boats at sea
William Hodges, Resolution and Adventure in Matavia Bay, Cook's Second Voyage© Cambridge University Library
A £20,000 prize, established by an Act of Parliament in July 1714, would have rewarded the visionary who solved the riddle. And the equivalent amount today - £1.5 million - is how much Cambridge University Library received for a Digital Library project to put the entire archive of the Board of Longitude online.

Funded by the Polonsky Foundation, the full story features no less than four accounts of Captain Cook’s epic Second Voyage, including his stewardship of the first ship to cross the Arctic Circle in 1773.

A photo of a gold time measuring device from the 18th century
Jesse Ramsden, Sextant© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Among dozens of ripping yarns, the naming of Australia, the sorry story of a sailor torn to shreds by a sealion off the north-west coast of America, mutiny and scurvy all surface. Soured relationships also regularly feature.

One letter, by HC Jennings, included printed descriptions of inventions the explorer believed could revolutionise sea journeys. The board, though, refused to even allow their correspondent to demonstrate his ideas, and his next dispatch crystallised his doubts over their judgement.

Thomas Earnshaw, meanwhile, showed little sorrow following the death of John Arnold, the rival watchmaker whose tiny mechanisms had competed with his in attempting to make clocks more accurate at the dawn of the 19th century.

Both inventors had been given £3,000 rewards by the Board for the veracity of their watches, with neither declared the more reliable contraption. Earnshaw’s stinging eight-point letter accuses Arnold of being a liar, thief and coward.

A photo of a large circular brown ancient timekeeping device
Ralph Walker's Azimuth Compass - from the Impracticable Schemes© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
“Think the X-Factor, only with much more money and much more importance,” says Professor Simon Schaffer, a Cambridge historian, discussing the Board.

“It would reward anyone who could solve the problem of longitude, but the problem could be a lethal one.

“The story is a spectacular example of expert disagreement and public participation.

“As well as attracting the greatest scientific minds of the day, the board enticed people who belong to one of the most important traditions in British society – the extreme eccentric.”

High-profile logbooks and letters might capture the high-resolution imagination as much as bitter contests and wild proposals. Anne Jarvis, the University Librarian, says cataloguing the “incredible collection” is a major step in the institution’s bid to create “a digital library for the world.”

Supported by digital charity JISC and the National Maritime Museum, the compilation of more than 65,000 images range from the first recorded meeting, in 1737, to the dissolution of the board in 1828.

Dr Richard Dunn, of Royal Museums Greenwich, added that the archive would prove that the story of longitude goes beyond John Harrison, whose late 18th century marine chronometer has made him one of the most celebrated Britons in history.

“He was a crucial figure, but the story is much broader,” says Dunn, who is curating a major exhibition inspired by the issues involved.

“The archive places the familiar story of Harrison in its richer context.

“It takes in the development of astronomy, exploration and technological innovation and creativity during the period of the Industrial Revolution, the work of the first government body devoted to scientific matters, and public reactions to a challenge many considered hopeless.”

Two volumes are devoted to “impractical” schemes. Prisoners seeking release and William Lester – whose solar experiments were replied to with a board warning that “you will set fire to London” – are a few of the theorists in tomes bound and prefaced with titles including “wild proposals resulting from dreams”.

More pictures:

A photo of a black ink drawing of 18th century slaves
Astronomer viewing through sextant© Cambridge University Library
A photo of an 18th century diagram layout for a timepiece
Vetter's machine for measuring currents© Cambridge University Library
An image of a mathematical line drawing of measurement made up of circles and lines
Hodge's 'dumb compass'© Cambridge University Library
An image of a mathematical diagram showing a measuring device being used by a boat
Proposal for finding longitude by determining the ship's rate of sailing© Cambridge University Library
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