The 1714 Longitude Act was a turning point in British history: for the first time, the government used legislation to address a specific scientific problem, offering a £20,000 prize for a practical method of determining longitude at sea. The Act also created a Board of Longitude, comprising leaders of Britain’s political, maritime, scientific, academic and commercial networks, to judge claims and encourage invention. The Board continued until 1828, exerting a significant influence on innovation, creativity, and state and commercial patronage systems. Yet there has been no major assessment of this significant institution. Our detailed study will address fundamental questions about Georgian science and society, examining the culture of invention and the notion of precision during this period of industrial progress and commercial revolution. Its findings will help to reassess histories of the long eighteenth century.
The study will focus on two unique resources: the Board of Longitude papers in Cambridge University Library and the collection of instruments and other material evidence of its activities at the National Maritime Museum. These offer rich but neglected evidence of ingenuity and invention during the industrial revolution. The project will also draw on other archival and object collections, including those at the Royal Society, National Archives, British Library and the Science Museum.
As a collaboration between a leading university department and a national museum, the project will have a range of outputs for academic and more general audiences. These will include a major publication on the history of the Board of Longitude, workshops and conferences, exhibitions and displays, online resources and public events.