Alexi Baker (University of Cambridge)

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I am planning to research the earlier history of the ‘Board of Longitude’, its interactions with the public, and its relations with foreign efforts to develop a better method of finding the longitude at sea. My analysis of the early history will include the conditions during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that led to the naming of Commissioners of the Longitude in 1714 and then continued to influence their activities, events before the Commissioners are known to have begun to meet together officially in 1737, and the changing nature of these meetings during ensuing decades. I will examine socio-economic aspects of its interactions with the public as well, including public perceptions and portrayals of the longitude reward and the Commissioners over the years, and the consumer products and services that stemmed from or referenced them. I further plan to examine the ways in which the Commissioners and related actors discussed and interacted with foreign individuals and institutions that were also seeking or encouraging the discovery of a new method of finding the longitude at sea.

Key challenges will include uncovering evidence of the activities of the Commissioners before 1737 (or the activities of other individuals who were performing the same duties during that period), and separating the complex reality of the institution’s development and of contemporary perceptions of and interactions with it from how these have often appeared to modern eyes. The ‘Board’ was an unusual product of existing socio-economic and political influences and precedents, and it was shaped over the course of it existence by sea changes in national politics and by charismatic individuals as well as by navigational needs and technological developments. Its key participants were drawn from astronomy, mathematics, instrument making, politics, trade and the Royal Society. Its supplicants encompassed individuals from these circles but also the more entrepreneurial, religious or fancifully minded. Some satirists and cartoonists specifically associated seekers of the longitude with greed or madness and depicted the mission of the Commissioners as a pipe dream. The members of the ‘Board’ often responded by emphasizing the ‘public utility’ of the methods and inventions that had been, and no doubt would be, developed with their assistance.

The earlier history of the Commissioners of Longitude is sometimes represented in popular culture as consisting entirely of the efforts of one brilliant clockmaker, John Harrison, to counteract more ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ schemes for finding the longitude. The reality is that other approaches to the problem would have seemed as plausible as, if not more so than, the use of timekeepers during the early 18th century. These included techniques that depended upon magnetic compass readings or upon astronomical observations, which were also considered and granted financial encouragement. Observations and instruments such as compasses and quadrants were often employed at sea already, albeit with varying degrees of success, while contemporary timekeepers were not hardy or predictable enough to be of much use under challenging maritime conditions. Even after Harrison invented more reliable timekeepers, it was not immediately apparent that these could be reproduced on a large enough scale to benefit national commerce and security, which was the central concern of the Commissioners. John Harrison played a central role in their activities from the 1730s onwards, and in the later changes made to their mission, but his was far from the only narrative involved in the early 18th-century pursuit of longitude at sea.

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