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A short annotated bibliography on longitude and the Board of Longitude

  • Johnson, Peter. 1989. “The Board of Longitude 1714-1828”, Journal of the British Astronomical Association 99(2), pp.63-69.
    A brief overview of the basic history of the “Commissioners Appointed by the Acts of Parliament for the Discovery of Longitude at Sea &c”, as we prefer to call them.
  • Stewart, Larry. 1992. “The Longitudinarians”. Chapter 6 of his The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Describes the motivations for the 1714 Longitude Act, and situates early schemes, proposals and lobbyists within a world of improvement, utility, pamphleteering and satire.
  • Rogers, Pat. 2008. Longitude Forged: How an Eighteenth-Century Hoax has taken in Dava Sobel and other Historians”. Times Literary Supplement November 12th 2008
    Jeremy Thacker published a pamphlet in 1714 entitled The Longitudes Exam’d…, in which he described a timekeeper encased in an evacuated bell jar, and which contains the first printed usage of the term “chronometer”. This recent article claims that the pamphlet was an elaborate satire and that Thacker never existed. Not everyone agrees, as can be seen by follow-up Letters to the Editor in the TLS on March 18th and April 1st 2009.
  • Howse, Derek. 1998. “Britain’s Board of Longitude: The Finances, 1714-1828“. The Mariner’s Mirror 84(4) pp.400-417.
    Very useful tabulated information regarding prizes, awards, publishing costs and other assorted financial arrangements associated with the Commissioners, compiled by the late Derek Howse.
    [Online version reproduced with the kind permission of the Hon. Editor of The Mariner’s Mirror]
  • Howse, Derek. 1980. Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    A concise and clear overview with helpful appendices describing longitude-determining methods, some fundamentals of meridian astronomy, the history of the Greenwich Observatory and some fundamentals of horology. A revised edition, Greenwich Time and the Longitude, appeared in 1997.
  • Howse, Derek. 1989. Nevil Maskelyne: the Seaman’s Astronomer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    This exemplary biography of a key Commissioner splices together detailed inventories of instruments and their costs with institutional history gleaned from Board of Longitude and Royal Society Council minutes, interspersed with clear technical and theoretical descriptions.
  • Gascoigne, John. 1998. Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    An equally exemplary, albeit very different biography of another key Commissioner, placing Banks’ multiple interests in global, political and commercial context. What is fascinating for us is how little there is on Banks and the Board of Longitude in this biography, something that our project will be remedying!
  • Andrewes, William J.H., ed. 1996. The Quest for Longitude. Cambridge, Mass.: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.
    The proceedings of the Longitude Symposium held in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1993, famously attended by Dava Sobel, who was inspired to write the bestseller Longitude. Quest contains several extremely helpful descriptions of techniques and contexts, and (in particular) some high quality discussion by Jonathan Betts of the National Maritime Museum on the technicalities of late 18th century timekeepers. The bibliography is also very helpful.
  • Gould, Rupert T. 1960. The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development. London: The Holland Press
    First published in 1923, this startlingly detailed yet clear account of the numerous innovations by numerous individuals is the starting point for all historical research on chronometers. It was Gould who painstakingly restored the hitherto neglected Harrison timekeepers now on display at Greenwich. See also Jonathan Betts’ 2006 biography, Time Restored: The Harrison Timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew everything. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Quill, Humphrey. 1966. John Harrison: the Man who Found Longitude. London: John Baker.
    Still the best biography of Harrison, the man who in 1737 forced the first ever meeting of the Commissioners.
  • McConnell, Anita. 2007. Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800): London’s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker. Aldershot: Ashgate.
    Probably the most in-depth study of a late eighteenth-century London instrument maker. Ramsden was a key figure in supplying both large bespoke instruments for observatories and surveys, and also a method for mechanically dividing hand-held astronomical instruments, for which method he received payment and patronage from the Commissioners.
  • Croarken, Mary. 2009. “Human Computers in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Britain” in Robson & Stedall, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.375-403.
    An essential, time-consuming and expensive job overseen by the Commissioners was the laborious computation and printing of the Nautical Almanac and assorted other mathematical tables from 1767 onwards. Human computers across the country were sent piece-work and detailed instructions in a complex industry overseen by Nevil Maskelyne. Mary Croarken has written several articles on this topic, of which this is her most recent.
  • Bennett, J. A. 2002. “The Travels and Trials of Mr Harrison’s Timekeeper” in Bourguet, Licoppe & Sibum, eds., Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, pp.75-95.
    The question of how and if the hardware and techniques of both the chronometric and lunar distance methods of determining longitude at sea were in fact sufficiently robust to work on routine voyages is of great interest to our project. This article discusses trials of John Harrison’s timekeepers at sea in the early – mid 1760s, and poses the key question, what does it mean to “discover” a technique in the eighteenth century?
  • Howse, Derek & Hutchinson, Beresford. 1969. “The Saga of the Shelton Clocks”. Antiquarian Horology 6(5) pp.281-298.
    The global circulation of hardware is also considered here with respect to pendulum clocks, used both to time astronomical observations and to investigate the shape and gravitational field of the earth in many projects sponsored by or associated with the Commissioners, including those associated with James Cook, Nevil Maskelyne, William Bayly, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
  • Dening, Greg. 1995. The Death of William Gooch: A History’s Anthropology. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
    A brilliant and moving recreation of the short life of Gooch, a Cambridge-trained mathematician turned Maskelyne-trained astronomer who, equipped with a suite of instruments and books loaned by the Commissioners, sailed on board HM’s supply ship Daedalus, and died on a Hawaiian beach in 1792.
  • Sobel, Dava. 1995. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Walker & Company
    A succinct book for a popular audience, reprinted in several editions, which concentrates on the work of John Harrison to develop successful marine timekeepers. Its enormous popularity, with both a play and television film based on it, has given the Sobel account great currency.
  • Pynchon, Thomas. 1997. Mason & Dixon. London: Jonathan Cape.
    A fictionalised and surreal yet scholarly account of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s voyages to the Cape of Good Hope to observe the Transit of Venus of June 1761, and then to America to resolve, astronomically, a political boundary dispute and measure a degree of latitude for the Royal Society. An extraordinarily rich evocation of astronomical and nautical life, this novel contains encounters with Nevil Maskelyne, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, talking clocks, mechanical ducks and an oblique reference to a future Royal Museum of Splices, Hitches and Bends…

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