Where in the World?

How do you solve a problem like finding longitude at sea? The Board of Longitude set about a monumental international quest to find out.

The Board of Longitude Archive (2014)Cambridge University Library

The Board of Longitude archive, now housed at Cambridge University Library, is an outstanding record of 18th- and 19th-century attempts to improve navigation at sea.

Introduction to the Board of Longitude (8 Jul 2013) by University of CambridgeCambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library and Royal Museums Greenwich have digitised the entire archive making everything available online for the first time.

Acts of Parliament and awards (RGO 14/1) (1714) by Acts of ParliamentCambridge University Library

In 1714 the British government offered rewards of up to £20,000, (equivalent to millions today), to anyone who could accurately find longitude (the east-west co-ordinates of a location) at sea.

The 1714 Longitude Act nominated twenty-two Commissioners, including parliamentarians, administrators, scholars and naval officers. Their official tasks were to judge proposals for determining longitude at sea, fund experiments to try what seemed viable projects, and reward schemes judged successful according to the Act’s stringent criteria.

Diagram relating to the invention of a "dumb compass" (RGO 14/39: f. 206r) (11 June 1814) by Arthur HodgeCambridge University Library

Up till then, ships had struggled to accurately plot their position meaning voyages could take far longer than expected.
They knew their latitude (their position from north to south) from the location of the Sun but could only estimate their longitude (their position from east to west).

Diagram of part of a new telescope to be used at sea (RGO 14/30: f. 462r) (24 May 1789) by Christian Carl Lou'sCambridge University Library

So, a group of experts, later called the Board of Longitude was created to judge and reward inventors and inventions that could measure longitude.

A colour illustration of a nautical instrument for ascertaining longitude (RGO 14/37: f. 351r) (23 Aug. 1825) by Charles HudsonCambridge University Library

Many applicants tried to find ways to level the instrument through which sailors could measure distances.

A device for determining a ship's rate of sailing (RGO 14/44: f. 149r) (1806-1807) by Charles GrantCambridge University Library

Anyone could submit a design. Some were ingenious but, simply not feasible.

Diagrams and instructions for the use of an instrument of measuring the distance sailed (RGO 14/38: f. 232r) (1803) by J. PimlotCambridge University Library

Many resemble contraptions that today we would consider in the "steam-punk" style!

Colour diagram of the "Wedelian Earth" (RGO 14/51: f. 271r) (1821-1822) by George Wolffgang Ulric WedelCambridge University Library

Diagram and description "of an apparatus to render a Telescope manageable on Ship-board" (RGO 14/30: f. 504v) (18 Oct. 1824) by Samuel ParlourCambridge University Library

Royal Museums Greenwich even hosted a special exhibition, Longitude Punk'd, featuring modern contraptions inspired by the archive: https://www.rmg.co.uk/explore/blog/longitude-steampunk-and-satellites

Terrestrial diagram, in colour (RGO 14/38: f. 406r) (1822-1826) by George Wolffgang Ulric WedelCambridge University Library

Some contain fantastical coloured diagrams.

Diagram of the "Sun Dial or the Perpetual Motion" (RGO 14/39: f. 79r) (1818-1820) by Henry CroakerCambridge University Library

Some are perhaps more colourful in concept and had The Board going round in perpetual circles!

Lieutenant John Couch's 'calitsa' (RGO 14/44: 90-92) (7 Feb. 1819) by John CouchCambridge University Library

Would you want to try riding this contraption through the waves to the shore?

Colour diagram of the "Wedelian Earth" (RGO 14/51: f. 269r) (1821-1822) by George Wolffgang Ulric WedelCambridge University Library

There was a seemingly never-ending supply of ideas on the horizon.

Diagrams "On Natural Bodies, Proving Longtidue" (RGO 14/39: f. 227r) (1828) by John HornerCambridge University Library

Some, like John Horner's 'most divine Gospel System', even looked to religion to try and square the circle.

A moveable cardboard model of a machine for determining longitude machine (RGO 14/38: f. 136v) (16 Jan. 1788) by Thomas KirtonCambridge University Library

But two methods succeeded...

Making Greenwich the centre of the world (8 Jul 2013) by University of CambridgeCambridge University Library

Both tried to measure time onboard the ship and at a known reference point, one by astronomical means, the other using clocks.

Notebook of Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811), Astronomer Royal and Commissioner of Longitude (RGO 4/66) (1750-1772) by Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811)Cambridge University Library

Mathematicians and astronomers charted the moon's position and predicted its future movements.

Celestial map (RGO 14/44: f. 157r) (1806-1807) by Charles GrantCambridge University Library

Diary of 'Nautical Almanac' work (RGO 4/324) (c. 1767-c. 1817) by Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811)Cambridge University Library

Chart to the stars in the northern hemisphere (RGO 14/37: f. 249av) (1819) by Robert TuckerCambridge University Library

Lunar tables (RGO 4/86) (1778) by Charles Mason (1728–1786)Cambridge University Library

Eventually they created a nautical Almanac that allowed vessels to accurately plot their longitude.

Portrait of John Harrison (1768) by Print made by Philippe Joseph Tassaert. After Thomas King.British Museum

Meanwhile, John Harrison worked to create a more accurate timepiece.

Clocks hadn't been reliable enough until then, but after 30 years of working with the Board, Harrison made a watch that could help find longitude at sea.

William Bligh (c.1776) by John Webber (attributed)National Portrait Gallery

Captain William Bligh was given a K2 Chronometer (a successor to Harrison's version) to test out onboard the HMS Bounty...

LIFE Photo Collection

But in the early hours of 28 April 1789, about 30 nautical miles south of the island of Tofua (near Tonga), there was a mutiny and the crew seized control of the ship.

Letter from Captain William Bligh to Sir Harry Parker (RGO 14/24: f. 490r) (27 Oct. 1790) by Captain William Bligh (1754–1817)Cambridge University Library

Captain Bligh was forced to leave the valuable chronometer on board with the mutineers, and had to write to the Admiralty to inform them of its loss.

Making Maps (8 Jul 2013) by University of CambridgeCambridge University Library

The Board documented their progress towards this and their other work, creating a vast archive. The papers record not only scientific endeavour, but pioneering exploration.

Chart showing the course of the ship "Resolution" around Easter Island (RGO 14/58, f. 96ar) (1772-1775) by William Wales (1734?–1798)Cambridge University Library

William Wales was the astronomer appointed by the Board of Longitude to accompany James Cook on his second voyage (1772–75), joining Cook onboard the HMS Resolution.

Wales compiled a log book of the voyage, recording locations and conditions, the use and testing of the instruments entrusted to him, as well as making many observations of the people and places encountered on the voyage.

Here, William Wales maps and describes Easter Island, with its alluring monolithic statues.

"Plan of the Harbours of Ferrol and the Groyne" (RGO 14/30: f. 272r) (1818) by John AndersonCambridge University Library

Letters and other documents relating to the life of William Gooch (Mm.6.48) (1786-1835) by William Gooch (1770-1792)Cambridge University Library

Some of the documents record fateful voyages and lifetimes of commitment to a common cause...

These letters and other documents relating to the life of William Gooch, who The Board of Longitude appointed as astronomer to George Vancouver's expedition to the north-west coast of America.

Sadly, he was killed on the island of Oahu before he was able to join Vancouver's ships, Discovery and Chatham.

These papers, assembled by Gooch's father as a record of his son's life, comprise letters from Gooch to his parents and from Nevil Maskelyne to Gooch's father, and also extracts from Gooch's journal during the voyage.

Letter from William Gooch to his parents (Mm.6.48: ff. 77r-81v) (9 Oct. 1791-6 Nov. 1791) by William Gooch (1770-1792)Cambridge University Library

Gooch describes the 'crossing the line' ceremony performed upon crossing the equator.

Here, he describes their landing at St. Iago (Cape Verde Islands), where he encountered this woman and learnt how the people of St. Iago made bowls from the shells of a melon-like fruit.

Final letter from William Gooch to his parents (Mm.6.48: ff. 91r-92v) (2 May 1792) by William Gooch (1770-1792)Cambridge University Library

This letter, full of optimism of returning to England, was sadly the last letter Gooch wrote home to his parents. It was written just a few days before his death

On 11 May 1792, Gooch joined a small crew that embarked from the ship to trade with the locals and re-supply with fresh water at Waimea on Oahu, in the Hawaiian islands.

The party was attacked by Pahupu warriors on 12 May and Gooch, along with two others, were cut off from the rest of the group and killed.

Captain Matthew Flinders RN (1814) by an unknown artist and Joyce Gold Naval Chronicle Office (publisher)National Portrait Gallery

Another great explorer, Captain Matthew Flinders, led the second circumnavigation of New Holland, which he would subsequently call "Australia or Terra Australis" and identified it as a continent.

Naming Australia (RGO 14/51: f. 172r) (23 Aug. 1804) by Matthew Flinders (1774–1814)Cambridge University Library

In attempting to return to England in 1803, Flinders was detained on the Isle de France (now Mauritius) due to the outbreak of war between the French and English.

Flinders was kept a prisoner there for six years, but this didn't stop him from proposing the name "Australia" to replace that of "New Holland" in this letter to Sir Joseph Banks in 1804.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps