Finding latitude in longitude: Parliamentary funding of early modern science and technology

Three hundred years ago this month, Parliament passed the ‘Longitude Act’. In this guest blog post, Dr Alexi Baker, Cambridge post-doc from CRASSH and from the AHRC-funded project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, innovation and empire in the Georgian world’ discusses the impact this had on efforts to solve the problem of finding a ship’s longitude at sea…

This year marks the tercentenary of the first British Longitude Act in 1714. That milestone is being commemorated with the digitisation of, and a major project on, the Board of Longitude archives; events and exhibitions including at Greenwich; and a new £10 million ‘longitude prize’. The Act of 1714 was momentous because it established the first government funding and rewards for a specific ‘scientific’ problem – how ships could more accurately and reliably estimate their longitude coordinate while at sea. This and ensuing longitude acts passed between 1714 and 1828 set a precedent for government funding and, within fifty years, also gave rise to a unique standing body that encouraged and help to define British science and technology at large.

The first British Longitude Act might not have been possible without the concerted public campaign begun in 1713 by William Whiston and Humphry Ditton for a Parliamentary reward. Whiston and Ditton and their supporters tapped into an ever-increasing national interest in maritime trade, exploration, and defence and thus in improving maritime safety and speed. They may have been the first (and perhaps only) to wrongly suggest that Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s loss of thousands of men to shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly in 1707 was caused by a poor knowledge of longitude.

After hearing testimony from learned individuals including Isaac Newton, Parliament passed ‘An Act for Providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall Discover the Longitude at Sea’ in July 1714. The authors of the Act cited its importance for the ‘Safety and Quickness of Voyages, the Preservation of Ships and the Lives of Men’, the ‘Trade of Great Britain’ and ‘the Honour of Kingdom’. The Act constituted 24 Commissioners, either by name or office, as acceptable judges for the new funding and rewards. These were drawn from long-time longitude authorities, navigational interests, and other powerful individuals.

If five or more thought a longitude proposal promising, they could direct the Commissioners of the Navy to have their Treasurer issue up to £2000 in total to conduct trials. After experiments were made, the Commissioners of the Longitude or ‘the major part of them’ were to determine whether the tested proposal was ‘Practicable, and to what Degree of Exactness’. The Act set up a three-tiered reward system for methods which were deemed successful, with: £10,000 to be given to the inventor of a method which could find the longitude ‘to One Degree of a great Circle, or Sixty Geographical Miles’; £15,000 if the method could find the longitude to two-thirds of that distance; and £20,000 if it found the longitude to half of the same distance.

Half of a reward would be paid when the Commissioners agreed that the method could further secure ships within the dangerous 80 miles off shore, and the other half when the method had been successfully tried on a voyage to the important trading centre of the West Indies. The Commissioners could also direct that lesser rewards be given to individuals who could not meet one of the three specific demands for accuracy but developed methods ‘found of considerable Use to the Publick’.

Most of these tenets appear to have been closely patterned after previous endeavours, including: Charles II’s appointment of commissioners to examine a specific proposal in 1674; a longitude reward established by the will of the Somerset gentleman Thomas Axe in 1691; and the Parliamentary testimony. There had been a number of longitude rewards and trials in other European countries during the preceding centuries as well. The Act of 1714 dramatically rejuvenated British and European interest in solving the longitude problem. However, it also suffered from great vagueness about the Commissioners of Longitude – and later from the potentially conflicting wording of the aims of and requirements for the rewards.

The legislation did not describe the new officials as a communal body – the early modern term ‘Commissioner’ did not necessarily indicate membership in an institution – nor provide basic institutional resources. Individual Commissioners stated that they did not think it preferable nor possible to consider every longitude proposal, publications such as newspapers did not refer to them as a standing body, and comparatively few complaints on that count have survived from reward-seekers.In the resulting confusion about proper channels and procedures, most supplicants continued to approach the individuals and institutions who had long been deemed longitude authorities. These included (primarily) the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society, the Admiralty, and sometimes professors and the trading companies. Early sea trials actually took place under the auspices of one or more of these, but without funding approved through the Commissioners.

The Commissioners of Longitude only began to meet together sporadically in 1737 in response to the great interest surrounding the clockmaker John Harrison and soon a small number of additional schemes. It was mainly from the 1760s on that they redefined themselves as a standing body, and one increasingly known as ‘the Board of Longitude’. During that decade, they hired their first Secretary, sought recompense for travelling to meetings, and welcomed the soon-indispensable Nevil Maskelyne to their number as Astronomer Royal. The slower speed and greater consideration wrought by such bureaucratization was partially responsible for souring the decades-long collaboration between these officials and Harrison.

It is the later conflict with John Harrison which now most characterizes the Board of Longitude, and Parliament’s longitude legislation, in the public mind. However, the bulk of the body’s institutional existence and of the corresponding Parliamentary legislation took place afterwards. The Board involved itself in wide-ranging scientific, technological, and maritime activities – such as the annual publication of the Nautical Almanac, the improvement of diverse technologies, the establishment of observatories abroad, and voyages including those of Captain Cook and of Arctic exploration. This involved frequent collaboration with other learned and influential bodies, both foreign and domestic. On the whole, the history of the Commissioners and of Parliamentary longitude legislation involved finding ever-greater latitude in the search for the longitude.


Dr Baker is now a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge. She is editing and co-authoring the project book: ‘The Board of Longitude 1714–1824: Science, Innovation and Empire’.

You can find out more about ‘The Board of Longitude’ project here and can view the digitized archives of the Board and related papers here.

To see what is happening to mark the anniversary at the Royal Museums Greenwich, visit their website.

About The History of Parliament

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One Response to Finding latitude in longitude: Parliamentary funding of early modern science and technology

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 3 | Whewell's Ghost

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