Tag Archive: longitude

Jan 20 2015

Book review: Sextant by David Barrie

sextantThe longitude and navigation at sea has been a recurring theme over the last year of my reading. Sextant by David Barrie may be the last in the series. It is subtitled “A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans”.

Barrie’s book is something of a travelogue, each chapter starts with an extract from his diary on crossing the Atlantic in a small yacht as a (late) teenager in the early seventies. Here he learnt something of celestial navigation. The chapters themselves are a mixture of those on navigational techniques and those on significant voyages. Included in the latter are voyages such of those of Cook and Flinders, Bligh, various French explorers including Bougainville and La Pérouse, Fitzroy’s expeditions in the Beagle and Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. These are primarily voyages from the second half of the 18th century exploring the Pacific coasts.

Celestial navigation relies on being able to measure the location of various bodies such as the sun, moon, Pole star and other stars. Here “location” means the angle between the body and some other point such as the horizon. Such measurements can be used to determine latitude, and in rather more complex manner, longitude. Devices such as the back-staff and cross-staff were in use during the 16th century. During the latter half of the 17th century it became obvious that one method to determine the longitude would be to measure the location of the moon relative to the immobile background of stars, the so-called lunar distance method. To determine the longitude to the precision required by the Longitude Act of 1714 would require those measurements to be made to a high degree of accuracy.

Newton invented a quadrant device somewhat similar to the sextant in the late 17th century but the design was not published until his death in 1742, in the meantime Hadley and Thomas Godfrey made independent inventions. A quadrant is an eighth of a circle segment which allows measurements up to 90 degrees. A sextant subtends a sixth of a circle and allows measurements up to 120 degrees.

The sextant of the title was first made by John Bird in 1757, commissioned by a naval officer who had made the first tests on the lunar distance method for determining the longitude at sea using Tobias Meyer’s lunar distance tables.

Both quadrant and sextant are more sophisticated devices than their cross- and back-staff precursors. They comprise a graduated angular scale and optics to bring the target object and reference object together, and to prevent the user gazing at the sun with an unprotected eye. The design of the sextant changed little since its invention. As a scientist who has worked with optics they look like pieces of modern optical equipment in terms of their materials, finish and mechanisms.

Alongside the sextant the chronometer was the second essential piece of navigational equipment, used to provide the time at a reference location (such as Greenwich) to compare to local time to get the longitude. Chronometers took a while to become a reliable piece of equipment, at the end of Beagles 4 year voyage in 1830 only half of the 22 chronometers were still running well. Shackleton’s mission in 1914 suffered even more, with the final stretch of their voyage to South Georgia using the last working of 24 chronometers. Granted his ship, the Endeavour had been broken up by ice and they had escaped to Elephant Island in a small, open boat! Note the large numbers of chronometers taken on these voyages of exploration.

Barrie is of the more subtle persuasion in the interpretation of the history of the chronometer. John Harrison certainly played a huge part in this story but his chronometers were exquisite, expensive, unique devices*. Larcum Kendall’s K1 chronometer was taken by Cook on his 1769 voyage. Kendall was paid a total of £500 for this chronometer, made as a demonstration that Harrison’s work could be repeated. This cost should be compared to a sum of £2800 which the navy paid for the HMS Endeavour in which the voyage was made!

An amusing aside, when the Ordnance Survey located the Scilly Isles by triangulation in 1797 they discovered its location was 20 miles from that which had previously been assumed. Meaning that prior to their measurement the location of Tahiti was better known through the astronomical observations made by Cook’s mission.

The risks the 18th century explorers ran are pretty mind-boggling. Even if the expedition was not lost – such as that of La Pérouse – losing 25% of the crew was not exceptional. Its reminiscent of the Apollo moon missions, thankfully casualties were remarkably low, but the crews of the earlier missions had a pretty pragmatic view of the serious risks they were running.

This book is different from the others I have read on marine navigation, more relaxed and conversational but with more detail on the nitty-gritty of the process of marine navigation. Perhaps my next reading in this area will be the accounts of some of the French explorers of the late 18th century.

*In the parlance of modern server management Harrison’s chronometers were pets not cattle!

Dec 28 2014

Book review: Maskelyne – Astronomer Royal edited by Rebekah Higgitt

MaskelyneOver the years I’ve read a number of books around the Royal Observatory at Greenwich: books about finding the longitude or about people.

Maskelyne – Astronomer Royal edited by Rebekah Higgitt is unusual for me – it’s an edited volume of articles relating to Nevil Maskelyne by a range of authors rather than a single author work. Linking these articles are “Case Studies” written by Higgitt which provide background and coherence.

The collection includes articles on the evolution of Maskelyne’s reputation, Robert Waddington – who travelled with him on his St Helena trip, his role as a manager, the human computers used to calculate the tables in the Nautical Almanac, his interactions with clockmakers, his relationships with savants across Europe, his relationship with Joseph Banks, and his family life.

The Royal Observatory with its Astronomer Royal was founded by Charles II in 1675 with the goal of making astronomical observations to help with maritime navigation. The role gained importance in 1714 with the passing of the Longitude Act, which offered a prize to anyone who could present a practical method of finding the longitude at sea. The Astronomer Royal was one of the appointees to the Board of Longitude who judged applications. The observations and calculations done, and directed, from the Observatory were to form an important part of successful navigation at sea.

The post of Astronomy Royal was first held by John Flamsteed and then Edmund Halley. A persistent problem to the time of Maskelyne was the publication of the observations of the Astronomers Royal. Flamsteed and Newton notoriously fell out over such measurements. It seems very odd to modern eyes, but the observations the early Astronomers Royal made they essentially saw as their personal property, removed by executors on their death and thus lost to the nation. Furthermore, in the time of Maskelyne the Royal Observatory was not considered the pre-eminent observatory in Britain in terms of the quality of its instruments or observations.

Maskelyne’s appointment was to address these problems. He made the observations of the Observatory available to the Royal Society (the Visitors of the Observatory) on an annual basis and pushed for the publication of earlier observations. He made the making of observations a much more systematic affair, and he had a keen interest in the quality of the instruments used. Furthermore, he started the publication of the Nautical Almanac which provided sailors with a relatively quick method for calculating their longitude using the lunar distance method. He was keenly aware of the importance of providing accurate, reliable observational and calculated results.

He was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1765 not long after a trip to St Helena to make measurements of the first of a pair of Venus transits in 1761, to this he added a range of other activities which including testing the lunar distance method for finding longitude, the the “going” of precision clocks over an extended period and Harrison’s H4 chronometer. In later years he was instrumental in coordinating a number of further scientific expeditions doing things such as ensuring uniform instrumentation, providing detailed instructions for observers and giving voyages multiple scientific targets.

H4 is a primary reason for Maskelyne’s “notoriety”, in large part because of Dava Sobel’s book on finding the longitude where he is portrayed as the villain against the heroic clockmaker, John Harrison. By 1761 John Harrison had been working on the longitude problem by means of clocks for many years. Sobel’s presentation sees Maskelyne as a biased judge, favouring the Lunar distance method for determining longitude acting in his own interests against Harrison.

Professional historians of science have long felt that Maskelyne was hard done by Sobel’s biography. This book is not a rebuttal of Sobel’s but is written with the intention of bringing more information regarding Maskelyne to a general readership. It’s also stimulated by the availability of new material regarding Maskelyne.

Much of the book covers Maskelyne’s personal interactions with a range of people and groups. It details his exchanges with the “computers” who did the lengthy calculations which went into the Nautical Almanac; his interactions with a whole range of clockmakers for whom he often recommended to others looking for precision timepieces for astronomical purposes. It also discusses his relationships with other savants across Europe and the Royal Society. His relationship with Joseph Banks garners a whole chapter. A proposition in one chapter is that such personal, rather than institutional, relationships were key to 18th century science, I can’t help feeling this is still the case.

The theme of these articles is that Maskelyne was a considerate and competent man, going out of his way to help and support those he worked with. To my mind his hallmark is bringing professionalism to the business of astronomy.

In common with Finding Longitude this book is beautifully produced, and despite the multitude of authors it hangs together nicely. It’s not really a biography of Maskelyne but perhaps better for that.