Let's start with some basics. The Act's full title was 'An Act for providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall discover the Longitude at Sea'. Being able to find longitude, it noted at the start, was vital 'for the Safety and Quickness of Voyages, the Preservation of ships, and the Lives of Men'.
The Longitude Act offered rewards of up to £20,000 for a method of finding longitude at sea to within half a degree (equivalent to 2 minutes of time) after a six-week voyage to the West Indies. Smaller rewards were available for methods achieving lesser accuracy. The Act also nominated a number of Commissioners of Longitude, later known as the Board of Longitude, to assess submissions and decide on rewards. They included the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich and other scientific, maritime and political leaders. The Commissioners could also grant smaller sums of money to help bring promising ideas to sea-trial.
There's a lot that can be said about the Longitude Act and the value of the rewards on offer - something for a separate post, I think. For today, I thought it would be interesting to put the Act into the context of 9 July 1714 and what else received royal assent.
The Longitude Act was the sixth of twenty-nine Acts to receive royal assent on the same day. Queen Anne was present for this, although it was just three weeks before her death. Indeed, it was the last Parliamentary session she attended. The Queen didn't sign the Act (something the monarch stopped doing a century or so earlier); a clerk merely noted at the top of it that royal assent had been granted.
The list of Acts gaining assent on 9 July 1714 is a mixed bag that probably says more about the heterogeneous nature of parliamentary procedures than anything else. The largest number seem to involve land ownership and inheritance. Trade and financial matters also seem to have been significant. For example, the first Act to receive assent that day was
An Act for laying additional Duties on Soap and Paper, and upon certain Linens, Silks, Callicoes, and Stuffs, and upon Starch and exported Coals, and upon stamped Vellum, Parchment, and Paper, for raising One Million Four Hundred Thousand Pounds, by Way of a Lottery, for Her Majesty's Supply; and for Allowances on exporting Made Wares, of Leather, Sheep-skins, and Lamb-skins; and for Distribution of Four Thousand Pounds, due to the Officers and Scamen for Gun-money; and to adjust the Property of Tickets in former Lotteries; and touching certain Shares of Stock in the Capital of the South Sea Company; and for appropriating the Monies granted to Her Majesty.
There are also Acts relating to religion and the church, including an 'Act for preventing the Growth of Popery'. And as well as the Longitude Act, there were a couple of others relating to maritime trade, including 'An Act for the preserving all such Ships, and Goods thereof, which shall happen to be forced on Shore, or stranded, upon the Coasts of this Kingdom, or any other of Her Majesty's Dominions'.
What distinguishes the Longitude Act is that it is the only one offering some form of incentive for tackling a practical problem. It's one of the reasons we're celebrating an otherwise routine day of business in Parliament 300 years ago.