I am a doctoral student at Cambridge University and recently undertook a summer internship at the Royal Observatory. My internship project studied navigational instruments as cultural artefacts - as objects which illuminate the attitudes and beliefs of those who made, possessed and used them. I was particularly interested in researching the 'characters' of specific instruments, as well as the broader cultural context which surrounded these objects.
I focused on the period 1550-1650, when new instruments, especially for astronomical measurement, were being developed and produced. It was during this period that the concept of an 'art' of navigation became common, in technical literature and wider political and artistic writings. This art came to be understood as a body of knowledge and practice which was discussed and developed in a variety of public media: in technical manuals, in government statutes, and in lectures and teaching, such as at the royal dockyards or the new institution of Gresham College. Navigation also possessed significance beyond its technical application: according to one navigator, John Davis, it was 'the meane whereby Countryes are discovered, and communitie drawne between Nation and Nation, [and] the word of God published'.
Within the maritime community, navigational instruments functioned as status symbols, because of the connection between the ability to navigate and authority onboard ship. Competent navigation was part of the cultural stereotype of the 'painfull [i.e. skilful] sea-man', who took pains to carry out all his duties correctly, and governed both himself and his crew with moderation. Such was the prevalence of this stereotype that some writers complained of shipmasters who possessed navigational instruments in order to exercise authority, but who did not actually know how to use these instruments. The status of instruments is also suggested by the depiction of navigators in fine, expensive clothes, a good example being Hendrick van der Borcht's A navigator with globe and dividers (BHC 3132).
BHC3132.JPGBHC3132 - Borcht's navigator, 1624
Of the instruments studied, the magnetic compass possessed one of the most intriguing cultural characters. It was often portrayed as the basis of all navigation, and all young seamen were taught to 'say their compass' (to recite the thirty-two points).
B7358.jpgNAV0463 - magnetic compass, circa 1650
Moreover, the magnetism by which the compass functioned was considered to be a miraculous, divinely inspired quality, a heavenly guide granted to navigators. The importance of this instrument was often contrasted with its comparative simplicity and fragility as an object, as in a poetic prayer by gentleman-captain Thomas James:
We have with confidence relied upon
A rustie Wire, toucht with a little stone,
Incompast round with paper, and alasse
To house it harmless, nothing but a glasse.