Detail from RGO14/44

One of the opportunities that was open to members of the Board of Longitude project has been to get involved with producing written summaries of the content of all the Royal Greenwich Observatory Papers related to the Board of Longitude for the JISC Project “Navigating Eighteenth-Century Science and Technology: The Board of Longitude”.

In the mid eighteenth-century, Astronomer Royal George Airy organised the papers of the Board into volumes that were then bound. Each volumes covered different areas of the Board’s work from chronometer trials to meeting minutes to correspondence about squaring the circle. Together with additional collections from the papers of Nevil Maskelyne, John Pond and George Fisher as well as various ship logs, each volume has been summarised by a member of the project to accompany the digitised volume on the JISC project website.

The process of writing the summaries was something that the project team learnt together, exchanging ideas and problems as we progressed through the work. At first I took a great amount of time combing through each volume, double-checking facts and cross referencing names, but I soon got into the swing of being able to look through the volumes quite efficiently, developing the skill of skim-reading an archive to get a sense of the whole volume before going back over it in more detail and deciding what to prioritise for the volume’s summary. There are also the issues of incomprehensible handwriting, untitled sets of observations and tantalisingly anonymous scraps and notes. It was an interesting and satisfying process to start to learn to read the different handwritings of the various correspondents and the Board’s secretaries as well as to know a longitude reduction when you see one.

But in addition to the practical learning curves of dealing with such a vast amount of material, some of which is in dreadful handwriting, producing summaries for the Board of Longitude Papers changed the way that I understood the Board’s earlier exploits in the eighteenth-century as well as its actions and situation in the nineteenth-century.

What became most interesting are the gaps in the archive, the spaces undermine the typical narrative of the Board, Harrison and his chronometers in the search for longitude story. Instead we find a Board that considered more than just chronometers as a solution to the longitude problem spending nearly as much money on a variety of rewards as they did on publications, particularly when producing the annual Nautical Almanac from 1767. Also notable was the increasing level of bureaucracy over the Board’s lifespan. There is a much larger quantity of material towards the later half of the Board’s archive as it became an increasingly public-facing body, which helped to remind me of the political as well as scientific dimension of the history covered by the project.

I was lucky enough to discover several things that are pertinent to my PhD research and have affected the conclusions that I have come to in my thesis. To give one example there are several documents that discuss the transitions of the Board in 1828 into a Consultative Committee for the Admiralty that have shifted my conclusions about the end of the Board. But the exchange goes both ways; as well as harvesting the archive for sources to support our thesis work, writing summaries allows us to discuss the material that won’t make it into our theses.

Detail from RGO14/45

‘Summary’ is perhaps a misleading term for the pieces that we were asked to produce as they are much more opinion-pieces. Each summary is authored on the digital archive and is a useful platform for giving an opinion about the source material found in any particular volume with regard to its usefulness as historical material as well as what it can tell us about The Board, its associated actors or scientific instruments in Georgian and Regency metropolitan science and society.

I’ve also come across material that I hopefully will be writing up separately form my thesis, particularly a few things in the perpetual motion letters collected by the Board’s secretary Thomas Young, so watch this space!

Most significantly though, working for the JISC project has reminded me of the fun you can have going with an open mind to fresh material, not hoping to pull a certain thesis out of the source, but just observing, thinking and writing. The Board of Longitude archives are a massively rich resource; even after our project is finished there will be narratives to tell and insights to gain for future researchers, especially with access and introductions made easier by the JISC digitisation project and its summaries.