The National Maritime Museum and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge worked together on a five-year research project to write a new history of the British Board of Longitude. With Cambridge University Library the project also digitised the Board’s archive and associated materials.
The study focussed on two unique resources:
- the Board of Longitude papers in Cambridge University Library
- and the collection of instruments and other material evidence of its activities at the National Maritime Museum.
These offer rich but neglected evidence of ingenuity and invention during the industrial revolution. The project also drew on other archival and object collections, including those at the Royal Society, National Archives, British Library and the Science Museum.
The Board of Longitude archive and associated materials have been digitised and is filled with stories of invention, innovation and discovery. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
As a collaboration between a leading university department and a national museum, the project delivered a range of outputs for academic and more general audiences. These included a major publication on the history of the Board of Longitude, workshops and conferences, exhibitions and displays, online resources and public events.
About the archive
The archive documents British attempts to improve navigation at sea. From British inventors to tests on the other side of the world, it’s filled with stories of invention, innovation and discovery. We’ve gathered a few of them together here.
About the Longitude Act
The 1714 Longitude Act was a turning point in British history: for the first time, the government used legislation to address a specific scientific problem, offering offering rewards of up to £20,000 for a practical method of determining longitude at sea.
The Act also created a group of Commissioners, later popularly known as the Board of Longitude, comprising leaders of Britain's political, maritime, scientific, academic and commercial networks, to judge claims and encourage invention. The Board continued until 1828, exerting a significant influence on innovation, creativity, and state and commercial patronage systems. Yet there has been no major assessment of this significant institution. Our detailed study will address fundamental questions about Georgian science and society, examining the culture of invention and the notion of precision during this period of industrial progress and commercial revolution. Its findings will help to reassess histories of the long eighteenth century.
About the Board of Longitude
The Board of Longitude was set up by the British government to encourage the submission of ideas, instruments and data that would help solve the navigational problem of finding longitude at sea.
As a result it helped to realise two solutions:
- the lunar distance method
- the timekeeping method pioneered by John Harrison.
In its 114 years of existence the Board also judged and supported a much wider range of projects relating to the improvement of navigation. The project studied the whole range of activity of the Board and examined its role as a mediator between government, Navy, commerce, scientific expertise and artisans.
A set of learning resources was developed for Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, drawing on stories and primary sources from the Board of Longitude archive.
The archive documents British attempts to improve navigation at sea. From British inventors to tests on the other side of the world, it’s filled with stories of invention, innovation and discovery.
These resources were created as part of a joint National Maritime Museum and Cambridge University Library project in 2013-14 to digitise the Board of Longitude archive and associated materials.
Board of Longitude videos
The Board of Longitude: Film 1 Introduction
This first film in a series of three, introduces the Board of Longitude and the 18th century search for an accurate way of finding longitude at sea.
The papers in the Board's archive record scientific endeavour, fateful voyages, bitter feuds and lifetimes of commitment to a common cause.
The Board of Longitude: Film 2 – Making maps
The Board of Longitude sent astronomers on voyages of exploration to test methods of navigation and help make better maps.
This is the second film of the series and looks at some of the techniques they used to make maps and introduces the story of William Gooch, a young astronomer who met an untimely end.
The Board of Longitude: Film 3 - Making Greenwich the centre of the world
This is the final film in the series and tells the story of how the Nautical Almanac was produced thanks to work of a band of human computers. This publication helped sailors find their position at sea.