The elusive ladies of the longitude

To celebrate Women's History Month, we're reposting Alexi Baker's blog post about the elusive ladies of the longitude:

As in many other areas of early modern life, the women who participated in the search for the longitude and in the other activities of the Board of Longitude mostly did so in less heralded roles, and often with less bureaucratic and archival commemoration of their activities due to the legal and financial structures of Georgian society.

The Board’s aims and activities centred upon subjects and professional spheres in which British women were not typically expected to participate, and especially not in highly visible or vocal roles. However, women actually played significant if less visible roles in facilitating many commercial and institutional operations in early modern Britain, perhaps particularly in its cities. The same was likely true of the search for the longitude and of the Board's other pursuits. So far we know of mother and daughter ‘computers’ involved in the compilation of the annual Nautical Almanac beginning in the later eighteenth century, as Mary Croarken has discussed. Of course, some women also acted as proxies for the husbands or other male relatives at times or were the beneficiaries and guardians of their legacies in death, as with the widow of the astronomer Tobias Mayer.

Jane Squire was the only woman so far known to have openly pursued the longitude herself. Squire tried to receive a judgement from the Commissioners of the Longitude over at least 12 years, communicating with individual Commissioners and other European intellectuals in the meantime, and published two books about her new means of viewing and communicating the terrestrial and celestial spheres and of finding longitude at sea in 1742 and 1743. However, in the process of researching Squire, I discovered another apparent female longitude projector - albeit one who always remained anonymous and did not dedicate as much time to the pursuit.

A mezzotint of Elizabeth Johnson by Samuel William Reynolds, published in 1822, after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

This was Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson of Torrington in Devon, the pious sister of the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was born in 1720 and would live to be eighty. She began anonymously publishing religious pamphlets in Oxford after her husband abandoned her and their seven children. One of the Bodleian Library’s copies of Johnson's first pamphlet, The Explication of the vision to Ezekiel, has the manuscript note from William Johnson Cory which has allowed an authorial attribution: ‘This strange book was written by my great-grandmother Mrs. Johnson, sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds. When extremely poor she posted up to Oxford to get it published, being a real enthusiast.’

The fourth of the author's pamphlets, published in 1785, The Astronomy and Geography of the Created World, and of course the longitude, concluded that ‘if the palm for finding the longitude, is not given to the author of the Explanation of the Vision to Ezekiel, it will never be given to another’. Johnson anonymously sent this tract to the Board of Longitude a year after publication, and the Astronomer Royal George Airy later sorted it into a volume of Board correspondence which he entitled ‘Irrational Astronomical Theories’ in 1858. (One contemporary reviewer had said of the presumed male author’s earlier pamphlets that, ‘As the intentions of this writer are pious, his faculties evidently disordered, and his lucubrations absolutely unintelligible, these three pamphlets must be exempted from criticism.’ )

The letter which Johnson anonymously sent to the Board alongside her longitude pamphlet in 1786.

Johnson's scheme was underpinned by religion, just as Squire's 12-year odyssey was also driven by her dedicated and unusually open Catholicism. Both women were also motivated to varying degrees by financial need, Jane having spent three harrowing years in debtors' prison after making large investments in the salvaging of shipwrecks and having been accused of being a 'Popish recusant convict' (i.e. Catholic). These rare female projectors were not at all unusual in intertwining religion and the longitude during the early modern period. This is partially a result of the frequent Georgian mixing of religion with most subjects including astronomy, mathematics and natural philosophy. It was actually rather unusual for an early ‘scientist’ or mathematician, or for that matter projector, to be entirely uninfluenced by religious thought and feeling in his efforts and publications.

For example, many Fellows of the Royal Society and other respected researchers and theorists incorporated Biblical events such as the deluge into their accounts of the natural world or built entire worldviews on religious foundations. (This also recalls the suggestion of many actors in the search for the longitude that an answer was only going to be found through astronomy in part because God had designed the skies to be of such use to humans.) The longitude also leant itself to being twinned with visionary religious schemes or apocalyptic and anti-Catholic warnings because it was often viewed during this period as a rather mysterious and perhaps even unsolvable problem rather than as a dry geometric, manmade construction crisscrossing maps and globes.

While the vast majority of the actors whom we study as part of our research into the history of the Board of Longitude were male, it is important to remember that many women were still involved in facilitating their and the Board's activities. It may simply have taken an unusual confluence of factors to bring them into the more visible and well-recorded spheres of longitude activity including those of computer and projector - as with the religious fervour and financial difficulty which drove Elizabeth Johnson and Jane Squire.

Elizabeth Johnson's pamphlet of 1785, 'The Astronomy and Geography of the Created World, and of course the longitude', which she sent to the Board of Longitude the following year.

Image sources: Manuscripts - Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library, Portrait - National Portrait Gallery.