Longitude and Lunacy


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The issue of finding the longitude at sea was frequently mentioned in print publications during the eighteenth century, especially after the British Parliament established a state-sponsored longitude reward in 1714. These sources included newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books, fiction, plays and poetry. They make it clear that, as Richard highlighted in his last post, it became increasingly common over the course of the 1700s for the 'search for the longitude' to be associated with madness, impossibility or fraud.

Longitude Act 1714 NMM.jpgThis is a vital point in trying to understand attitudes toward, and the funding of, attempts to develop a better method of measuring the longitude at sea. However, it may not have been as dominant a view of the issue as potted histories often suggest. There continued to be many neutral and positive discussions of the problem and of related events at home and abroad as well, even as the decades passed without the appearance of an obvious 'solution'.

The negativity was partially a response to the overenthusiastic and sometimes poorly informed belief on the part of some members of the general public and indeed some politicians, mathematicians, projectors and the like that the discovery of the longitude could be imminent, in 1713-14 and in the years immediately thereafter. Some periodicals claimed that the issue was fully resolved when they reported on a new proposal or trial thereof at home or abroad. A number of projectors made the same claim for their own proposals, either because they truly believed it or were engaging in the time-honoured tradition of 'puffing' their goods and services in the expectation of commercial gain.

Sam Watson AST clock Sci & Soc c 1695.jpgFor example, the watchmaker Samuel Watson of Long Acre in London -- who produced astronomical clocks like this now at the Science Museum -- advertised a longitude timekeeper in the newspaper the Post Man and the Historical Account on 5 October 1714 in these words:

'That great Secret of Longitude both by Sea [and] Land, which hath so much puzled [sic] the World for many Years past, is now perfectly discovered, and made so very easy that the meanest Capacity may be Master of it in half an hour [...] This Machine is not liable to be any way disorder'd, neither is there any attendance required, but is fit for Service at all Times either Night or Day.'

Watson had begun making such claims earlier in the century but seems to have been given a second wind by the establishment of the longitude reward. 

When such promised discoveries of the longitude failed to materialise, and no one plucked an impressive personal fortune from the hands of the Commissioners of Longitude, a sort of backlash naturally began to gather steam amongst public commentators and perhaps the general public. However, the inclusion of longitude in pictorial and literary representations of a number of negative qualities was often not about the search for the longitude per se. In many instances, these were reactions against grasping entrepreneurs and especially 'projectors' in general and echoed many other commentaries on such individuals. These speculators and inventors, when they were not excused by outright madness, were viewed in a somewhat similar light to 'stock jobbers' - as self-interested devils who made their fortunes by beguiling innocent citizens into giving up their own.

Stock Jobbers pamphlet.jpg

The 'search for the longitude' became a common literary trope that could be mentioned in a single line in publications on diverse subjects and then never revisited - in the same vein as someone today might refer to a 'cure for the common cold' in an off-handed manner when discussing the limits of human knowledge and ability or something long sought-after but perhaps impossible to attain. The longitude became a constant bedfellow to mentions of and discourses upon what many authors considered to be 'impossible' or downright mad pursuits, from the search for the Philosopher's Stone or perpetual motion to humans flying in the air or diving deep into the sea in a manmade 'bell'. Often publications used litanies of such activities as convenient metaphors for whatever unrelated point they were trying to make.

In the Weekly Journal or Saturday's Post of 25 November, 1721, one pseudonymous commentator compared finding the longitude to understanding the events that had led to the recent financial crisis known as the collapse of the 'South Sea Bubble' and knowing how to remedy the situation:

'Would not any body, that did not know you, conclude from your Behaviour, that you had found out the North-East passage, or the Perpetual Motion, or the Longitude, or the concealed Effects of the late Directors [of the South Sea Company]; [...] at least - a Scheme for retrieving Publick Credit, and paying the Debts of the Nation.'

Alchymist, 1796, Wikigallery.jpgSatirical cartoons like that of Hogarth employed similar glancing usages of longitude or more often, its bedfellows. For example, James Gillray's The Dissolution, or, The Alchymist producing an Aetherial Representation of 1796, is not really a commentary on alchemy but on prime minister William Pitt, who is applying coins from the Treasury and a symbol of royal power to the Parliament in order to transmute himself into a 'Perpetual Dictator'. As with pictorial and literary mentions of longitude, this reflects a common disregard for the alchemist and what were thought to be his characteristics and beliefs, but the metaphor is employed without any real thought about alchemy itself. 

Further proof that many of the negative representations of the search for longitude and the 'Longitudinarians' owed more to existing social trends and literary and artistic traditions such as criticism of projectors than to specific reactions to the longitude, is that such 'attacks' seem to have begun within a few years of the Act of 1714. For example, a foreign correspondent in the Hague derided a longitude projector there in a letter published in the Post Boy in 1717:

'To convince you, that we have Lunaticks among us, as well as other Nations, one Mr. John Rascher, who lodges at Leithauseh's Coffee-House in the Square here, advertises Mathematicians, and Vertuoso's of whatever Denomination, that he is to make sundry Experiments, upon our Vivier, of his Discovery of the Longitude, and, that in the Presence of some Commissioners of their High-Mightinesses ; for which he will fix the Time in some future Prints ; and invites all the Lovers of Navigation, who fancy they know something in that way, to come and try their Experiments at the same Time and Place, if they please. A fair Challenge!'

Image credits: 'The Villainy of Stock-Jobbers...', © http://openlibrary.org; 'The Dissolution...', © http://www.wikigallery.org/; Samuel Watson clock, © Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library.