Longitude in the time of war


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Will Thomas, Rebekah Higgitt and I began discussing the effect of international conflict upon the British search for the longitude in the comments after my last blog post. I'll post about that subject as well in case other readers want to participate - it would be especially nice to hear about the effect of war or international competition upon other areas of early 'science' and technology - and in case other project members want to chime in, especially about the later decades of the Board's history. Will asked whether we can trace the ebb and flow of foreign longitude visitors like La Condamine through peace and wartime, since for example the aging explorer and his fellow Frenchmen tried to attend the planned 'discovery' of John Harrison's timekeeper H4 (seen below) in 1763 directly after the Seven Years' War. He also asked if there was any diplomatic significance or sense of threat attached to such visits, or whether it was mainly 'business as usual'. Becky suggested that perhaps instead of national defense, 'free trade was, in the end, seen as the most important thing to protect and champion, and that this included knowledge and the right of individuals to sell their products and ideas'.

This appears to me to have largely been the case at least during the eighteenth century. Many British longitude actors talked about the importance of knowing the longitude at sea to national security, as well as to trade and the safety of sea travel and sometimes to the good of all mankind. This was true from at least the seventeenth century on and in an increasingly formulaic manner after 1713-1714. Some of the actors who mentioned national security and defense clearly meant it, as we saw in Hannah's recent post about Ralph Walker. However, in truth international communication and collaboration seldom seem to have been an issue in the eighteenth-century search for the longitude, even during and directly after war - and especially amongst the central individuals and institutions involved rather than amongst the wide array of individual projectors and commentators. The central actors continued to communicate and to collaborate with foreign correspondents such as the French during conflicts by letter and memorial and, once outright fighting had ended, through visits in person as well. Of course, the mechanics of postal communications were changed by war, as when letters had to take longer and more roundabout routes to their recipients, and French projectors could no longer use the British ambassadors or representatives in Paris as a route for initial contact.

There were some occasional expressions of institutional concern about foreigners and especially the French gaining access to British longitude innovations. For example, the Board of Longitude questioned Thomas Mudge (seen below) in 1767 because the clockmaker had discussed H4 with the Swiss-born clockmaker Ferdinand Berthoud while visiting and dining with the Saxon Minister, using said Count as a translator and making some ‘rude Sketches of some parts’ of the timekeeper in pencil. Berthoud had in fact returned in England in 1766 with the intent of learning the ‘secrets’ of H4 for the French and was told by James Short that Harrison would provide them for a large enough reward – which he could not offer. Mudge said that he had not been aware of that attempt, and that he had essentially been under the impression that those who attended the discovery in 1765 were supposed to spread knowledge of Harrison’s innovations to all nations as well as to English workmen. Berthoud apparently never made use of what he gleaned from Mudge, anyway. The foreign appropriation of British longitude innovations seems to have been more of a concern with technology, and especially with a more proven and long-esteemed technology like Harrison's timekeepers, than it was with a method like the lunar-distance - over which the British often collaborated with their French counterparts and with other foreigners such as Tobias Mayer. This was partially down to the different lines of thought and legal protections which existed with respect to concepts for material objects rather than purely intellectual property during this period.

As different HST authors have described with respect to industrial spies like the Dane Jesper Bidstrup (1763–1802) - Alison Morrison-Low, Dan Christensen, Anita McConnell, etc. - there was actual legislation in place during different periods to try to prevent the knowledge of how to make British technologies from falling into foreign hands. On the side of the government, such actions was taken to protect British innovation, trade and in some cases national defense. On the side of individual craftsmen, the control of and profit from their personal inventions was typically of central importance. Whereas national and international communication about 'science' and about the uses and 'amateur' invention and adaptation of technology could be extremely open, full-time craftsmen understandably tended to keep their secrets close to the vest, whether they were a shop-owning instrument maker or a more unusual specialist maker like Harrison. With the personal ownership of ideas and inventions and the need for profit, longitude projectors could often vacillate when it came to national 'loyalties' - whether in earnest or more as a bargaining tool.

For example, William Whiston and Humphry Ditton threatened to take their new method of finding longitude to other countries when at first it did not look as if the British would establish their rewards in 1714, despite having previously emphasized the importance of it to the security and trade of their beloved nation. Although John Harrison made it clear at various times that he was proud to be an Englishman, his main motivation in keeping people like the French delegates from seeing the workings of his timekeepers was to preserve his sole right to the innovations therein – and he was willing to at least consider turning to other nations during the later decades when he didn’t feel that his own was willing to properly rewards his efforts. It wasn't uncommon for projectors, and for newspaper commentators acting on behalf of projectors, to threaten the loss of an innovation to foreign hands when trying to push for a reward or other recognition.

In terms of diplomatic significance having been attributed to cases like the different visits of French intellectuals during the 1760s, they so far do not seem to have stirred up much of a reaction from the British despite having sometimes closely followed war between the two nations. For example, the Académie des Sciences sent their representatives to attend Harrison’s discovery in early 1763 even before the Treaty of Paris had been ratified! This relatively blasé attitude on the part of British authorities was presumably to the overall benefit of such foreign visitors, as some were acting with the support or outright direction of their government, sometimes covertly. In the 1763 case, it appears that the French thought they could send their own representatives to the planned 'discovery' of H4 because of communications with high-placed fellow astronomers and correspondents in Britain rather than because of an official invitation – a conflict between the interpersonal and institutional sides of international relations and of government during the early modern period. The Earl of Morton later told the mathematician Camus that he was not aware of such an invitation, but that he personally would have been pleased for the French delegates to attend.

As we can see in cases like this, conflict and competition between nations do not seem to have had that great of an effect upon foreign communications and contributions to the British search for the longitude, beyond blocking visits in person and changing the routes and presumably the delivery times of postal communications. They also do not seem to have much affected central actors’ views or treatment of individual foreign actors and of institutions like the Académie. As remarkable as it seems, given how often the longitude was touted as being of vital importance to national security, it was typically a swift return to 'business as usual' after the conclusion of war.

Image sources: H4 - National Maritime Museum, Mudge - Wikimedia Commons.