Exhibition | Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 17, 2014


Willem van de Velde, the Younger, Two English Ships
Wrecked in a Storm on a Rocky Coast
, ca. 1700
(London: National Maritime Museum)

Press release (21 March 2014) for the current exhibition:

Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 11 July 2014 — 4 January 2015
Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut, 19 September 2015 — 28 March 2016

Curated by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt

To mark the tercentenary of the Longitude Act of 1714, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, a major new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, tells the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude at sea and how one of the greatest technical challenges of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was eventually solved. The exhibition draws on the latest research to shed new light on the history of longitude—one of the great achievements of the Georgian age—and how it changed our understanding of the world.

John Harrison, H1 Marine Timekeeper, 1730–35 (London: National Maritime Museum)

John Harrison, H1 Marine Timekeeper, 1730–35
(London: National Maritime Museum)

In recent years, John Harrison has been cast as the hero of the story, not least in Dava Sobel’s seminal work Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Ships, Clocks, and Stars provides a new perspective on this famous tale. While John Harrison makes a good story and his marine sea-watch was vital to finally solving the problem of longitude, this was against a backdrop of almost unprecedented collaboration and investment. Famous names such as Galileo, Isaac Newton, James Cook, and William Bligh all feature in this fascinating and complex history. Crucially, it was Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne’s observations at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, his work on the Nautical Almanac and the Board of Longitude that demonstrated the complementary nature of astronomical and timekeeper methods, ultimately leading to the successful determination of longitude at sea.

Highlights from the exhibition include all five of John Harrison’s famous timekeepers. H1, H2, H3 and H4 will move from the Royal Observatory Greenwich to be displayed in the National Maritime Museum for the first time in nearly 30 years. H5 is being loaned from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. Also featured is the original Longitude Act of 1714, which has never been on public display before; an intricate 1747 model of the Centurion, the ship which carried out the first proper sea trial of Harrison’s H1, and the elegant, padded silk ‘observing suit’ worn by Nevil Maskelyne at the Royal Observatory during the 1760s.

John Harrison, H4 Marine Timekeeper, 1755–59 (London: National Maritime Museum)

John Harrison, H4 Marine Timekeeper, 1755–59
(London: National Maritime Museum)

Passed by the British government in July 1714, the Longitude Act aimed to solve the problem of determining a ship’s longitude (east-west position) at sea. For a maritime nation such as Britain, investment in long distance trade, outposts and settlements overseas made the ability to determine a ship’s longitude accurately increasingly important. As different nations, including Spain, the Netherlands and France, sought to dominate the world’s oceans, each offered financial rewards for solving the longitude problem. But it was in Britain that the approach paid off. With life-changing sums of money on offer, the challenge became the talk of London’s eighteenth-century coffee-houses and captured the imaginations and talents of astronomers, skilled artisans, politicians, seamen and satirists; many of whom came up with ingenious methods and instruments designed to scoop the Board of Longitude’s tantalising rewards and transform seafaring navigation forever.

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich was founded in 1675 specifically to carry out observations ‘to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation’. Under the 1714 Longitude Act, successive Astronomers Royal became leading voices on the Board of Longitude, judging proposals and encouraging promising developments.

As solutions were developed, the Royal Observatory also became a testing site for marine timekeepers and the place at which the astronomical observations needed for navigational tables were made. The significance of this work eventually lead to Greenwich becoming the home of the world’s Prime Meridian in 1884.

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The catalogue is published by Harper Collins:

Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude (London: Collins, 2014), 256 pages, softcover ISBN: 978-0007940523, £15 / hardcover, ISBN: 978-0062353566, $75.

3778.1.1000.1000.FFFFFF.0A tale of eighteenth-century invention and competition, commerce and conflict, this is a lively, illustrated, and accurate chronicle of the search to solve ‘the longitude problem’, the question of how to determine a ship’s position at sea—and one that changed the history of mankind.

Ships, Clocks, and Stars brings into focus one of our greatest scientific stories: the search to accurately measure a ship’s position at sea. The incredible, illustrated volume reveals why longitude mattered to seafaring nations, illuminates the various solutions that were proposed and tested, and explores the invention that revolutionized human history and the man behind it, John Harrison. Here, too, are the voyages of Captain Cook that put these revolutionary navigational methods to the test.

Filled with astronomers, inventors, politicians, seamen, and satirists, Ships, Clocks, and Stars explores the scientific, political, and commercial battles of the age, as well as the sailors, ships, and voyages that made it legend—from Matthew Flinders and George Vancouver to the voyages of The Bounty and The Beagle. Featuring more than 150 photographs specially commissioned from Britain’s National Maritime Museum, this evocative, detailed, and thoroughly fascinating history brings this age of exploration and enlightenment vividly to life.

Richard Dunn is Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at Royal Museums Greenwich. Rebekah Higgitt is Lecturer in History of Science at the University of Kent.

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Note (added a few hours after the original posting appeared) — I should have noted that Jeremy Wear plans to chair a session on the theme of longitude at the 2015 ASECS conference in Los Angeles. CH

Exhibition | Longitude Punk’d

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 17, 2014


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In connection with the exhibition Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude; from the Royal Museums Greenwich:

Longitude Punk’d
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 10 April 2014 — 4 January 2015

Steampunk artists have taken over the Royal Observatory! Let madcap inventors, stargazing scientists, and extremely elegant explorers take you on an adventure into a world where scientific convention and the laws of nature have been re-written. Their fabulous narrative lavishly reinterprets the science and drama of the 18th-century quest to find longitude at sea, inspired by the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act

Explore this exclusive exhibition of eccentric inventions specially created by steampunk luminaries including award-winning novelist Robert Rankin—exuberantly blurring the boundaries between art and science, fact and fiction. Don’t miss this chance to see something completely unique, never tried before and in the last place you would expect to see it. Meet time-travelling Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, observe Martian goings-on through our Victorian telescope, or come to a themed Steampunk film screening in our Punk’d events season (including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

Longitude Punk’d is part of Royal Museums Greenwich’s Longitude Season, celebrating the tercentenary of the Longitude Act with exhibitions, special events, and planetarium shows.

Exhibition | The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 17, 2014


William Hodges, A View of the Monuments of Easter Island (Rapanui), ca.1776
(London: National Maritime Museum, BHC1795)

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Press release (17 June 2014) from the Royal Museums Greenwich:

The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80
Queen’s House, Greenwich, from 7 August 2014

This August The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80 opens in the newly refurbished rooms at the centre of the Queen’s House. Exploring the crucial role of artists on Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery, the exhibition will be the first time that Stubbs’s Portrait of a Large Dog (Dingo) and The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) will be on display since they were acquired by the National Maritime Museum in November 2013.

When Cook’s first expedition to the South Pacific returned to Britain in 1771, he brought back accounts and images of extraordinary lands, people, flora and fauna. Returning twice more over the following decade, Cook established a pattern for voyages of discovery that combined scientific investigation with artistic response. The newly-acquired Stubbs paintings will be joined by portraits, landscapes and scenes of encounters with Pacific islanders by William Hodges and John Webber as well as botanical prints and original drawings by Sydney Parkinson.


John Webber, Poedua, the Daughter of Orio, ca.1784 (London: National Maritime Museum, BHC2957)

Artists played an essential role on Captain Cook’s three voyages, producing both scientific records and imaginative responses to the unfamiliar lands that they encountered, forever influencing how the British public saw the Pacific. William Hodges was to become the first professional English painter to meet people previously unaffected by European contact, whilst John Webber’s painting of Poedua, the Daughter of Orio is one of the earliest portraits of a Polynesian woman by a European painter. The artists’ works were crucial to how places and discoveries were brought back and interpreted by those in Britain. Hodges’s paintings, particularly Tahiti Revisited, show how artists adapted the techniques and styles learnt in Europe to depict these exotic scenes for a British audience.

The middle section of The Art and Science of Exploration, 1768–80 looks at the work of Hodges, the artist who experimented and developed the most during his explorations with Cook and shared an interest in climate with the scientific men on board. He produced bright, vibrant studies that were on-the-spot responses to his environment with none of the classical allusion added to his later finished paintings. On display is Hodges’s A View of the Cape of Good Hope, Taken on the Spot, From On Board the Resolution, exhibited at the Free Society of Artists before he returned, along with eight of his small sketches, including the last oil study made on the second voyage, View of Resolution Bay in the Marquesas.

The third aspect of the exhibition focuses on the 30,000 dried plants and 955 botanical drawings by Sydney Parkinson that were brought back from Cook’s first voyage. The sheer quantity of new plants recorded was a defining feature of this expedition. Parkinson died during the return journey but his patron, the naturalist Joseph Banks planned to produce a book, employing a large group of artists to complete watercolours and engravings based on Parkinson’s sketches. However, it was not until the 1980s that all 743 prints were made. On display will be Parkinson’s original drawing, the watercolour, copper plate, engraving proof (all on loan from the Natural History Museum), and final print of two specimens collected at Endeavour River, Northern Queensland in 1770.

This exhibition shows the important role that artists had on the Cook voyages and on the European understanding of these faraway lands. They produced extraordinary images which worked both as scientific records of carefully planned exploration, as well as sensitive representations of an unfolding new world.

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Note (added 19 August 2014)In April 2015 George Stubbs’s The Kongouro from New Holland will start a 12-month tour to four UK museums: The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, The Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.

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