News

Day 3 of ‘Looking for the Longitude’: ‘the impossible problem’

  • 17 June 2016
Manuscript copy collated by William Wildman Barrington, 1764, pen and ink, 32.0 x 20.3 mm

National Maritime Museum, William Wildman Barrington, Sir Isaac Newton’s Opinion given in 1714, Manuscript copy collated by William Wildman Barrington, 1764, pen and ink, 32.0 x 20.3 mm

Newton was consulted extensively by Parliament in the process of drawing up the Act and had expressed the widely held opinion that it was, in fact, probably impossible to find longitude at sea. He laid out the range of instrumental and mathematical solutions that were known in theory, but very difficult to make practical at sea. They required accurate clockwork or minute observations of the moon and stars.

This, then, was the impossible problem promising enormous reward money, which fired public imagination and inspired Hogarth’s longitude madman. By 1735 many texts and images had developed a complex iconography around “the longitude”.

Read day 3 by expert Rebekah Higgitt, University of Kent, on being a Commissioner of longitude