Welcome to the Steampunk Hands Around the World 2015 event, which will reach out across the globe all through February, to connect as many countries, cultures and people through Steampunk.
My first contribution will be a recap of an historical anniversary effectively wedded to the genre:
In 2014, Maritime institutions all over the world celebrated the 300th birthday of the passing of the Longitude Act. The Royal Museums at Greenwich, London organised year-round events, talks and exhibitions. T0 fire up the public’s imagination, the organisers would recreate what it might have been like to be a scientist, vying for the fortune and glory of the Longitude Prize. The medium: Steampunk.
Before diving into the delightful shenanigans that ensued, let’s look at the
-extremely potted – history of Longitude*:
Parliament in the United Kingdom passed the Longitude Act in July 1714, under Queen Anne’s rule. The Board of Longitude was established and announced the following:
“The Discovery of the Longitude is of such Consequence to Great Britain for the safety of the Navy and Merchant Ships as well as for the improvement of Trade that for want thereof many Ships have been retarded in their voyages, and many lost…” (and there will be a Longitude Prize) “for such person or persons as shall discover the Longitude.” – Board of Longitude, 1714.
To win the Prize, one was required to discover and, most importantly, demonstrate, a practical method for determining the longitude of a ship at sea. The more accurate the method, the more substantial the Prize money, which today would equate several millions of pounds. Unsurprisingly this generated a fever to be the first to discover the best and most accurate method.
Many years had already been spent on this very problem and had produced folk who harboured some rather bizarre notions.
One of the main issues with calculating Longitude was knowing the exact time while at sea, as clocks notoriously went off kilter due to a lack of consistent equilibrium. The problem, ultimately, was how to determine the time at a distant reference point while on a ship.
Kenelm Digby’s proposal involved the use of The Powder of Sympathy. This originated from theories put forth in 1608 by German physician Rudolf Goclenius,Jr.
The recipe for the Powder ran thus: “Take Roman vitriol (copper sulphate) six or eight ounces, beat it very small in a mortar, shift it through a fine sieve when the sun enters Leo; keep it in the heat of the sun and dry by night.”
The Powder was then applied, not to the wound but to the weapon that inflicted it and so thought to increase the rapidity of the wound closing and healing. Digby proposed that ships brought a wounded dog on each sea voyage. An appointed person on shore would soak a bandage from the dog’s wound in a solution from the Powder, every hour, on the hour. Wherever the ship might roam on the vasty ocean, the dog on shipboard would howl in pain exactly at the moment. Thus the ship’s navigator could note the precise hour and thus, calculate Longitude. Nowhere does it state whether dogs were to be especially hurt for the purpose or whether one was to scour the streets for poor wretched mutts already sporting some kind of injury…
Two others attempting to address the issue of telling the precise time at sea were mathematicians William Whiston and Humphry Ditton. They surmised that generating a loud noise from land could be a viable means of calculation: If ships were anchored at 600 mile intervals along the coast and fire cannon, the ship’s navigators would be able to make a note of the times and intervals and so determine longitude. At no point did Whiston and Ditton seem to have considered how to work this wonderful sonic solution miles out on open sea.
However, the other side of the coin was that in the manic search for a solution (and snaffling the Prize, which to this day has actually never been given out) many scientists ended up adding to the knowledge of astronomy and physics in general.**
This aspect of the race to be the first, to invent and demonstrate a new and solid method once and for all, is what The Royal Museums pulled to the forefront in 2014 for their interactive project:
The Museums issued an invitation to create works inspired by the technical inventions that were presented to the Board of Longitude between 1714 and 1828. Three main guidelines were given:
Aesthetics: objects that best demonstrate the aesthetics of 18th century invention.
Craftsmanship: objects that demonstrate the highest standards of craft and ability.
Spirit of Steampunk: objects that best demonstrate the spirit of steampunk as applied to the 18th century.
The works would be exhibited among the Museum’s genuine artefacts and shown as part of the original presentations of hopeful scientists, looking to garner a place among the scientific elite.
The beauty of this idea was that the whimsy of Steampunk and the slightly bonkers contraptions that are such a staple of the genre blended almost seamlessly with the more outlandish contributions of the scientists in the 1700s and earlier theories, such as Galileo Galilei’s Celatone: a device which would not look amiss on a Steampunk mad scientist now:
And indeed, the winning Longitude Punk’d design was by Matthew Dockery, who was inspired to recreate a more modern version of this very contraption, based on a design by Samuel Parlour from 1824:
Dr. Geof Banyard, who also created the Steampunk Tea Museum on board the Cutty Sark, took it upon himself to write accompanying explanations underneath the museum’s existing artifacts and paintings, giving an invaluable deeper insight into the historical period. Like so:
Emilly Ladybird designed an Orrery Dress, so that the wearer would always carry the means of calculating Longitude on their person and would never be unable to pinpoint their exact location:
Wynn Griffiths and Yomi Ayeni (who was also instrumental in the museum’s event organisation) contributed a dazzling find: A Dislocator Globe, which turned out to be the only piece of wreckage from a Time Travel vehicle by the name of Prime Landing. How it crashed or whence it came will probably always be a mystery.
Lady Elsie presented the museum with the Pocket Watch Dress. Says she: “Each watch is set at an hour, so it shows 24 hours around the globe. The silver ribbon down the front (not visible in photo, ed.) is the time line which runs through Greenwich.” So carrying both the local time and the Greenwich timeline on their person, someone could always exactly work out their position. Cunning!
Herr Doktor (Ian Crichton), an eminent inventor of wondrous strange contraptions, attacked the problem with his usual zeal and produced no less than a Precise Longitude Beacon. When asked about the exact workings of this impressive piece, his explanation was of such convoluted academic heights that it may confuse a layman. At any rate, It appears that the copper conductor domes on the land construction reach across the entire globe. This enables ships carrying a receptor device to pinpoint their location, that they may ne’er be lost again…
The other exhibitions and interactive events including musical performances, science talks and crafting sessions, like the Steampunk Summer Fete and Clocking off Late, covered a wider aspect of maritime history and also delved into the impact of the British East India Trading Company. (This has been amply covered in previous Steampunk India articles due to an active role in these events. See blog for articles.)
The endeavour has been a perfect example of the innovation, love for creating awareness through history and sense of fun that form such an important part of the Steampunk genre. Through making, fiction and celebrations it becomes indeed our Workshop, Our Classroom and Our Playground…
* For more background on the History of Longitude:
– Longitude by Dava Sobel, 1995,
Publisher: Harper Perennial; 10th Anniversary Ed., 2005.
– Finding Longitude: How ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem by Rebeka Higgitt and Richard Dunn for the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)
Publisher: Collins, 2014. ISBN-10: 0007525869
– The Quest for Longitude by William J.H. Andrews,
Publisher: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments,U.S., 1996. ISBN-10: 0964432900
** List of contributors to science in the Quest for Longitude as featured on Wikipedia:
Galileo – detailed studies of Jupiter’s moons, which proved Ptolemy’s assertion that not all celestial objects orbit the Earth
Robert Hooke – determination of the relationship between forces and displacements in springs, laying the foundations for the theory of elasticity.
Christiaan Huygens – invention of pendulum clock and a spring balance for pocket watch.
Jacob Bernoulli, with refinements by Leonhard Euler – invention of the calculus of variations for Bernoulli’s solution of the brachistochrone problem (finding the shape of the path of a pendulum with a period that does not vary with degree of lateral displacement). This refinement created greater accuracy in pendulum clocks.
John Flamsteed and many others – formalization of observational astronomy by means of astronomical observatory facilities, further advancing modern astronomy as a science.
John Harrison – invention of the gridiron pendulum and bimetallic strip along with further studies in the thermal behavior of materials. This contributed to the evolving science of Solid mechanics. Invention of caged roller bearings contributed to refinements in mechanical engineering designs.