Raymond F. Ashley
SCIENCE AND BRITISH SEAPOWER IN THE AGE OF SAIL: THE SEARCH FOR LONGITUDE.
(Under the direction of Carl Swanson), Department of History, November 1994.
This thesis revises a traditional interpretation of the way science contributed to the development of oceanic navigation through the eighteenth-century. One of the first instances of state supported "big science" directed to solving pressing technical problems, this treatment of the search for longitude argues that the transfer of knowledge from theory to practice was neither lineal or direct. Instead, the development of European navigation from the fifteenth to the eighteenth-century actually progressed along parallel paths, often bringing. two opposing communities of proponents into conflict with one another over control of technique. These communities, embodied in the personas of the scientist and the mechanic, tended to employ different systems of reference in their approach to the natural world, and these tended to encourage different types of solutions to technical problems. Though the conflict emphasized issues of practicality in overcoming technical impediments to the extension of seapower and trade, social factors also attended the outcome, including status in priority of discovery and access to patronage.
The thread of narrative follows the development of oceanic navigation as it became ever more abstract, mathematized, and dependent upon specialized precision instruments. The longitude problem itself inspired the English state to embark upon dual stratagems of a funded research program and the independent offer of a fabulous reward to private individuals who might produce a feasible solution. After lengthy delay, each strategy produced a different kind of answer to the problem and a contest ensued for recognition. Factors affecting the outcome included the personal foibles and agendas of the individual actors, no less than their intellectual orientations and backgrounds. Following on the heels of a recognized solution, was a curious reluctance on the part of mariners to avail themselves of it, an anomaly substantiated through quantitative as well as anecdotal evidence. This thesis argues that in large scale technological systems, elements of technique are embedded amongst a host of related influences. Unless these are addressed, the availability of manifestly superior technique does not insure its rapid dissemination. When change does occur, it is again often because of social factors, including the efforts of individuals who act as translators in bridging different communities of practitioners. The thesis offers Captain James Cook as an example of such an individual.