MedHum Monday: Stones, Clocks, and Stars at the National Maritime Museum

DailyDose_PosterHappy MedHum Monday! Today’s post is brought to us by Dr. Katy Barrett, Curator of Art, pre-1800 at the Royal Museums, Greenwich, UK. Her piece is a narrative from the current exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude which relates the search for lasting health with the difficulties of searching for one’s place in the world. Take it away, Katy!

Finding your longitude at sea was difficult in the eighteenth century. While latitude can be measured from fixed points on the earth or in the heavens, you can draw your meridian line of longitude anywhere. To know your distance east or west of your meridian you need to know the time difference, and thus need an accurate clock to keep the time of your home port while you measure your local time from the height of the sun. If you can’t find your longitude you don’t know where you are in relation to land, and that can lead to loss of life, of cargo and of time. In 1714, as one of her last acts, Queen Anne therefore signed a bill to find a solution to longitude.

Why should medical humanists care about this story? Yes, more accurate navigation makes ocean voyages quicker and safer, reducing the risk of scurvy, to which George Anson would lose hundreds of his crew in the early 1740s when unable to locate the island of Juan Fernandez. But longitude was also equated to medical concerns back home. It was the prize money attached to the longitude act that really fascinated contemporaries: £20,000 for the most accurate solution. The deluge of proposals that this prospect of wealth unleashed led many to see the attempt as a mere project: idle, mad, or even malicious, the outcome of which would only be to dupe or even harm the naive investing public. William Hogarth showed just such ideas in the final plate of his series A Rake’s Progress, where one inmate of Bedlam desperately tries to change his fortunes by solving longitude on the wall of the madhouse.

Hogarth's In the Madhouse
Hogarth’s “In the Madhouse” from the A Rake’s Progress series.

Hogarth represented a similar attitude to ‘quack’ doctors. In plate 3 of his Marriage-a-la-Mode, the adulterous earl takes his young mistress to see a doctor whose room is stuffed with projects for miracle cures. In the Company of Undertakers and Cunicularii, he suggested that all medical practitioners were on a similar spectrum. Indeed, a number of contemporary commentators and satirists suggested that the search for longitude and attempts to prolong life or cure particularly feared diseases were equally absurd. In 1729, Gabriel John, who styled himself ‘a seventh Son, and Teacher of the Occult sciences in Yorkshire’ satirised fellow doctor John Hancock’s miracle cure for the plague saying, ‘if the Doctor has the Art to make People immortal, what is that to any body? There must be a time to find out the Longitude, if ever it be done; and some body or other must do it, if any body does; ay, and the Philosopher’s Stone too.’[i] The Philosopher’s Stone, of course, being another miracle means to prolong life, which an inmate of Newgate Prison attempts to produce in plate 7 of A Rake’s Progress.

Hogarth's "The Prison Scene" from the A Rake's Progress series.
Hogarth’s “The Prison Scene” from the A Rake’s Progress series.

Attempts to cure the stone and syphilis were, likewise, equated with longitude. But, the stone presented a particularly interesting case. In 1738-40, Joanna Stephens announced that she had found a cure for the stone and petitioned parliament for a reward of £5,000, which she received after disclosing her cure to a group of trustees.[ii] The clear parallels with the set up of the longitude act did not go unnoticed by contemporaries. The journalist William Kenrick commented in 1744 that, ‘the parliamentary rewards, that have been offered and paid for the finding out the Longitude … for a nostrum for the Stone, and for several other inventions and discoveries, afford a sufficient proof that the encouragement of ingenuity … is in general adjudged to be politically expedient.’[iii]

Sketches of Harrison's early chronometer from 1767
Sketches of Harrison’s early chronometer from 1767

He did not comment on the outcome of Stephens’ cure, which had soon turned out to be ineffective despite her demonstration to the trustees. This blatant abuse of public funds therefore led commentators to suggest that John Harrison, the now famous clockmaker attempting to gain the £20,000 longitude reward, might be similarly a mere projector.

In his Letters from Altamont, the poet Charles Jenner reported that, ‘a certain mechanic of this inventive city, has contrived a time-piece with all the principles requisite for [finding longitude] … There are not, however, wanting a party who say, that the people appointed to examine into the merit of the projector’s claim, have been too hasty in their judgement … It is not many years since a reward was offered for any person who should discover a certain cure for that dreadful disorder, the stone: a woman offered her claim, and received the reward for a medicine which has since been found, in many cases, impossible to be administered, and in others ineffectual.’[iv]

For all concerned, the process of solving longitude at sea could be as complex, contested and painful as curing the stone. For contemporary onlookers, both projects were equally absurd.

Dr. Katy Barrett is Curator of Art, pre-1800 at Royal Museums Greenwich and part of the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World’. []

Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London until 4th January 2015. See for all related display and events



[i] Gabriel John, Flagellum: or, a dry answer to Dr. Hancock’s wonderfully-comical liquid book, which he merrily calls Febrifugum magnum (London, 1723), p.15.

[ii] See Arthur J. Viseltear, ‘Joanna Stephens and the Eighteenth Century Lithontriptics: A Misplaced Chapter in the History of Therapeutics’ in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 42:3 (1968), pp.199-220, and Nicky Reeves’ on the Board of Longitude blog

[iii] W. Kenrick, An address to the artists and manufacturers of Great Britain; Respecting an Application to Parliament for the farther Encouragement of New Discoveries and Inventions in the Useful Arts (London, 1774), p.16

[iv] Charles Jenner, Letters from Altamont in the capital, to his friends in the country (London, 1767), pp.86-8.


One Reply to “MedHum Monday: Stones, Clocks, and Stars at the National Maritime Museum”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s