HC Deb 06 March 1818 vol 37 cc876-80
Mr. Croker

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for leave to bring in a bill for consolidating the different acts passed for rewarding the Discovery of the Longitude. His purpose, he apprehended, would be at once explained, when he stated that these acts were no fewer than twenty one in number, many of which had partly expired, and were still partly in existence. The object contemplated by all these acts was the discovery of the longitude at sea, the inquiry after which might be traced as far back as the period when Philip 2nd of Spain was vainly attempting to establish a superior marine. The parliamentary enactments which had so rapidly succeeded each other since the time of sir Isaac Newton, for the purpose of encouraging experiments, commenced in the reign of queen Anne. A variety of ingenious and elaborate investigations had subsequently shown, that although there were two modes of prosecuting the inquiry with partial success, the one mechanical and the other scientific, it was essential to the ultimate perfection of the discovery, that scientific principles should predominate, Mr. Harrison had obtained a very large reward for constructing a time-keeper, which, on the first essay, which was a voyage to Barbadoes, did approximate to the nearest point, viz. 30 minutes, or half a degree, required by the act of parliament. A considerable reward had likewise been voted to an eminent mathematician for constructing tables on purely scientific principles, which, although they did not advance the discovery, brought to perfection the means previously acquired for that purpose. The House must be aware, that the question depended on astronomi- cal laws, and that the word longitude was merely a popular expression for denoting their certainty or operation. The intention of the bill which he should have the honour to propose was, that the commissioner-: of the board of longitude should remain just as they were, but that there should be added to them such gentlemen in the scientific world as. by a residence in or near the metropolis, would become useful members and assistants. His object was, indeed, to replace the board in that state of efficiency in which it ought to be—to restore it to that situation in which it was intended to be at its very foundation and commencement. There were many important considerations which would show the necessity of resorting to this proceeding. In the first place, he would beg to state, that, in the year 1767, Dr. Maskelyne, a name which could never be mentioned without the highest respect, projected the Nautical Almanack, a work which was published during his lifetime with the greatest honour to himself, and the most essential service to the country. But, after his death, the reputation of that book greatly declined, and it had latterly fallen to a very low state. Mr. Croker said, he had himself looked into the whole of the almanacks, from the earliest period, and had found only two or three errata in any one volume. The latter publications, however, were very incorrect, and he was sorry to be obliged to say, that the volume for the present year did not contain less than eighteen grave errors, and the publication for the next year not less than forty. In fact, the nautical almanack was a by-word among the literati of Europe. He would mention, however, that, generally speaking, they were not scientific, but typographical errors: but the mischief that must arise from such a publication was an injurious in the one case as in the other. From this consideration, it would be part of his measure, that the House should select a proper person, with a moderate but adequate salary, to superintend the publication of that work.—Another object which deserved great attention, and in which he considered the honour of the country to be deeply interested, was the discovery of a north-west passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean. This had become an object of great anxiety since the reign of George 2nd. By the act of the 16th of Geo. 3rd, it was recited, that whereas the whalers * had often opportunities of approaching the northern pole; and whereas it would be very useful and beneficial to see how near they could approach that pole; the act therefore awarded, that the sum of 10,000l. should be given to such as approached within one degree of the northern pole. A subsequent act had, however, specified an oath quite inconsistent with the circumstance of the whaler being near the northern pole; for it required that the person should not be actuated by any motive or object whatever, except the catching of whales. It was one object, therefore, of his bill, to reconcile these two measures.—Three of the scientific persons that he proposed to associate with the board—gentlemen residing near town, who could always be referred to—it was thought ought to receive a moderate remuneration for their trouble. With the concurrence of the venerable and respectable president of the Royal Society, he thought the remuneration given might be so low as 100l. each, and he trusted the House would be of opinion that the sum of 300l. could not be better employed. The sums to be given for future approaches to the discovery' of the longitude, it was proposed should be 5.000l., 7,500l., and 10,000l. The limits within which these sums were to be granted, to be settled from time to time by the board, according to the advances made in science, so that the reward held cut should act as a perpetual spring to human industry and scientific research. He hoped the bill would be suffered to be brought in. He would then move that it should be printed, and name a distant day for the second reading. He then moved for leave to bring in a bill "for more effectually discovering the Longitude at Sea, and encouraging attempts to find a Northern passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and to approach the Northern Pole."

Mr. Davies Gilbert

said, that after the very luminous explanation which the hon. gentleman had given respecting the objects of his bill, and the benefits which must arise from it, he considered it unnecessary to detain the House by any observations of his own. He most heartily concurred in the measure, and thought it highly desirable that some steps should be taken for improving and perfecting time keepers, and the construction of lunar tables. No thing, he believed, had come nearer to perfection than the astronomical instru- merits now in use. With respect to the Nautical Almanack, he begged to inform the House, that the reputation which that work had acquired was owing to the unremitting care and attention of the rev. Mr. Hitchins, a gentleman whose name had not been sufficiently known, nor his labours duly rewarded. Since his death, the publication had fallen into other hands, and was not so well conducted. Another clergyman, the rev. Mr. Edwards, had greatly distinguished himself by his calculations on these subjects, in which his wife and daughter frequently assisted; but Mr. Edwards was now dead, and his widow and daughter had not met with that degree of attention which they deserved. In point of fact, they were no longer employed.

Mr. Brovgham

said, that he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the measure, but he wished to be informed whether any difference of opinion had arisen among the members of the board of longitude? No one, he believed, would object to the salary of 100l. a-year for each of the additional members, if they were found to be necessary; but there was one point connected with that measure which deserved the most serious consideration-he meant the additional patronage which the appointment would confer on some persons.

Mr. Croker

stated, that he had never heard of any disagreement in the board of longitude: such disagreement was, indeed, hardly practicable, as there were only two or three meetings in a year, and they sat for a very few hours. He found by the act of queen Anne, that nine commissioners were appointed; but it was now proposed that there should be only six. The patronage would be certainly very little felt, and learned men would look more to the honour than to the emolument of the office. The salaries were to be put on the ordinary estimates of the navy and the elections would be annual, subject to the control and revision of parliament. It was because he was anxious that no imputations of a wish for paltry patronage should be cast on this measure, that he would at once state to the House, that appointments had been offered to Dr. Woolaston, Dr. Young, and captain Taylor.

Mr. J. H. Smyth

felt great satisfaction at the disposition the House had shown to listen with interest, not to plans of destruction, not to the false glories of war, but to subjects calculated to promote the powers and happiness of man. He wished, however, to make some inquiries into the plan proposed, and he did not see how a lord of the admiralty should necessarily be a judge of scientific merit. When it was admitted, that every thing in this department had hitherto gone on so well, why was it necessary to make any alteration? He feared that the present plan might only have the effect of increasing patronage to no purpose.

A short conversation followed, in which Mr. Wilberforce, Mr. Forbes, and the chancellor of the exchequer participated, in the course of which Mr. Croker stated it to be intended to relieve the Nautical Almanack, which was only an almanack in name, from the almanack duty. Leave was given to bring in the bill.