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Sounding in silence: men, machines and the changing environment of naval discipline, 1796–1815

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2014

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH, UK Email:


Logbooks and sea charts may appear rather straightforward evidence to present at a naval court martial. However, their introduction into proceedings in the early nineteenth century reveals an important shift. Measuring the depth of water soon became a problem both of navigation and of discipline. Indeed, Captain Newcomb's knowledge of the soundings taken at the Battle of the Basque Roads proved crucial at Lord Gambier's court martial in June 1809. Through a case study of Edward Massey's sounding machine, this paper reveals the close connection between disciplinary practices on land and at sea. The Board of Longitude acted as a key intermediary in this respect. By studying land and sea together, this paper better explains the changing make-up of the British scientific instrument trade in this period. Massey is just one example of a range of new entrants, many of whom had little previous experience of the maritime world. More broadly, this paper emphasizes the role of both environmental history and material culture in the study of scientific instruments.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2014 

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