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


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.

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1 Gurney, William, Minutes of a Court Martial Holden on Board His Majesty's Ship Gladiator, Portsmouth: Mottley, Harrison and Miller, 1809, p. 198.

2 Gurney, op. cit. (1), p. 84.

3 Byrn, John, Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline on the Leeward Islands Station 1784–1812, Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989, p. 3.

4 Ashworth, William, ‘“System of terror”: Samuel Bentham, accountability and dockyard reform during the Napoleonic Wars’, Social History (1998) 23, pp. 6379, 64.

5 Dunn, Richard, ‘“Their brains over-taxed”: ships, instruments and users’, in Dunn, Richard and Leggett, Don (eds.), Re-inventing the Ship: Science, Technology and the Maritime World, 1800–1918, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, pp. 131156; and Rozwadowski, Helen, Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea, London: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 86.

6 For the relationship between astronomy and discipline, see Schaffer, Simon, ‘Astronomers mark time: discipline and the personal equation’, Science in Context (1988) 2, pp. 101131.

7 Wh. 2970, Edward Massey's Sounding Machine, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK (henceforth Wh. 2970). Other examples consulted for this paper include NAV0673, Sounding Machine, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK; and 1874-68, Hand Lead and Deep Sea Sounding Machine, the Science Museum, London, UK.

8 The Board of Longitude referred to a range of navigational equipment as ‘machines’, a fluid label in this period. For the long history of related terminology see Warner, Deborah, ‘What is a scientific instrument, when did it become one, and why?’, BJHS (1990) 23, pp. 279305.

9 McConnell, Anita, No Sea Too Deep: The History of Oceanographic Instruments, Bristol: Hilger, 1982, p. 28.

10 Lambert, David, Martins, Luciana and Ogborn, Miles, ‘Currents, visions, and voyages: historical geographies of the sea’, Journal of Historical Geography (2006) 32, pp. 479493, 485.

11 Bentham, Maria, The Life of Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Bentham, K.S.G, London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1862, p. 251.

12 On the problems associated with producing accurate hydrographic charts in this period see Davey, James, ‘The advancement of nautical knowledge: the Hydrographical Office, the Royal Navy and the charting of the Baltic Sea, 1795–1815’, Journal of Maritime Research (2011) 13, pp. 81103.

13 John Law's attention to the wind and currents between Portugal and the Canary Islands is exemplary in this respect; see Law, John, ‘On the social explanation of technical change: the case of the Portuguese maritime expansion’, Technology and Culture (1987) 28, pp. 227252, 236.

14 On the importance of material culture in maritime history see Dunn, Richard, ‘Material culture in the history of science: case studies from the National Maritime Museum’, BJHS (2009) 42, pp. 3133.

15 These changes are typically explained in terms of processes taking place solely on land, such as education or industrialization. See Anderson, Roger, ‘Were scientific instruments in the nineteenth century different?’, in de Clercq, Peter (ed.), Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments and Their Makers, Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 1985, pp. 112, 3; and Morrison-Low, Alison, Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

16 Rozwadowski, Helen, ‘Small world: forging a scientific maritime culture for oceanography’, Isis (1996) 87, pp. 409–429.

17 Waring, Sophie, ‘The Board of Longitude and the funding of scientific work: negotiating authority and expertise in the early nineteenth century’, Journal for Maritime Research (2014) 16, pp. 5571, 58; and Howse, Derek, ‘Britain's Board of Longitude: the finances, 1714–1828’, Mariner's Mirror (1998) 84, pp. 400417, 415–416.

18 RGO 14/31, Pamphlet Concerning Raines-Baines's Sea Perambulator, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives, Cambridge University Library, UK (henceforth Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives); RGO 14/31, Mr Jennings's Observations upon the New Invented Log, or Half-Minute Glass, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives; and RGO 14/24, Segismund Rentzsch to the Board of Longitude, June 1813, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

19 Jim Bennett, ‘Instrument makers and the “decline of science in England”: the effect of institutional change on the elite makers of the early nineteenth century’, in de Clercq, op. cit. (15), pp. 13–28, 18.

20 Snell, Keith, ‘The apprenticeship system in British history: the fragmentation of a cultural institution’, History of Education (1996) 25, pp. 303321, 303–304; and Thompson, Edward, ‘Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism’, Past & Present (1967) 38, pp. 5697, 66.

21 RGO 14/7, Confirmed Minutes, 1 December 1814, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

22 Treherne, Alan, ‘Massey Family (per. c.1760–1891)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press (online edn), 2004; and Class: HO107, Piece: 1519, Folio: 409, Page: 25, GSU roll: 87853, Goswell Street, Clerkenwell, Middlesex, Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851, National Archives, Surrey, UK.

23 For more general histories of the relationship between land and maritime communities see Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, London: Verso, 2000; and Drayton, Richard, ‘Maritime networks and making knowledge’, in Cannadine, David (ed.), Empire, the Sea and Global History: Britain's Maritime World, 1763–1840, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 7282.

24 These are best described by Samuel, Raphael, ‘Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in Mid-Victorian Britain,’ History Workshop Journal (1977) 3, pp. 672.

25 Schaffer, Simon, ‘Swedenborg's lunars’, Annals of Science (2013) 71, pp. 226; and Bennett, Jim, ‘The travels and trials of Mr Harrison's timekeeper’, in Bourguet, Marie, Licoppe, Christian and Otto Sibum, H. (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 7595.

26 Bentham, Maria, ‘Memoirs of late Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Bentham’, in Papers and Practical Illustrations of Public Works of Recent Construction, London: John Weale, 1856, pp. 4179, 42–43.

27 RGO 14/31, Edward Massey to the Board of Longitude, 11 September 1807, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

28 Simms, Rupert, Bibliotheca Staffordiensis, Lichfield: Lomax, 1894, p. 303.

29 Ashworth, op. cit. (4), pp. 66–67.

30 Morriss, Roger, ‘Government and community: the changing context of labour relations, 1770–1830’, in Day, Ann and Lunn, Kenneth (eds.), History of Work and Labour Relations in the Royal Dockyards, London: Masnell, 1999, pp. 2140, 22–30.

31 Bentham, op. cit. (11), p. 251.

32 Illustrated in Figure 2 and described in Hutton, Charles, A Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary: Containing an Explanation of the Terms, and an Account of the Several Subjects, Comprised under the Heads Mathematics, Astronomy, and Philosophy both Natural and Experimental, 2 vols., London: Rivington, 1815, p. 416.

33 Raper, Henry, The Practice of Navigation and Nautical Astronomy, London: Bate, 1840, p. 92.

34 Hutton, op. cit. (32), p. 416.

35 Bill, Robert, A Short Account of Massey's Patent Log, and Sounding Machine, with the Opinions of Several who Have Made Trials with Them, London: Blacks & Parry, 1806, p. 4.

36 RGO 14/31, Mr Jennings's Observations upon the New Invented Log, or Half-Minute Glass, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

37 Instructions pasted to wooden case, Wh. 2970.

38 Advertisement in Payne, G., An Elementary Introduction to The Nautical Almanac, and Astronomical Ephemeris, London: Charles Wilson, 1842.

39 RGO 14/24, Edward Massey to Board of Longitude, 28 September 1814, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

40 Raper, op. cit. (33), p. 91.

41 van Lottum, Jelle and Poulsen, Bo, ‘Estimating levels of numeracy and literacy in the maritime sector of the North Atlantic in the late eighteenth century’, Scandinavian Economic History Review (2011) 59, pp. 6782, 71–74.

42 As illustrated by Lave, Jean, ‘The values of quantification’, in Law, John (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 88111.

43 Glennie, Paul and Thrift, Nigel, Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300–1800, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 319.

44 Glennie and Thrift, op. cit. (43), p. 304.

45 Byrn, op. cit. (3), p. 91.

46 Bill, op. cit. (35), pp. 31–32, italics in original.

47 RGO 14/31, Edward Massey to Board of Longitude, 11 September 1806, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

48 Biden, Christopher, Naval Discipline: Subordination Contrasted with Insubordination, London: Richardson, 1830, p. 317.

49 Phillip MacDougall, ‘The changing nature of the dockyard dispute, 1790–1840’, in Day and Lunn, op. cit. (30), pp. 41–65, 47.

50 Wilkes, John, Encyclopedia Londinensis, vol. 20, London: Adlard, 1825, p. 719.

51 The Examiner, 11 October 1840, p. 652.

52 Cooper, Carolyn, ‘The Portsmouth system of manufacture’, Technology and Culture (1984) 25, pp. 182225, 194.

53 Wilkes, op. cit. (50), p. 719.

54 Ashworth, op. cit. (4), p. 74.

55 Visibility is a central theme in Michel Foucault's account of disciplinary power. See Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish, London: Vintage, pp. 200228.

56 Abridgements of the Specifications Relating to Clocks and Other Timekeepers, London: George Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1858, pp. 2930.

57 RGO 14/24, Segismund Rentzsch to the Board of Longitude, June 1813, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

58 RGO 14/31, Peter Burt to Board of Longitude, 27 December 1813, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

59 ‘New patents’, Philosophical Magazine (1827) 2, pp. 237–238, 237; and RGO 14/31, Peter Burt to Board of Longitude, 10 March 1817, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

60 Bryden, David, ‘Georgian instrument patents: some ghosts and spectres’, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society (2012) 112, pp. 423, 10.

61 Smith, Egerton, Observations on the Principle and Use of the New Patent Sea Log and Sounding Machine, Invented by Edward Massey, of Hanley, Staffordshire, Liverpool: E. & W. Smith, 1805, p. 27.

62 RGO 14/31, Peter Burt to Board of Longitude, 1 June 1815, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

63 This was confirmed during a lighting failure at the National Maritime Museum storerooms.

64 Burt, Peter, Copies of Letters relative to Mr Burt's Buoy and Nipper, London: Bensley and Son, 1817, pp. 67.

65 O'Dea, William, The Social History of Lighting, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958, p. 85.

66 In 1838 Massey patented ‘a toothed and notched dial plate, which enables the person heaving the lead in the dark to ascertain the figures marked by the index by merely feeling the said teeth’. However, there is no evidence that this design was ever manufactured. Edward Massey, Ships' Logs and Instrument for Taking Soundings at Sea, Patent No. 7113, London: Eyre and Stoppiswoode, 1857, p. 2.

67 The Queen's Regulations and the Admiralty Instructions for the Government of Her Majesty's Naval Service, London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1862, p. 160.

68 Ashworth, op. cit. (4), pp. 68–74.

69 Cooper, op. cit. (52), p. 193.

70 Schaffer, Simon, ‘‘The charter'd Thames’: naval architecture and experimental spaces in Georgian Britain’, in Roberts, Lissa, Schaffer, Simon and Dear, Peter (eds.), The Mindful Hand: Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation, Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 2007, pp. 279305, 280.

71 RGO 14/31, Edward Massey to Board of Longitude, 6 March 1811, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

72 RGO 14/31, Edward Massey to Board of Longitude, 11 September 1811, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

73 Deskilling is a pervasive theme in the history of work; see Joyce, Patrick, The Historical Meanings of Work, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987; and Samuel, op. cit. (24), pp. 6–72.

74 Belcher, Edward, A Treatise on Nautical Surveying, London: Pelham Richardson, 1835, p. 19.

75 Burt, op. cit. (64), pp. 1–8.

76 On the relationship between bodies and instruments see Kapil Raj, ‘When human travellers become instruments’, in Bourguet, Licoppe and Sibum, op. cit. (25), pp. 156–188.

77 Bill, Robert, Second Appendix: A Short Account of Massey's Patent Log, and Sounding Machine, with the Opinions of Several who Have Made Trials with Them, London: Blacks & Parry, 1806, p. 4.

78 ‘Description and Use of a Sea Log, and Sounding Machine invented by Mr. Edward Massey, of Hanley, in Staffordshire,’ A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts (1808) 21, pp. 245–255, 255.

79 Massey's machine weighed approximately five hundred grammes without the leads attached.

80 Towson, J., ‘Navigation – its divisions – the sciences connected with its study: nautical astronomy and dead reckoning – the danger of neglecting either’, Mercantile Marine Magazine and Nautical Record (1854) 1, pp. 179186, 186.

81 This parallels the use of machines in the rolling mills as identified by Samuel, op. cit. (24), pp. 45–46.

82 Dening, Greg, Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 115.

83 Lyon, George, A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay, London: John Murray, 1825, p. 106.

84 For the history of sounding in the Arctic regions see Millar, Sarah, ‘Science at sea: soundings and instrumental knowledge in British polar expedition narratives, c.1818–1848’, Journal of Historical Geography (2013) 42, pp. 7787.

85 For the use of rank in relation to work as a form of punishment, see Foucault, op. cit. (55), pp. 179–181.

86 Cursory Suggestions on Naval Subjects: with the Outline of a Plan for Raising Seamen for His Majesty's Fleets in a Future War, London: F & J Rivington, 1822, pp. 4849.

87 Glennie and Thrift, op. cit. (43), p. 314.

88 ‘Description and Use of a Sea Log, and Sounding Machine’, op. cit. (78), p. 255.

89 Harrison, Royden, ‘Introduction’, in Harrison, Royden and Zeitlin, Jonathan (eds.), Divisions of Labour: Skilled Workers and Technological Change in Nineteenth Century England, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1985, pp. 112.

90 Werrett, Simon, ‘Potemkin and the panopticon: Samuel Bentham and the architecture of absolutism in eighteenth century Russia’, Journal of Bentham Studies (1999), 2, pp. 125.

91 Semple, Janet, Bentham's Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 217247.

92 The ship, as a contained and separate space, is an exemplar of what Michel Foucault calls a ‘heterotopia’. Michel Foucault, ‘Of other spaces’, Diacritics (1986) 16, pp. 22–27, 27.

93 Hannay, David, Naval Courts Martial, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914, p. 108.

94 ‘Description and Use of a Sea Log, and Sounding Machine’, op. cit. (78), p. 255.

95 Byrn, op. cit. (3), p. 178.

96 Smith, op. cit. (61), p. 5.

97 Raper, op. cit. (33), p. 92.

98 Smith, James, The Mechanic, or, Compendium of Practical Inventions, 2 vols., Liverpool: Henry Fisher, 1818, vol. 1, p. 292.

99 Advertisement placed in Payne, op. cit. (38).

100 Smith, op. cit. (61), p. 11.

101 Marie Bourguet, Christian Licoppe and H. Otto Sibum, ‘Introduction’, in Bourguet, Licoppe and Sibum, op. cit. (25), pp. 1–19.

102 RGO 14/24, Segismund Rentzsch to the Board of Longitude, June 1813, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives; and RGO 14/24, Samuel Grimaldi to the Board of Longitude, 2 March 1812, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

103 Bennett, op. cit. (25), p. 77.

104 The Queen's Regulations, op. cit. (67), p. 161.

105 Gurney, op. cit. (1), p. 2.

106 Burt, Peter, Copies of Reports of Experiments Made By Order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, at the Request of the Board of Longitude for the Purpose of Ascertaining the Superiority of Burt's Sounding Buoy and Knipper, London: T. Sotheran, 1819, p. 20.

107 Burt, op. cit. (64), pp. 9–10.

108 ‘Nautical miscellany’, Nautical Magazine (1832) 1, p. 498.

109 Raper, op. cit. (33), p. 92.

110 RGO 14/31, Peter Burt to Board of Longitude, 7 November 1815, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

111 Schaffer, Simon, ‘Easily cracked: scientific instruments in states of disrepair’, Isis (2011) 102, pp. 706717; and Dunn, Richard and Phillips, Eóin, ‘Of clocks and cats’, Antiquarian Horology (2013) 34, pp. 8893.

112 RGO 14/31, Peter Burt to Board of Longitude, 1 June 1815, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives.

113 Burt, op. cit. (106), p. 30.

114 Burt, op. cit. (64), p. 11.

115 Burt, op. cit. (64), p. 11.

116 Millar, op. cit. (84), also discusses the competition between Massey and Burt. Whilst Millar ultimately suggests that Burt was victorious, the reality is that both machines continued to be used well into the nineteenth century. See, for example, Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, Showing the Progress of the Survey During the Year Ending November 1, 1857, Washington, DC: Cornelius Wendell, 1858, Plate 70.

117 Burt, op. cit. (64).

118 Dening, op. cit. (82), p. 114.

Alexi Baker, Megan Barford, Richard Dunn, Rebekah Higgitt, Eóin Phillips, Alice Poskett, Nicky Reeves, Simon Schaffer, Sujit Sivasundaram, Liba Taub and James Taylor all provided invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank the staff of the Whipple Museum, the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum for their assistance. Comments from two anonymous reviewers encouraged me to develop my analysis, for which I am grateful. This research was supported by an internship awarded by the National Maritime Museum.

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