Social Science blog

35 posts categorized "Politics and Government"

28 March 2014

Introducing: Chatham House Online Archive

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Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library, writes:

Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics

One of the most rewarding things about working for the British Library is the chance to select new materials and resources to add to our collections. At the start of this year, I’ve been excited about one of our new digital acquisitions: the Chatham House Digital Archive. This brings together hundreds of thousands of pages of published and unpublished research on international affairs, from the founding of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) up to 1979. From next year, this coverage will extend to 2008.

Researchers and others interested in international affairs, diplomacy and world politics and trade will find much of relevance and interest – including material that has previously been hard to find and access. Perhaps most exciting is the digitisation of transcripts, and in some cases audio recordings, of public meetings (those not held under “Chatham House rule”) – which include speakers such as the historian Arnold Toynbee, Dr David Owen (speaking in 1977 on nuclear non-proliferation), Lord Trevelyan, and Hugh Mackintosh Foot, ambassador to the United Nations (1964- 1970). One of the strengths of an archive such as this is that it records debate and analysis of events as they are unfolding. The long time period covered, means that this includes inter-war diplomacy, the founding of the United Nations, Cold War international relations, the role of NATO, and Britain’s position in Europe.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs had its origins in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where British and American delegates discussed the idea of an institute to study foreign affairs as a way to prevent future wars. The British Institute of International Affairs was founded in 1920, becoming the Royal Institute in 1926. The name ‘Chatham House’, by which it is better known today, comes from the building it has occupied in London since 1923. The house, on St James Square, is named after a previous occupant, William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham. Today, the Institute is one of the leading think tanks in the world on international affairs, hosting events and conducting research on international security, health, economics, energy and the environment, and law.

As well as the speeches and meetings, the digitised archive includes all the published books and journals of the Institute, including International Affairs, Documents of International Affairs (1928- 1963), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Refugee Survey (1939-1945), and British Commonwealth Relations Conferences (1933- 1965).   

The digital archive is available now in our Reading Rooms at St Pancras, London, and Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

05 February 2014

World War One: old controversies and new interpretations

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Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library - See more at:

Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library, writes:

The controversy at the start of this year which followed Michael Gove’s comments on interpretations of the First World War reminds us that there is still much to be uncovered and re-assessed in our understanding of the War. 2014 will see the start of commemorative events across Europe, of which the British Library’s exhibition Enduring War will be part. A common feature of many of these projects – perhaps spurred by an understanding that, as we approach the centenary, so the War is passing completely from lived experience – is an attempt to understand the private experience of the War, and to collect and recapture personal and family memories.

Last week, two related online resources were launched which bring together current research on the War with access to a vast number of digitised objects. Europeana 1914- 1918 provides access to more than 400,000 digitised objects, and 660 hours of film, from galleries, libraries, archives and museums across Europe. An important part of the project had been a call for members of the public to bring personal objects and stories for recording in the Europeana database. This aspect of the project provides access to items previously unseen and also reveals the stories that we have been telling about the War within our families, adding a more personal dimension to the way that the War has been understood and remembered.

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Above: Military cemetery at Châlons-sur-Marne, June 1917 by Felix Vallotton [copyright public domain]

The British Library’s World War One website draws on the collections in Europeana 1914- 1918, and contains more than 50 articles written by historians, curators and others on a range of themes, including: civilian experience; life as a soldier; propaganda; race and empire; and representation and memory. Dr Annika Mombauer gives a timely overview of the history of the debate on the origins of the War, and how attempts to ascribe or absolve from blame have shifted with changing geopolitical conditions. The website contains over 500 images of objects, and resources for teachers in secondary schools. A useful feature of the website is the information about copyright for each of the images featured, making re-use of materials easier where permitted.

Elsewhere, digitisation of resources is being used to expand and link the knowledge that we have about the conduct of the war, and how this was experienced. The National Archives has digitised over 300,000 pages of War Diaries, and aims to have digitised a further 1 million pages by the end of the year. It is using crowdsourcing, calling on members of the public to tag names, places, activities and other information mentioned on the diaries. This information will be shared with the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project. This project will link data between digital records such as census returns, service records and diaries to create digital life histories for more than 8 million of people across Britain and the Commonwealth.

These, and other, projects show that the centenary of the First World War will be marked by projects which seek to increase access to, and understanding of, a huge range of objects and documents that were produced by governments, commercial publishers, and, often, private individuals during the war. The creation of new digital objects offers potential for new discoveries and new links to be made between different sources.

18 December 2013

Stories from the Empire: Privy Council Cases 1917-1920 (cont’d)

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In the second part of this guest post Alex Giles from City University, London, investigates stories from the empire from a socio-legal perspective, through researching Privy Council cases 1917-1920. 

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Record of proceedings in courts below in a Judicial Committee appeal case. (BL pp1316). Copyright British Library Board.

The first part of Alex's blog can be found here

The Privy Council cases can also give an alternative angle on important moments in history. For example in the set for 1920 there are some interesting cases around the unrest in the Punjab in  March and April 1919 relating to the so-called Rowlatt Acts; leading to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre by the British Army in Amritsar on 13th April1.  One such case is  Bugga2; ostensibly reaching the Privy Council  because of a legal challenge to the retrospective nature of martial law regulations passed as a consequence of the above Acts, but more interesting as a primary resource material relating in detail some of the riots that led to the Massacre.

The case describes through the witness statements, confessions, charge sheets and police depositions, how a mob (some of whom are the Appellants in the case) run riot through the city of Amritsar leading to twenty of them being sentenced to death, and one to life imprisonment (for looting).

They attacked private and public buildings in Amritsar including the burning down of the local National Bank of India and murdering the bank manager and his assistant.  The whole event is described vividly through witness statements:

“I saw boy ringing and ringing bell, calling on people to close shops and get sticks and go to station…saw Muhammadi, whom I knew before, break window. I remonstrated with him, and another man I didn’t know said ‘Burn’. Another man came with oil…”

Or confessions:

“‘We found Sahib [the Bank Manager] standing at his table with a pistol in his hand. The mob fell on the Sahib with dangs and he fell down from the blows. The Sahib did not fire his pistol at all…the pistol fell from his hand and I picked it up. Exhibit P 1 is the pistol in question….’ thumbmark of the Accused”

Some of the men claim their confessions are false “made under Police pressure and threats” or “extorted by the Police through torture”, others blame the “Muhammedans” or that “my brother had a quarrel with the Constable”.  None of those sentenced appeared before an ordinary Indian criminal court – despite them still sitting during this period of martial law.

Another character in the Punjab at the time is Kali Nath Roy3, freedom fighter and editor of The Tribune, then published in Lahore. He is tried for sedition, and his case4 covering this period of March/April 1919, is a gold mine. Numerous articles from his newspaper campaign against the Rowlatt Acts, and his reports of the subsequent riots and the ill-treatment of those accused (including mention of the Bugga case above), are extensively reproduced within the case file to the Privy Council in an effort to illustrate the extent of his “indefensible language”:

“The masses of India are no fools. They are as intelligent as the masses in any other country; more intelligent perhaps…they know what is what…No man who saw the behaviour of the crowds – at once the picture of manliness and dignity – will ever doubt the supreme fitness of the country to enjoy the priceless and inalienable right of constitutional liberty. The Rowlatt Act must become a dead letter…” Tribune 8th April 1919

The judgment at Roy’s court martial points out “how soon after the appearance of these articles the serious outbreak took place in Amritsar”. Not only can we read his reports of Gandhi’s and Swani Shradhanada’s5 stirring speeches and actions, but we can also see Roy’s response to them  and his own justification (or defence) in his witness statement:

“I have always and uniformly condemned disorderliness and resort to physical force, not only as unjustifiable in themselves, but as futile, murderous and suicidal”.

When Gandhi is arrested Roy  points out that he is writing “ in the most unequivocal terms against any feeling of resentment or indignation and the need of strictly following the spirit of Mr Gandhi’s precept – that of absolutely eschewing violence”. He also explains that The Tribune is published in English and - far from being a rabble-rousing rag - is a respected publication: “the organ of the educated classes of the Province, a large number of its subscribers being Government officials”.

There are some lovely gems in the exhibits of the case too – such as the telegrams; one from the moderate Surendra Nath Bannerjee, Chief Secretary to the Punjab Government and former Indian National Congress president,  pleading for better treatment of Roy, and another from Shradhanada to him at The Tribune on April 11th:

“Just received wire from Bombay. Mahatma Gandhi released today. He regrets loss of life, counsels restraint and avoiding violence. I, too, strongly urge calm restraint…God and truth guide you all.”

Roy’s appeal to the final court of the British Empire against his two year sentence fails, despite his belief that supporting “constitutional agitation for the removal of Indian grievances” was his “legitimate duty”. However by the end of the year, along with others, he does in fact receive a Royal Pardon5; something intimated (but not explicit)in the final judgment. So his comment below is not as ironic as perhaps originally intended:

“The right of passive resistance is an acknowledged human, as distinguished from merely national, right; it is one of those rights which spring from the very fact that man is a rational, a conscientious, a self-determining being. And in no part of the world is this right more valued than in England”.  The Tribune 6th March 1919


Volumes from this collection can be requested from shelf mark PP1316 for use in the Social Science Reading Room. For guidance on ordering and further information see the British Library web page Privy Council Appeal Cases.


Alex Giles LLB, studied law at Sheffield University, and the College of Law. He currently works for City University London in their City Law School libraries.


1.  see : History of India: A Chronology By John F. Riddick 2006

2. [1920] UKPC 14 Bugga and others v The King-Emperor (Appeal No. 171 of 1919) Lahore [20 February 1920]

3. See The State of India’s Democracy  pp 178 by Sumit Ganguly, Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner  2007

4. [1920] UKPC 107 Kali Nath Roy v The King-Emperor (Appeal No. 164 of 1919) Lahore  [9 December 1920]

5.Hindu reformer, see: Advance Study in the History of Modern India (Volume-3: 1920-1947)  pp 226 By G. S. Chhabra. 2005


12 December 2013

Stories from the Empire: Privy Council Cases 1917-1920

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In this guest post Alex Giles from City University, London, investigates stories from the empire from a socio-legal perspective, through researching Privy Council cases 1917-1920 


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Volumes in the series catalogued as Appeal Cases Heard Before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (shelf mark pp1316). Copyright British Library Board.

The British Library holds a collection of bound volumes of Privy Council cases from 1861 to 2007 (PP1316). Looking at just four years of these at the height of the British Empire makes fascinating reading. Although the final judgments of all Privy Council cases are currently freely available online from 1809 to 2013 on BAILLI (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) or COMMONLII (Commonwealth Legal Information Institute), these cases are often worth reading in full... In other words their Records of Proceedings, judgments of lower local courts, witness testimonies and attached exhibits can really add to our understanding from a socio-legal perspective of this, the final court of appeal for the British Empire and its peoples.

In any one year during the  period 1917 – 1920 a small group of “English” law lords in Whitehall, who made up the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, were deciding on approximately 140 cases originating from all parts of the world such as Canada, Australia, India, the Far East, Africa and the West Indies. The breadth of cases is quite staggering; from ancestral land and inheritance disputes in India using local Hindu matakshara Law or Mohammedan Law, to large commercial cases involving hydro-electric power or mining interests in Canada or Australia. Press and publishing disputes, personal injury, breach of contract for the sale of pig iron, insurance cases, workers’ compensation, licensing of a pub in Adelaide, patents, matrimonial and family, liability for fire damage to a rubber plantation, wills and probate – all with their own peculiar local flavour. One day they would be deciding on who should be running the local temple or muth in a Bengal village1, the next deciding on who owns vast tracts of territory in S. Rhodesia following the Matabele War and the fall of King Lobengula (a very interesting case which includes whole speeches by Cecil Rhodes2).


Map contained within the records of proceedings in courts below in  Judicial Committee appeal cases decided 1917 - 1920. BL pp1316. Copyright British Library Board.

Some cases in this set are still considered “good law” and are cited or mentioned in recent cases for example [1919] UKPC 136 Taylor v Davies3 regarding trusts4, or [1919] UKPC 825, which was recently cited in a case about HIV/Aids drugs patents6. Lawyers or law students may wish to read the entire original case in such instances.

Others’ interest could be in a particular subject area such as Sugar Cultivation in Queensland and the status/role of non-European workers ([1919] UKPC 1187), or Railways in India ([1919] UKPC 1308). These often lengthy cases give primary source details through witness statements and other documentary evidence which incidentally paint a picture of workers’ and peasants’ lives, the caste system, local language and customs of the time.

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Photograph of an unknown person contained within the records of proceedings in courts below in Judicial Committee appeal cases decided 1917 - 1920. BL pp1316. Copyright British Library Board.

Sometimes the final judgments that we have of these cases are lengthy and informative, other times they can be so brief as to give no indication whatsoever of what the case was about. For example in [1919] UKPC109 the final judgment simply tells us:

“Their lordships will humbly advise His Majesty that this appeal should be dismissed with costs.”

So, without looking at the full case we wouldn’t know that this involved a complex family matrimonial dispute: A Christian man marries a Buddhist girl for her dowry. On the morning of the marriage instead of sending the kumarihamy (woman who dresses the bride) he goes and asks her parents for the balance of the dower. This offends the Singhalese parents whose custom is to pay the dower after the marriage ceremony before the assembled guests. There follows a long drawn out and tragic dispute; disinheritance, theft, general nastiness and sadly no mention of love or affection between the couple. Instead the original district judge sides with “the Respondents who were Christians and could not bear false witness” as opposed to “the Appellants who were Buddhists” and “not above it”. Fortunately a later judge is more discerning in weighing up the evidence, and comes to a more balanced decision, but from a socio-legal perspective what is interesting is the effect this has on their lives - which is recorded through their witness statements - and also the snapshot it gives us of a certain section of family life and the role of women in Ceylon at the time.


Volumes from this collection can be requested from shelf mark PP1316 for use in the Social Science Reading Room. For guidance on ordering and further information see the British Library web page Privy Council Appeal Cases. 


Alex Giles LLB, studied law at Sheffield University, and the College of Law. He currently works for City University London in their City Law School libraries. 


1. [1919] UKPC 104 Mahunt  Damodar Ramanuj Das v Chemai Tihari (Appeal No 135 of 1917) Bengal [ 28  October 1919] 

2. Special Reference as to the Ownership of the Unalienated Land in Southern Rhodesia (Reasons) v JCPC [29 July 1918] (JCPC)   [1918] UKPC 78 (29 July 1918)

3. [1919] UKPC 136 Isabella Taylor v Robert Davies (Appeal No 51 of 1919) Ontario [19 December 1919] 

4. Cited:  Bagus Investments Ltd. V Kastening [2012] W.T.L.R. 1675 and Williams v Central Bank of Nigeria [2012] 3 W.L.R. 1501

5. [1919] UKPC 82 The Attorney General for the Dominion of Canada v The Ritchie Contracting and Supply Company Ltd (Appeal  No 160 of 1915) Canada [31 July 1919]

6. Merck Sharp Dohme Corp v Teva Pharma BV [2012] EWHC 627 (Pat)

7. [1919] UKPC 118 Addar Khan v John Mullins (Appeal No 78 of 1919) Queensland [2 December 1919]

8. [1919] UKPC 130 The East Indian Railway Company v Major Andrew Torton Kirkwood (Appeal No 92 0f 1919) Bengal [15   December 1919]

9. [1919] UKPC 10 Mengeltina Allahakoon v Selina Marguerita Abeyesekara (Appeal No.45 of 1917) Ceylon [6 February 1919]

10 December 2013

The personal and political: memories and commemoration of Nelson Mandela on the web

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Ian Cooke, Lead Curator for International Studies and Politics at the British Library, writes:

It is a cliché but nevertheless true that news is now reported and commented on immediately and globally. The news of Nelson Mandela’s passing on the evening of Thursday 5 December was quickly followed by statements, comments and reflection from political leaders, church leaders, campaigners, trade unionists and many others. At the British Library, we have been collecting together some of the reaction, comment and reporting on UK websites, to form part of an archive of the UK web. One of the strengths of an archive like this is that it’s possible to see the development of reaction to an event over time. This blog post will focus on the tributes, commemoration and comment that surfaced in the first 24 hours following the announcement.

The news of the passing of political leaders is in some ways untypical of other events that gain international attention, in that awareness of ill health allows for a period of reflection and preparation. This could be seen in some of the more analytical pieces that appeared, such as Chatham House’s briefings on Mandela’s impact on regional and international affairs. However, much more common in the responses within the first 24 hours was the sense of very personal expressions of grief. The messages that were posted online during the 5th and 6th December showed how much Nelson Mandela inspired love as much as respect.

Above: Nelson Mandela. South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Also striking was how personally people responded. President Obama’s statement was typical of many in describing the role that Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement more generally played in his own political awareness and political activism. In the UK, statements from Church and Trades Unions alike also recalled earlier periods of solidarity and support for Mandela personally and the anti-apartheid movement more generally. This could be seen in statements made by the Evangelical Alliance and the Public and Commercial Services union. Here and elsewhere was the sense that, in responding to the news, memories of national politics were mixed in with tributes to Mandela himself. For the UK, this particularly meant the anti-apartheid movement and debates, particularly those during the 1980s on support for the ANC, sporting boycotts and economic sanctions. As the day drew on and news reports began to carry accusations of short memories, so the comments in response to some blog posts began to repeat the debates of 30 years previously.

Much more recent events also seemed to influence the tone of some of the comment and analysis of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. Perhaps wishing to avoid accusations of hagiography, some blogs carried critical as well as more positive posts.         

As this week progresses, we will, alongside other legal deposit libraries, be collecting more online comment and recording of activity across the UK. Changes to regulations on non-print legal deposit mean that we are now able to respond much more quickly in collecting web pages and web sites, although access to the resulting collections are restricted to computers in legal deposit libraries. We hope that our collection will stand as a record of UK public and political opinion on the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela, as well as reflecting the emotional impact of the news of his passing.   

01 November 2013

Challenging myths and understanding society

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On the evening of the 15 October we held the 20th and final event in our series (with the Academy of Social Sciences) on ‘Myths and Realities’. The series began in 2009 and has examined discrepancies between political and press representations of social issues such as immigration, nutrition, education, crime, food, the environment, welfare and more to understand the gap between social science evidence and more broadly accepted and propagated social ‘truths’. Each event included talks from academics and social science practitioners in which they presented evidence from their field about the particular set of beliefs under discussion. Nearly all of the events have been podcast and are available here as well as on SoundCloud to download.

The final event was chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch and the speakers were Professors Ivor Gaber and John Holmwood. It aimed to take a broad view of the role of the press and politicians in reproducing particular narratives about our society and to examine the role of social scientists in presenting evidence and challenging misconceptions.

Prof. Gaber gave the first presentation, and with a background in journalism and communications, offered his insights into the notion that as a journalist, one should ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. Gaber critiqued this axiom to show that whilst this way of working could be seen to be responsible for many of the current ‘myths’ about society (e.g. the ‘scroungers’ discourse, ‘problem families’, ‘drugs’, ‘immigration’ and so on), it is also a cultural facet of an industry which is highly pressured and competitive, shaped by particular patterns of ownership and bias as well as by audience expectations. Gaber drew on writers such as Stanley Cohen (e.g. Folk Devils and Moral Panics) and Stuart Hall (e.g. in Policing the Crisis) to talk about the way in which particular narratives about society become subject to exaggeration and distortion as well as about how the press are often guilty of giving primacy to the views and opinions of particular groups (as has been discussed again more recently in relation to the ‘riots’ of 2011). Finally, Gaber raised the question of what objectivity is to the press (a ‘gold standard?’, ‘worthy aspiration?’) and finished on a lighter note with this comic song by Dan and Dan films!

Above: 'News on the way' by Vratislav Darmek Cc-by

Prof. John Holmwood’s presentation took a different approach, deconstructing the notion of the ‘expert’ social scientist verses the general public/the press. He suggested that there is a danger to the notion of democracy in thinking of oneself (in this case, the social scientist) as the expert or definer of what counts as valid knowledge. In fact, and as recent events have shown, it is in the public interest to question the nature of ‘expertise’. This took me back to another event held here at the British Library (to which Holmwood contributed) where we examined the relationship between power and knowledge (asking whose knowledge counts?). He suggested that when we think of lived realities, and how these realities are perceived and understood by the individual through various practices and experiences, it can become difficult to make a clear distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’. If this position is held to be a useful one to take when considering beliefs in other areas of social science, then why isn’t the same approach taken when we examine the different ‘truths’ about society put forward by the press, the public, and social scientists?  Holmwood suggested that there was some truth in Paul Dacre’s recent point that politicians and the press on the left perhaps do not trust the public enough. Holmwood’s intervention was a useful and in some ways surprising one which gave the audience plenty of food for thought for subsequent participatory session as well as for events we hold in the future.

The audience contributed to the subsequent discussion with questions such as:

  • Are all these ‘myths’ necessarily always right-wing?
  • Why does the value of cognitive psychology not feature in this discussion?
  • How do ‘myths’ and ‘realities’ around pornography feature in this context?

The event itself (excluding audience questions and further discussion I’m afraid) can now be viewed as a video online via our YouTube channel. Please feel free to use this video to generate your own discussions, or in your teaching, and please feel free to share the link!

02 October 2013

The realities behind the social ‘myths’

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The final event in our long-running and successful series of social science debates ‘Myths and Realities’ (in partnership with the Academy of Social Sciences) takes place on the evening of 15th October. It will be a bit of a celebration of the series (with a drink included in the ticket price) as well as a chance to address the broad question of why we (members of the general public as well as our politicians!) often believe the various social ‘myths’, rhetoric and narratives that we do, despite evidence to the contrary which is often available for public access.

For example, government figures suggest that benefit fraud costs the nation around £1.6 billion last year whilst tax fraud costs around £14 billion. So why then is the cost of benefit fraud to the nation seen as far higher in the public imagination? This is just one example of the kind of gap between widely held views about society and the evidence about social and economic reality that this series has explored. Other examples include the social reality of immigration, addiction, work-life ‘balance’, crime and punishment, educational standards (not as good as my day!) and health and food (is the modern diet really as bad as all that?) and social class (are we really all middle-class now?). We’ve had some great speakers from the academic realm and from policy and practice across the series, and many of our podcasts are on the British Library’s website as well as on SoundCloud.

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Our final event will build and draw on the questions and points raised across the series to examine the role of the press in producing and maintaining some of these social ‘myths’. We will look at how we, as members of the public, access evidence about the society we live in (and whether we are interested in doing so?), the responsibility and role of our politicians in revealing social ‘truths’  and what social scientists could be doing to bring about greater clarity for all.

The event will be chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch who was awarded her CBE for services to Social Science in 1999, she is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchester and was Vice Chancellor of Keele University.

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Above: Professor Dame Janet Finch. By Mholland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Our speakers will be:

Professor Ivor Gaber, Professor of Journalism at City University. As well as having worked as a senior editor for major news organisations such as the BBC and Channel Four, he has published widely on political communications and has also worked as a media consultant for various organisations and governments.

Professor John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. He is the President of the British Sociological Association and co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University. His current research addresses issues of pragmatism and public sociology.

Please join us for an evening of discussion and debate, as well as a glass of wine to celebrate the end of the series! Tickets are available via the British Library events pages and box office.

p.s. In 2014 we will be launching a new series of social science events for the public. Watch this space...

18 September 2013

Longitude? It's Patently Obvious

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Katy Barrett, a final year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, writes about the problem of measuring longitude in the eighteenth century and how researching this led her to the British Libary's pamphlet and patent collections.

Blog readers of a certain age will remember well one of my favourite lines from Nick Park's animation Wallace and Gromit. As the villainous robotic dog Preston operates a replica of his Wash-o-matic, Wallace yells ‘That’s My Machine! I've got patent pending on that!’ This simple phrase sets Wallace up as the archetypal nutty inventor, who tinkers about with bizarre machines in his garage and then attempts to sell them to a naive public. I have kept thinking back to Wallace recently as I have worked on proposals for a scheme seen as similarly ‘nutty’ in the eighteenth century.

This was the problem of measuring longitude at sea. By the early 1700s, Europeans had, of course, been ploughing the oceans for centuries, but it was in this period that expansion of colonial trade and international naval warfare made it crucial to be able to get from A to B safely and in a predictable amount of time. To navigate effectively you need to know your place on the globe in relationship to two points: latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to measure by celestial observations as it is linked to the fixed points of the poles and the line of the equator. But, longitude has no such stable markers (even the 0 meridian at Greenwich was not agreed until an international conference in 1884), and required the development of accurate instruments and complex mathematics. The British government therefore passed an Act in 1714 to encourage proposals of new methods to measure longitude at sea. The Act established a Board of Commissioners to judge proposals, with staggered reward money for any successful ones. Proposals could win ten, fifteen or twenty thousand pounds for finding longitude to within sixty, forty and thirty geographical miles respectively.1

This represented a very large amount of money in the eighteenth century, and so attracted proposals on a broad spectrum from serious inventors, to fortune hunters, to charlatans. 'The twenty thousand pounds' became a hopeful reference equivalent to winning one of the popular contemporary lotteries. This meant that all proposals rapidly became tarred with the same brush in the public imagination, in press reports, and even used by contributors to discredit their competitors. In August 1752, the editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, John Nichols, found it necessary to publish a notice ‘To the Gentlemen who have sent us Proposals on the Longitude’, advertising that ‘many schemes have been sent us, which to publish would do no honour to their authors nor service to the community…some for effecting utter impossibility…The authors of all such will not, ‘tis hoped, blame us for suppressing their papers.’2

Likewise, pamphlets featured criticisms of each other's proposals. 'They're all trying to con you but me' became a standard argument in published longitude pamphlets. William Whiston was a particular target of criticism and satire for his 1714 proposal of using rockets sent up from ships moored at specific longitudes.3 A pamphlet by Jeremy Thacker commented of Whiston and his collaborator Humphrey Ditton, that they had ‘sprung the Twenty Thousand Pounds, and as I hope to get it, I ought to be civil to them...poor Mr. W-----n has been so often handled as a Longitudinarian, and a Latitudinarian…that it would be as barbarous as ungrateful for me to Insult over him.' This was the satirical background to the figure solving longitude that William Hogarth included in his 1735 engraving of Bedlam, the contemporary madhouse, in his A Rake's Progress.

Yet, inventors were also trying to make serious proposals. In 1735 Caleb Smith and William Ward proposed a new type of quadrant, and in their preface bemoaned how proposals were so universally ridiculed, saying 'The various Idle Schemes and Chimerical Projects that have been offered as Discoveries of the Longitude, have so much prejudiced Men’s Minds against all Propositions of this sort, and brought so much Disgrace on the Projectors, that every Attempt to solve this valuable Problem, is now ridiculed as the effect of a weak, or a distempered Brain.'5 For, the point was, partly, that a trial and monetary reward from the Board of Longitude provided not only the finances to develop an invention but also a means of establishing priority and ownership in the ideas behind it in the days in which the concept of intellectual property was still in its infancy.

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Above: the first page of Christopher Irwin's patent specification of 1758. Public Domain Mark

The vast majority of these longitude pamphlets (as well as those that satirise them) are now in the British Library, and therefore also available on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). What struck me as I worked on these sources is how many longitude proposals came to the BL through the Patent Office Library*.  The Patent Office was established in 1852, its creation made possible by the passing of the Patent Law Amendment Act in July of that year, long after the Board of Longitude was disbanded in 1828. The Act demanded ‘true copies of all specifications to be open to the inspection of the public at the office of the Commissioners’ and from this requirement developed the Patent Office Library which opened on 5 March 18556.

The longitude pamphlets may well have come from the private collections of Bennet Woodcroft or Richard Prosser which together formed the nucleus of the new library.  As Assistant to the Commissioners of Patents, Woodcroft was responsible for the identification, collation, printing, abstracting and indexing of early British patent specifications7 and was first Superintendent of Specifications.  Prosser was an engineer and patent reform campaigner.  Both men recognised the importance of providing a reliable reference collection of previous specifications and inventions and we know that Prosser’s collection of around seven hundred volumes included a large number of items published before 1800.  

Whatever their source, despite contemporary satire longitude pamphlets entered the Patent Office Library as reference works.  This was the result of changes in attitudes to inventing that such pamphlets slowly helped to foster. For the eighteenth century was the period in which patents were beginning to resemble their modern descendants: the same decades in which the authors of longitude pamphlets were attempting to attract backers for their inventions. These pamphlets attempted to describe their inventions in a convincing way, and often to include an engraved image to give their idea more credibility. Thus, longitude pamphlets developed along the lines of patent specifications, as the rubric of these specs was itself brought to fruition8. In fact, some of the same people who proposed longitude solutions also sought patents for their inventions, as different avenues to the same goal of financial and intellectual security. The 2000 film Longitude, based on the book by Dava Sobel, represents Christopher Irwin, inventor of the marine chair, as a bumbling fool, but he was sufficiently clued up to apply for a patent for his chair in 17589 (GB731 of 1758).

The fact, however, that it is not just patent applications, but a broader group of longitude pamphlets, that came together in the Patent Office Library, nicely tells the story of how the library developed precisely from the concerns over the status of invention that led eighteenth-century commentators to ridicule such pamphlets. The joke against Wallace over 100 years later, shows that the ridicule was harder to shake.

*The Patent Office Library (subsequently the National Reference Library for Science and Invention) was one of the institutions brought together in 1972 to create the British Library.


(1)  The traditional story of the longitude problem and the Board of Longitude can be found in William Andrewes' (ed.), The Quest for Longitude: The proceedings of the Longitude Symposium, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 4-6 1993 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996) [British Library, Document Supply q97/00766]. The papers of the Board of Longitude are now available through the Cambridge University Digital Library 

(2)  The Gentlemans Magazine and historical chronicle, vol.22 (August 1752), p.359 [British Library, General Reference Collection 249.c.22]

(3)  William Whiston,  A new method for discovering the longitude both at sea and land, humbly proposed to the consideration of the publick (London, 1714) [British Library, General Reference Collection 533.e.24.(7.)]

(4)  Jeremy Thacker, The longitudes examin'd. Beginning with a short epistle to the longitudinarians, and ending with the description of a smart, pretty machine of my own, which I am (almost) sure will do for the longitude, and procure me the twenty thousand pounds (London, 1714), p.2 [British Library, General Reference Collection 533.f.22.(1.)]

(5)  William Ward, The description and use of a new astronomical instrument, for taking altitudes of the sun and stars at sea, without an horizon; together with an easy and sure method of observing the eclipses of Jupiters satellites, or any other phoenomenon of the like kind, on ship-board; In order to determine the Difference of Meridians at Sea (London, 1735), p.4 [British Library, General Reference Collection 117.d.12.]

(6)  The history of the library is told in John Hewish, Rooms near Chancery Lane: the Patent Office under the Commissioners, 1852-1883 (London, c.2000) [British Library, Document Supply m00/37854, Science, Technology & Business (B) BF 46]

(7)  Bennet Woodcroft, Alphabetical index of patentees of inventions from March 2, 1617 to October 1, 1852 (London, 1969) [British Library, Science, Technology & Business RES (B) BF 482 Law, Document Supply Wq2/2317]

(8)  More on patents can be read in Christine Macleod, Inventing the Industrial Revolution: the English patent system, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, 1988) [British Library, Document Supply 89/02218, General Reference Collection YH.1989.b.101]

(9)  This is based on Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time (London, 1995) [British Library, Document Supply 96/06254, General Reference Collection YA.1995.a.27311]. Irwin published his invention in A summary of the principles and scope of a method, humbly proposed, for finding the longitude at sea (London, 1760) [British Library, General Reference Collection C.194.b.349].

A note on the author: Katy Barrett is a final year PhD Student on the AHRC-funded project 'The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World' jointly hosted by the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Royal Museums Greenwich. She works on the cultural history of the longitude problem, about which you can hear more in a 'PhDCast' done with CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) at Cambridge. Katy blogs and tweets as @SpoonsonTrays.