Longitude Hoax?

The story of the 18th-century contest (sponsored by the British government) to find a solution to the problem of how to determine longitude at sea has received much attention, mostly due to Dava Sobel's best-selling book about it.

But Pat Rogers argues in the Times Literary Supplement that Sobel (and just about every other historian who has written about the subject) has fallen for a hoax. Specifically, all of these historians have described one Jeremy Thacker as an inventor who, early in the contest, almost found the solution to longitude. But Rogers argues that Thacker didn't exist. He was merely a literary joke, probably created by John Arbuthnot.

The evidence for this thesis: 1) Thacker's pamphlet, Longitudes Examin'd, is the only evidence of his existence. He doesn't pop up anywhere else in the historical record. 2) The pamphlet is written in an "absurdly grandiose style." 3) "His unblushing admission that he only cares about the £20,000, with no figleaf claims of benefit to mankind, is equally untypical."

Rogers connects Thacker to Arbuthnot because the pamphlet was later included in a collection of The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Dr. Arbuthnot.

I haven't read any counter-arguments to Rogers' thesis, so I'll leave this as undetermined.

History Literature/Language

Posted on Tue Nov 18, 2008


alex, your "http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0007790163?ie=UTF8&tag=themuseumofho-20&link_code=wql&camp=212361&creative=380601"
link don't work
Posted by bama  on  Tue Nov 18, 2008  at  02:11 PM
Thanks, bama. Should be fixed.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Tue Nov 18, 2008  at  02:15 PM
Thanks, bama
Posted by fantacia swingers  on  Tue Nov 18, 2008  at  06:00 PM
That case seems pretty weak - it'd be perfectly possible for some amateur enthusiast to leave no significant records, and equally possible for such an amateur to have an unprofessionally pseudo-grandiose style. These days he'd have a blog.
Posted by outeast  on  Wed Nov 19, 2008  at  06:25 AM
It seems to me that this is a case of Rogers saying "Due to lack of information, we can't say that Jeremy Thacker really existed. Here is what really happened, which I base on a lack of information." The first part is fine, but the latter is basically him doing the exact same thing that he says people such as Sobel were doing.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Wed Nov 19, 2008  at  08:58 AM
You need only look at some of the people claiming to have solved the problem of "perpetual motion" (like Archer Quinn and "world-saving" free energy device he humbly called "the Sword of God") to see that a bombastic style is no indication that someone is not sincerely advancing a claim or idea.
Posted by David B.  on  Thu Nov 20, 2008  at  09:36 AM
fantacia you're welcome
Posted by bama  on  Fri Nov 21, 2008  at  10:10 AM
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