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Jane Squire and the Longitude Wars

The sixteenth-century debate over how to determine longitude had a lot of participants—and one woman

The British Navy was a big deal in the 1700s. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Jane Squire was really wrong. But so was pretty much everybody else.

The Longitude Wars were a sixteenth-century debate over how to determine a given ship’s longitude when at sea. In an era where long-distance ocean travel was becoming more and more important both politically and economically and ships were the big technology of the era, whoever figured out how to tell longitude first had a serious advantage. To top it off, better navigation would help sailors not die, which was pretty good too. The ideas that finally worked have gone down in history. So has Squire’s, even though her ideas probably wouldn't have worked.

The Longitude Wars were fought over big stakes. Several methods had possibility, but nothing was really working--even though scientists across Europe were working on the problem in pursuit of prize money from their various governments. Then in 1714, the British government passed the Longitude Act, which offered £20,000 to anyone who could come up with a solution that would allow them to measure longitude to half a degree.

Two eventual solutions were reached in the 1760s. But before that, Squire made her mark among the “vast number” of people who approached the Commission of Longitude, who judged the prize, with ideas. “This included people with relevant knowledge such as mariners and mathematicians, but also many shades of armchair philosopher and/or charity-seeker,” writes Royal Museums Greenwich.

Squire self-published two editions of a book called A Proposal to Determine Our Longitude in 1742 and 1743. The proposal it contained was pretty unlikely, writes the University of Cambridge in a release.  “Her scheme was intended not only to facilitate the finding of longitude at sea but also to move humanity closer to the state which existed before the fall of the Tower of Babel.”

“Religious motivations like Jane Squire’s were not uncommon in the search for the longitude, nor were they unusual in 18th-century science in general,” explains historian Dr. Alexi Baker in the Cambridge press release, “and did not preclude proposals from consideration.”

Squire's proposal would not have worked. (Probably.) It involved "dividing the heavens into more than a million segments which could be recognised visually, so that young sailors would not need advanced mathematics," the university writes. The scheme also involved deploying buoys shaped like sea creatures into the ocean to aid with mapping and navigation.

Squire wasn’t really rich—she had been imprisoned for debt—and she was Catholic at a time when that was an unpopular thing to be in England. And, of course, she was a woman openly writing and publishing in a scientific field, something that is somehow still controversial today. (It's entirely possible other women participated in the Longitude Wars under pseudonyms or in other ways.) The poverty and religion issues didn't hold her back too much. The gender thing was a factor, though, and Squire fought against prejudice. 

Her book “reveals her to have been learned and eloquent (if verbose) and firmly dedicated to both her religion and the search for longitude,” writes the Royal Museum. “She fought far harder than most male projectors to try to get a hearing from the Board of Longitude.”

In 1733, according to the University of Cambridge, Squire wrote to the Commissioners, addressing her gender directly: “I do not remember any Play-thing, that does not appear to me a mathematical Instrument; nor any mathematical Instrument, that does not appear to me a Play-thing: I see not, therefore, why I should confine myself to Needles, Cards, and Dice.” 

What remains of Squire’s efforts is a book that’s still in library collections today. While the "science" it set forth is outdated, it is a valuable historical document, says the University of Cambridge library. It contains “some of the best surviving evidence” of the search for longitude in the early and mid-1700s.

It stands as well as a record of a self-styled “reasonable Creature” who saw it only right to use her reason in the pursuit of what she believed.

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