Tables of Transition

Tables of Transition: Christopher Middleton’s Early Sequence of Papers in the Philosophical Transactions

Jim Bennett - Science Museum, London

There is a common trope among historians of instruments that seamen are incorrigibly reluctant to accept new methods, techniques or tools in navigation. Such claims sometimes served the interests of promoters of new designs for instruments, but for historians merely to repeat that seamen were by nature conservative seems less than adequate, and to use that assumption to explain a reluctance to change is a bit of a tautology. A fair degree of caution is obviously a sensible attribute for a sea captain but I have not found the general assumption of intransigent conservatism helpful in thinking about navigational practice by at least the 18th century. Captain Christopher Middleton was surely at the other end of the spectrum of attitudes to innovation, and I cannot claim that he was typical either, but he can at least serve as a challenge to the usual supposition.

Middleton is unusual also in other respects as well. A commander in the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was the first sea captain to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1737 (Halley was already a fellow when he received a commission in the Royal Navy) and was awarded the Copley Medal in 1742. This is the more extraordinary when we know that he had gone to sea at a very early age, first as a deep-sea privateer and then on Atlantic merchant vessels, before joining the Company to sail as mate on a voyage of 1721 to Hudson’s Bay. Middleton’s training was a practical one at sea and he spent his working life as a seaman.

Resisting the temptation to talk about Middleton’s adventurous life (unless our workshop needs some entertainment by the third day of papers), I propose to look at the series of papers he presented to the Royal Society between 1726 and 1742, which were published in the Philosophical Transactions.  All were based on his experience of his annual voyages to Hudson’s Bay and the early ones were presented as tables of measurements made at sea. An analysis of how the presentation of this data develops over the years shows Middleton moving from the context of seaborne practice, so as to adapt gradually to the agenda of the Royal Society.