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A Bird in the Hand, or, Manufacturing Credibility in the Instruments of Enlightenment Science

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


Through an examination of the work of John Bird and other high-end makers of astronomical and navigational instruments in eighteenth-century London, this chapter explores issues of authorship and trust in precision instrumentation. The resulting analysis suggests that while precision and accuracy were the principal desiderata for the most expensive bespoke observatory instruments, and indeed for the new instruments being developed for navigation at sea, the perceived skills of individuals might provide overriding reasons for trust in the hardware of astronomical and nautical science.


  • Eighteenth Century
  • Manual Skill
  • Royal Academy
  • Scale Division
  • Oxford Dictionary

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Fig. 7.1
Fig. 7.2
Fig. 7.3
Fig. 7.4


  1. 1.

    Nevil Maskelyne, ‘A Letter from the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne, M.A. F.R.S. to the Rev. Thomas Birch, D.D. Secretary to the Royal Society: Containing the Results of Observations of the Distance of the Moon from the Sun and Fixed Stars, Made in a Voyage from England to the Island of St. Helena’, Philosophical Transactions 52 (1761–1762), 558–77, on 559.

  2. 2.

    While a number of makers were singled out as ‘artists’ in this way, the term was still not so exclusively tied to the fine arts as it would be a century later; see Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Flamingo, 1983), 40–3.

  3. 3.

    Deborah Warner, ‘What Is a Scientific Instrument, When Did It Become One, and Why?’, British Journal for the History of Science 23 (1990), 83–93; Liba Taub, ‘On Scientific Instruments’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 40 (2009), 337–43, on 337–8. J.R. Millburn, Adams of Fleet Street, Instrument Makers to King George III (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 362–82, illustrates the range offered by one retailer.

  4. 4.

    R. Campbell, The London Tradesman (London: T. Gardner, 1747), 253–4; see also G.l’E. Turner, ‘The London Trade in Scientific Instrument-Making in the Eighteenth Century’, Vistas in Astronomy 20 (1976), 1–21, especially 8; G.L’E. Turner, ‘Decorative Tooling on 17th and 18th Century Microscopes and Telescopes’, Physis 8 (1966), 99–128; Anita McConnell, ‘From Craft Workshop to Big Business—The London Scientific Instrument Trade’s Response to Increasing Demand, 1750–1820’, The London Journal 19 (1994), 36–53.

  5. 5.

    Jean Bernoulli, 20 June 1769, quoted in Anita McConnell, Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800). London’s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 20.

  6. 6.

    George Adams, Micrographia Illustrata (London: Printed for the Author, 1746), 244 (original italics).

  7. 7.

    Parkinson and Frodsham to Captain Sabine, 26 March 1821, Cambridge University Library (hereafter CUL) RGO 14/24, fols. 383–4, quote on fol. 383r; Eóin Phillips, ‘Making Time Fit: Astronomers, Artisans and the State, 1770–1820’, Unpublished PhD Thesis (University of Cambridge, 2014), Chap. 1. See also Campbell, The London Tradesman, 250.

  8. 8.

    Giorgio Riello, ‘Strategies and Boundaries: Subcontracting and the London Trades in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Enterprise & Society 9 (2008), 243–80.

  9. 9.

    Joseph Farington, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London: Cadell and W. Davies, 1819), quoted in M. Kirby Talley Jr., ‘ “All Good Pictures Crack”: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Practice and Studio’, in Nicholas Penny (ed.), Reynolds (London: Royal Academy of Arts/Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), 55–70, on 57–8.

  10. 10.

    Millburn, Adams of Fleet Street; Roy Porter, Simon Schaffer, Jim Bennett and Olivia Brown, Science and Profit in 18th-Century London (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 1985).

  11. 11.

    ‘New Universal’ microscope, by George Adams, London, 1761, Science Museum, London, 1949–116; microscope, made for George III, by George Adams, London, about 1763, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, 35086.

  12. 12.

    Allan Chapman, ‘The Accuracy of Angular Measuring Instruments Used in Astronomy Between 1500 and 1850’, Journal of the History of Astronomy 14 (1983), 133–7, on 133. See also Allan Chapman, Dividing the Circle. The Development of Critical Angular Measurement in Astronomy 1500–1850 (Chichester: Ellis Horwood, 1990); Richard Sorrenson, ‘George Graham, Visible Technician’, The British Journal for the History of Science 32 (1999), 203–21.

  13. 13.

    ‘Graduation’, in D. Brewster (ed.), The Edinburgh Encyclopedia, 18 vols. (Edinburgh: Printed for William Blackwood and others, 1808–30), vol. 10, 349.

  14. 14.

    Chapman, Dividing the Circle, 68–9.

  15. 15.

    The first of Graham’s mural quadrants, completed in 1725, is in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, AST0970. It is displayed in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

  16. 16.

    Sorrenson, ‘George Graham’; J.A. Bennett, ‘The English Quadrant in Europe—Instruments and the Growth of Consensus in Practical Astronomy’, Journal for the History of Astronomy 23 (1992), 1–14; Jeremy Lancelotte Evans, ‘Graham, George (c.1673–1751)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edition [, accessed 20 March 2012]. Graham also made precision regulators for the Royal Observatory and other customers.

  17. 17.

    James Bradley, ‘A Letter to the Rt. Hon. George, Earl of Macclesfield, Concerning an Apparent Motion in Some of the Fixed Stars’, Philosophical Transactions 45 (1748), 1–43, on 2. One could compare this rare acknowledgement of an artisan with René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s praise for the artist Hélène Dumoustier de Marsilly; see Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 84.

  18. 18.

    Pierre de Maupertuis, The Figure of the Earth (London: Printed for T. Cox and others, 1738), 65–6.

  19. 19.

    Anita McConnell, ‘Bird, John (1709–1776)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edition [, accessed 20 March 2012]; Chapman, Dividing the Circle, 71–6.

  20. 20.

    Benjamin Franklin to John Winthrop, 2 July 1768, in William Temple Franklin (ed.), Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 3 vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1818), vol. 3, 370–4, quote on 370–1.

  21. 21.

    Derek Howse, ‘Britain’s Board of Longitude: The Finances, 1714–1828’, The Mariner’s Mirror 84 (1998), 400–17, especially 407.

  22. 22.

    Adrian Johns, Piracy. The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

  23. 23.

    John Bird, The Method of Dividing Astronomical Instruments (London: Commissioners of Longitude, 1767).

  24. 24.

    Bird, The Method, 5.

  25. 25.

    Board of Longitude, ‘Confirmed minutes’, 14 March 1767, CUL RGO 14/5, 147.

  26. 26.

    Nevil Maskelyne, ‘Preface’, in Bird, The Method, iii–iv, notes on iv that the writing and plates were delivered on 21 March 1767.

  27. 27.

    Board of Longitude, ‘Confirmed minutes’, 21 March 1767, CUL RGO 14/5, 150; Derek Howse, ‘Sisson, Jeremiah (bap. 1720, d. 1783/4)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online edition [, accessed 24 November 2014].

  28. 28.

    Bird, The Method, 5, 6, 11 (original italics).

  29. 29.

    Bird, The Method, 14. Both instruments survive—Mayer’s is in the University of Göttingen, C.001; see Helmut Grosser, Historische Gegenstände an der Universitäts-Sternwarte Göttingen (Göttingen: Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 1998), 24–5. Bradley’s is on display in the Royal Observatory Greenwich (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, AST0971).

  30. 30.

    Daston and Gallison, Objectivity, 66–7.

  31. 31.

    Joshua Reynolds, Discourse Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy (1769), quoted in Daston and Gallison, Objectivity, 81; on Reynolds and the need to extract generalized characteristics in portraiture, see Celina Fox, The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 299.

  32. 32.

    Daston and Gallison, Objectivity, 82.

  33. 33.

    Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, Finding Longitude (Glasgow: Collins, 2014), 51–7, 95–9.

  34. 34.

    Eric G. Forbes, Tobias Mayer (1723–62) Pioneer of Enlightened Science in Germany (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1980), 162–9. The circle sent to England is probably the one illustrated in Tobias Mayer, Tabulae Motuum Solis et Lunae (London: W. & J. Richardson, 1770), Tab. II.

  35. 35.

    William Pearson, ‘Circle’, in Abraham Rees (ed.), Cyclopaedia, 39 vols. (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown and others, 1802–19), vol. 8; W.F.J. Mörzer Bruyns, Sextants at Greenwich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 37.

  36. 36.

    James Bradley to Mr. Clevland, Secretary of the Admiralty, 14 April 1760, reproduced in Mayer, Tabulae, cxi–cxv, on cxiii–cxiv.

  37. 37.

    Maskelyne, who became Astronomer Royal in 1765, was a protégé of Bradley; see Rebekah Higgitt (ed.), Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal (London: Robert Hale, 2014), 12–3, 90–1, 170. For his involvement in testing longitude methods, see Dunn and Higgitt, Finding Longitude, 98–103.

  38. 38.

    Maskelyne, ‘A Letter’, 559.

  39. 39.

    Maskelyne, ‘A Letter’, 576–7. A letter by ‘Verax’, including a translation of Lacaille’s comments on the inaccuracies inherent in lunar-distance observations, appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine 37 (1757), 544–6; see also Mayer, Tabulae, cxxviii.

  40. 40.

    N. McKendrick, J. Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society (London: Hutchinson, 1983), 100–45, especially 137–40; Hilary Young (ed.), The Genius of Wedgwood (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1995), 9–20.

  41. 41.

    Brian Gee, Anita McConnell and A.D. Morrison-Low, Francis Watkins and the Dollond Patent Controversy (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

  42. 42.

    Jean Bernoulli, Lettres Astronomiques (Berlin, 1771), quoted in J.A. Bennett, ‘Shopping for Instruments in Paris and London’, in Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (eds.), Merchants and Marvels. Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), 370–95, quote on 370.

  43. 43.

    Thomas Hood, ‘Ode to Mr Graham, the Aeronaut’, in Odes and Addresses to Great People, 2nd ed. (London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1825), 1–13, on 2. For the Dollond firm and its reputation, see Richard Dunn, The Telescope: A Short History (London: National Maritime Museum, 2009), 72–82.

  44. 44.

    Nevil Maskelyne, ‘Astronomical Observations Made at the Island of Barbados’, Philosophical Transactions 54 (1764), 389–92, on 391.

  45. 45.

    Johns, Piracy, 103.

  46. 46.

    Board of Longitude, ‘Confirmed minutes’, 25 June 1774, CUL RGO 14/5, 262. This dividing engine is in the Smithsonian, Washington, MA*215518. His first engine of the 1760s is in the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris, 00100.

  47. 47.

    McConnell, Jesse Ramsden, 39–51; Howse, ‘Britain’s Board of Longitude’, 411; Dunn and Higgitt, Finding Longitude, 172–5.

  48. 48.

    European Magazine 15 (1789), 96, quoted in McConnell, Jesse Ramsden, 53.

  49. 49.

    Duke Ernst II von Sachsen-Gotha-Altenberg to Count Brühl, 26 September 1786, quoted in McConnell, Jesse Ramsden, 127.

  50. 50.

    McConnell, Jesse Ramsden, 131–5.


  • J.L. Evans, Graham, George (c.1673–1751), in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004), online edition,

  • A. McConnell, Bird, John (1709–1776), in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004), online edition,

  • A. McConnell, Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800). London’s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007)

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I would like to thank all those who attended the Things workshops in which earlier versions of this paper were discussed and enriched. Particular thanks are also due to Molly Dorkin for highlighting Joshua Reynolds, to Nicky Reeves and Jenny Bulstrode for their thoughts on John Bird’s Method, and to Eóin Phillips and Katy Barrett for many comments and examples of enormous value to this chapter.

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Correspondence to Richard Dunn .

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Dunn, R. (2016). A Bird in the Hand, or, Manufacturing Credibility in the Instruments of Enlightenment Science. In: Craciun, A., Schaffer, S. (eds) The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences. Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Cultures of Print. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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