Early Modern Times – when the ships were down

Early Modern Times - when the ships were down

Dear readers,

Are you feeling lost? That was certainly the sentiment of the British public in late 1744, upon hearing of the disappearance of the Royal Navy’s flagship the HMS Victory. The shipwreck of the Victory (depicted above, in a painting by Peter Monamy from the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich) gave rise to two mysteries: why did Britain’s greatest warship at the time sink, and what is the connection between its demise and modern navigational systems, as recounted by Tim Harford in this April 17 article, part of the series ’50 Things That Made the Modern Economy’?

The story of how the first mystery was solved, as discussed in this 2015 article by Sean A. Kingsley, spans over 250 years: from the sinking of the HMS Victory on October 5, 1744, to the discovery of the wreck in 2008. The HMS Victory was the lead ship in a squadron sent to disperse a French blockade of Lisbon during the War of the Austrian Succession. Having completed their mission off Portugal, the ships captured a few French privateers and then blockaded Cadiz, as Britain was at war with Spain as well as with France. The fleet returned to home waters, but a storm swept the English Channel on Oct. 4. What resulted was a ‘lost Victory‘ at sea.

A search and rescue mission was sent to find the Victory‘s whereabouts. After encountering pieces of a wreck around the Channel Islands, it was generally concluded that the Victory had run upon the rocks by the Caskets Lighthouse on Alderney Island. A Guernsey merchant and local Naval Board Agent, Nicholas Dobree, declared that the Lighthouse Keeper–Thomas LeCocq–had been derelict in his duties (or at least had blown his Caskets). A formal complaint was brought against LeCocq, along with sworn affidavits from the masters of local vessels according to Dobree, that there was no light on the nights of Oct. 4-5. LeCocq denied the accusation. That is, he tried to change the Channel on this matter of light-or-wrong. For LeCocq, it was his accuser–not he–who was trying to keep everyone in the dark. Such a malicious and false charge was turning him into a Caskets-case.

As it turned out, Dobree’s complaint was ‘groundless’, and based on ‘slippery’ evidence. The accusation arose from a long-standing spat between the leading families in the Channel Islands. Dobree was ‘channelling’ his family’s jealousy of the LeCocq family, which had procured the ‘luc-rative’ rights to the Lights at Alderney. The 2008 salvage of the HMS Victory, which must have been a ‘sank-less’ task, vindicated Thomas LeCocq. The ship had in fact never sailed within sight of Alderney Island, and sank over 100 km west of the Caskets. Thus the Lighthouse Keeper could be LeCocq-sure of his innocence.

The loss of the naval flagship was also a loss, or at least a setback, for the history of navigational technology. One of the doomed passengers aboard the Victory was a John Serson, who had invented the ‘whirling speculum’: its spinning top generated an artificial horizon which stayed level despite the ship’s motion, allowing the measurement of altitudes at sea. If he had not met a ‘Serson’ death, his invention would have been ‘whirl’-changing. Mindful of the significance of the speculum as well as her own livelihood, Serson’s widow Sarah sought the rights to the papers and documents pertaining to the invention so that she could procure the patent. There is no evidence that she was successful in this, and so her effort seem to have been a ‘patent failure’: Sarah Serson may have had to content herself with being a humble ‘spin-ster’.

Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century, French physicist Léon Foucault developed a prototype based on Serson’s design which he dubbed a gyroscope. Later, scientists would apply electric motors to the gyroscope to keep it spinning, and so we have something to thank spin-doctors for. In the twentieth century, inventors would align the gyroscope to the north-south axis of the earth, thereby creating the gyrocompass. These inventions were the bases of the modern navigational systems we have today.

Less well-known, however, is that Serson was also developing variations on the delicious Greek method of cooking meat on a vertical rotisserie while at sea. Foucault followed the recipe, but realised that a mouthwash was necessary to cleanse the palate after consuming the spiced meat; while later food purveyors selling this dish around the globe needed new techniques of measuring the size of the meat so that customers would not be given excessive portions to the detriment of the bottom-line. Thus were invented the gyro-Scope® and gyro-compass.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Wreck-reational Studies Program

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