Mrs. Janet Taylor and the Dividers

Colleen Morgan

March 13, 2015

This post ‘Archaeology & Ada Lovelace Day: Mrs. Janet Taylor and the Dividers’ was originally published on Colleen’s blog ‘Middle Savagery’ October 16 2012, in honour of Ada Lovelace Day- click here to read the original article.

I always protest a little too much when I say that I’m not really all that interested in historical archaeology. It is true, the Anatolian/Aegean Neolithic still holds me firmly in thrall. It’s more that historical archaeology draws me in a little too much, I get a little too obsessive about the documentary history and the amount of crazy detail you can find about who owned the land when, what kind of forks they used, who manufactured the forks, and oh did you know that the forks were sold by a tinker in Kent at the same time? My enthusiasm for ephemera and marginalia kicks in and it all gets to be a little bit too much.

Needless to say, 100 Minories has a long historical background and I got a chance to skim the surface during my last week on the project, looking through fantastic sites like Spitalfields Life for information about the area surrounding the site. On a chance search for information about the Navigation School that was once held in the Brutalist 1960s building on the site I found information about a much earlier school of navigation that was once held on the site.

Come closer, my friend.

In 1707, one of the worst maritime disasters claimed famed Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who lost several ships at sea in the Isles of Scilly with over 1,400 men on board. They were lost in stormy weather, unable to calculate their position. The British parliament’s reaction to this horrible loss of life was to create a Board of Longitude in the Longitude Act of 1714. They created a prize ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds to discover a ‘practicable and useful’ way to determine longitude at sea.*

Born in Wolsingham, County Durham on May 13th, 1804, Janet’s brilliance was perceived early and she received a national scholarship to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. She married a George Taylor; Jane had eight children and lived her life near the Thames docks. By then she was an established author of nautical treatises and textbooks, and established her own Nautical Academy not far from the Tower of London. 104 Minories, in fact.

In 1834 Janet Taylor invented the Mariner’s Calculator, a device that enabled the finding of ‘the true Time’, ‘the true Altitude’, ‘the true Azimuth’, ‘Latitude by double Latitudes and elapsed Time’, among many other applications. Sadly, after testing at sea, the instrument was determined to be too delicate for the ‘clumsy fingers of seamen’ noted to be like ‘sausages’ so it was not widely adopted. Still she received gold medals of recognition for her contributions to the maritime community from the King of Prussia, the King of Holland and even by the Pope. After the death of her husband she was put into dire financial straits, and was given a Civil List pension of £50 per year.

When I mentioned all of this to Guy Hunt, he was excited. It is very possible that the First Lady of Navigation had conducted her Nautical Academy on the site and it is equally possible that when we go to full excavation that we’ll find building foundations and rubbish dumps that could possibly be associated with the trade at the time. The thought is made even more tempting by a single artifact, unremarkable at the time–we found a pair of compass dividers on site.

So, on a day dedicated to women in technology, this post is devoted to the only woman in the 2,200 entries in The Mathematical Practitioners of Hanoverian England 1714-1840, Mrs. Janet Taylor. Happy Ada Lovelace day!

*This post heavily references John S. Croucher and Rosalind F. Croucher’s Mrs Janet Taylor’s ‘Mariner’s Caluclator’: assessment and reassessment in The British Journal for the History of Science, 44:4, 493-507. I understand that there is a longer book coming out by the Crouchers regarding Mrs. Janet Taylor, which I look forward to reading!