A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Conference in Greenwich, England
From: Geoffrey Kolbe
Date: 2014 Apr 4, 17:58 +0100
From: Geoffrey Kolbe
Date: 2014 Apr 4, 17:58 +0100
I am attending a conference on the history of navigation at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, the third in a series of conferences on this topic which seems to be occurring bi-annually. I thought fellow NavList members may appreciate a digest of what has been discussed so far, after the first day of this two-day conference in the magnificent surroundings of the old Naval Hospital and the old Naval College.
First off the mark was Margaret Schotte from Princeton University, who was putting forward the thesis that skilled navigators were always in constant demand with the navies of Europe from the 16th century onwards during a time when peace was merely and interlude between wars and there was vigorous exploration of and expansion into unknown oceans and lands far beyond Europe. Naval administrators in all countries would deprecate their own training facilities in order to get funding to imitate the superior training methods of rival states. Samuel Pepys for the British Navy (during the mid 17th century) justifiably praised the French schools and the French Text books, while the French praised the Dutch in turn, and the Dutch lifted their system from the Spanish! Spanish text books were translated into Dutch, and from Dutch into French and English - running to many editions over many decades.
Lena Moser talked on her Ph.D. thesis (University of Tubingen), which put forward the idea of, "Masters as a functional elite in the 18th century." This was the l-o-n-g 18th century which stretched from about 1660 to 1850! Ships masters or "sailing masters" to give the long title met the definition of being members of an elite group in that the group was a meritocracy, membership of which was attained by examination or trial, and who were considered as a high ranking social group by their peers. Lena took us through each of these parts of the definition. Masters were tested by Trinity House, rather than the Navy, and were in such demand that they had good pay (half again that of a lieutenant in the Navy), a pension, and half pay if unemployed. Whereas Lieutenants were only tested once (by the Navy Board), masters had to be tested every time they wanted to move up the ratings, so masters on a 1st rate ship-of-the line would have past seven stiff examinations to gain his position. From letters and log entries it would seem that masters were seen as the social equal to the captain and there was often a great friendship between captain and master. On board ship, masters were the only person with two cabins!
John Kemp outlined the voyage of William Dampier (1651 - 1715) as descibed in Dampier's book "A Voyage to New Holland". Dampier is often described as the Cook of the 17th century and Dampier's voyage to Australia and the Far East in the Roebuck, starting out in 1699 and sponsored by the Navy, is a striking precursor to Cook's voyages seventy years later. Dampier was a good navigator and a keen observer with a natural bent to keeping records of what he saw and measured during a career at sea which ranged from trading explorer to raider and pirate! He published a number of books about his travels, starting with, "A New Journey Around the World" which was an instant best seller and ran to 14 printings in as many months. His "Voyage to New Holland" does not give much detail as to the navigation methods used - though he does go into some detail about magnetic variation which "Captain" Hally was seriously investigating as an aid to finding longitude at that time. Latitude was by noon sighting using a backstaff and longitude was by dead reckoning. John Kemp put forward the notion that in addition to the method of Amplitudes, Dampier used azimuths derived from the sun's altitude to determine magnetic variation so demonstrating Dampier's command of advanced navigational mathematics which would have set up apart from run-of-the-mill navigators in the 17th century. There might be evidence of that in the Roebuck's log, which Kemp has examined, but not in Dampier's book.
Paul Hickley, an ex RAF navigator, gave a fascinating talk on the, "Pressure of impending and actual war on the early development of British Aviation Radar." During the early 1930s there was a lot of speculation about the possibilities of developing "death-rays" and, with war against Germany looking ever more likely, Professor Watson-Watt (a descendant of James Watt) was asked to look into the practical feasibility of this. He quickly realised that the then current technology was nowhere near capable of generating enough power-at-a-distance to cause damage to military targets, but the numbers for a radio detection system looked very feasible indeed. Watson-Watt was tasked with designing a home defence radar system for the Eastern seaboard of the UK. Above all, Watson-Watt was a pragmatist and so he designed a system that could be build quickly using currently available technology rather than develop the technology to build an ideal system. (Watson-Watt insisted that war-time procurement officers put an aphorism above their desks: "Give them the third best to be getting on with. Second best will come too late and the best never comes at all!") So it was that instead of a system that worked in the UHF or microwave region, which would give good discrimination, a system was designed that worked in the HF region, around 30 Mhz. The Germans never suspected that the British radar system worked on such a low frequency. Twice, they sent the Graff Zeppelin, loaded with detection gear, along the British East coast, but they never picked up any signal from the radar stations as the were well below the frequency range of the German receivers. In consequence, the system was never jammed. The system only looked East and each station only had sensitivity through an angle of about 100 degrees, rather than a 360 degree swept 'beam' we are familiar with today. In this way, a system was ready for use in 1939 when war actually broke out. The Germans, on the other hand, developed radar systems that were in the UHF and did have 360 degree swept beams. In fact, their Wurtz radar system was identical in almost every respect to what the Soviets were still using in the 1980s! However, although British Home Defence radar system was comparatively primitive, it was not the handicap as might be expected as it forced Fighter Command to develop the World's first C3 system of integrated Communication, Command and Control which unified the entire coastal radar chain in such a way as to make for a superior system with which to respond to German bomber raids. The Wurtz radar operators, by contrast, were in direct contact with the fighter planes and could direct the plane to enemy bombers - but this was not the advantage you might think as the Wurtz radar operators could only talk to (and guide) one fighter at a time, which severely limited the abilities of the Germans to respond effectively to the massed bomber raids they were being subjected to.
David Pike, another ex RAF navigator, looked in detail at the logs of a particular bomber navigator throughout his tour of duty at the latter stages of the war. The biggest surprise was that celestial navigation was not used at all. Indeed, the famed and much lauded Mk 1X A bubble sextant was probably not even carried by bomber navigators! Instead, they relied on Gee, a form of radio navigation, and towards the end of the war on Loran and Decca. If these systems did not work for some reason, they used RDF on known radio stations.
Dr Geoffrey Kolbe, Riccarton Farm, Newcastleton, Scotland, TD9 0SN
Tel: 013873 76715