A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Re: Sumner and the Smalls lighthouse.
From: Frank Reed CT
Date: 2006 Apr 4, 08:38 EDT
From: Frank Reed CT
Date: 2006 Apr 4, 08:38 EDT
[Sending this to Navigation-L *and* NavList] George H, you wrote: "But Frank's suggestion, that he had somehow lost all the details and then reconstructed the whole thing from a misremembered position of the Lighthouse, implies that the whole account is somewhat fictional. " No, not fictional. Fictional means it never happened. Reconstructing some small details of events from a few years earlier is very different. And you wrote: "Is it likely that Sumner had only his memory to guide him? Frank states "Navigators in that era rarely kept all the details of their calculations. Sights were often worked up in chalk on a slate." That depends somewhat on what sort of vessel, in what sort of trade, and with what sort of navigator. But I agree that the use of slate, rather than pen and ink, was common, in which case the calculations from the observation might well have been lost, and might have to be reconstructed. But not the Sun observation itself, surely? The altitude, date and time of that Sun sight would have been written into a permanent log, not just on a slate. As this event was Sumner's proudest achievement, is it likely that he neglected to retain that log, or at least transcribe a copy?" I think I understand the source of your misunderstanding now. It is simply incorrect to state that a navigator would have recorded the "altitude, date, and time" of every Sun sight. That DID NOT HAPPEN. Only in rare cases in 19th century logbooks are the complete details of sights recorded. More generally, only the final result is recorded in the logbook (for example, "Lat by Sun at Meridian: 31d 22' "). You can check this out for yourself by examining any of the logbooks from that era that are available online at schooner.mysticseaport.org (the G.W. Blunt-White Library at Mystic Seaport). Once in a while, you will find whole sights worked up from the initial observation, but this usually only happens on the back of a page in a logbook, often from an entirely different voyage (this would happen when the slate or the navigation notebook has gone missing presumably). Even with lunar distances, it's rare for a navigator to include all the details required to analyze the observations after the fact. Very rarely, a "navigation notebook", like the one from the voyage of the Morgan in 1896-97 that we discussed recently, will survive. But these were literally nothing more than "scratch pads", and their survival, though wonderful from our viewpoint today, is due to some descendant's packrat habits, rather their intrinsic worth. They were not considered worth keeping in the era. You suggest that Sumner would surely have written all this down because it was his proudest achievement. Thatmay be turning the events on their heads. He did not write his book until a few years later when he had experimented with the line of bearing concept on other voyages and fleshed out the details. On that morning in 1837, I think it's highly unlikely that he realized in an instant that there was a book in his future. I doubt he shouted out "This is gonna make me rich. Don't erase that slate!". Rather, I would bet that his thoughts were more along these lines: "that was fascinating... I think that trick saved my ship... I'll have to think about it more when I get back to Boston." I should emphasize here that I have no recording of Sumner's actual thoughts on that date
. In his History of Marine Navigation, W.E. May notes that the position of the lighthouse was plotted incorrectly by about five miles and then displays his own plot. No noise about falsification. And you wrote: "Frank suggests that the whole thing was made-up after the event, to correspond to Sumner's recollection, and then dressed up as observations taken on the day. Would that make it more excusable?" My suggestion is that he may very well have reconstructed the actual observational details, but the events happened just as he says they did. Or rather, I should say that I have no reason to doubt that they did. Would Sumner need to make excuses for reconstructing the observations? Of course not. It is totally unimportant to the purpose of his book. And: "He refers to the plot as "making some small error", but a five-mile discrepancy in such a close-quarters situation is no small error. Not when it was the nub of the matter that Sumner was addressing, and the basis of his claim to fame." The basis of his "claim to fame" was the discovery and publication of a navigational technique that was decades ahead of its time and would one day come to dominate the world of celestial navigation. The specific events on that day in late 1837 are a fascinating background to that discovery, but if we knew nothing more of him than that story from that one morning, Sumner's name would be forgotten. And you wrote: "We won't ever know Sumner's motivation, for misleading us as he did. Fred Hebard may have put his finger on it, in writing "Regarding Sumner, I wonder whether this falsification is related to his subsequent insanity." " LOL. Well, um, I thought Fred was kidding. What are you trying to suggest here? -FER 42.0N 87.7W, or 41.4N 72.1W. www.HistoricalAtlas.com/lunars