A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2018 Oct 17, 10:16 -0700
The sextant itself? Consider: Isaac Newton invented the sextant (I'm using the word here as a general term for octants, sextants, quintants and so on... any instrument that works on the same general double-reflection principle). It supposedly remained buried in his notes for decades until Edmond Halley "remembered" it following John Hadley's announcement and demonstration of his remarkably complete design in 1731 (or was it 1735? I don't recall). An amateur historian published a speculative book about a decade ago with some intriguing leads suggesting that there might have been a conspiracy to keep Newton's instrument and its further development secret. That would at least explain the rather mature state of development of Hadley's instrument in the 1730s. Unfortunately it's only a suggestion and without documentation it's difficult to take it seriously as history. But it's an interesting hypothesis. If Newton's sextant was, in fact, kept secret, it was apparently kept too secret; there's no evidence that Royal Navy navigation was improved by a mysterious device in this period as far as I know.
But things changed. The real revolution in scientific navigation occurred from 1750 to about 1780, and the world of navigation benefited greatly from the ideals of the Enlightenment. Natural philosophers like Maskelyne saw nobility in the international community and openly, even eagerly shared whatever they discovered and created. Meanwhile, by 1790 or so capitalism was becoming the normal pathway to the creation of new techniques and soon copyrights and legal battles and "subscriptions" for private funding replaced internationalism and government-funded development.