Massey and Burt: a tale of professional rivalry

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Board of Longitude collection is its illumination of the human stories behind many of the greatest maritime inventions and discoveries. A multitude of individuals wrote to the Board with proposals or inventions, each with their own different story.

While cataloguing a volume relating to proposed innovations to increase safety and speed at sea (RGO 14/31) I came upon the papers of Edward Massey and Peter Burt, two contemporary makers of nautical instruments who were clearly professional rivals. Both men had invented a sounding machine (an instrument to determine the depth of water below a ship) and had their invention adopted by the Royal Navy, and both wrote to the Board of Longitude in the hope of financial support and endorsement. Clearly, they had each recognised the other as their main competitor, and their letters to the Board reveal an intense professional rivalry in which each disparaged the other’s machine while promoting his own invention.

More is known of Edward Massey than of Peter Burt. In addition to his sounding machine Massey invented a patent log (for measuring a ship’s speed through water) and made various improvements to other instruments. Among his submissions to the Board are a letter of recommendation from the engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, endorsing improvements he had made to a chronometer, as well as testimonials from various sea captains who had tested his instruments at sea. These documents capture the spirit of the age and show the vital importance of improvements to navigational instruments for those who spent their lives at sea.

Massey had been awarded £200 by the Board for the ingenuity of his invention before Burt’s sounding machine, known as ‘Gould and Burt’s Buoy and Knipper’, came to their attention, at which point the Admiralty Office ordered comparative trials of both machines at sea.

Perhaps concerned at the appearance of this rival, Massey appears to have taken the matter into his own hands in quite dramatic fashion, by organising his own comparative trial in a very public setting to decide the matter of whose machine was best. Among the Board of Longitude papers is an advertisement announcing that this trial was to take place on the River Thames at London Bridge on 16 July 1818. The advertisement invites all naval officers, ship owners, and ‘every Person connected with Navigation’ to come and witness the trial first-hand, including those who had previously been impressed by Burt’s Buoy and Knipper (RGO 14/31: 146).

In a letter written a few days after the event, Massey proudly reported back on the outcome, informing the Board that in repeated experiments his own sounding machine provided the real depth ‘in every instance, without any variation’, whereas Burt’s machine showed a reading ‘so much greater than the real depth, as to endanger, in the most immanent degree, both the ship and the crew’ (RGO 14/31: 151).

Examining Peter Burt’s letters, I discovered that they in turn were equally dismissive of Massey’s invention. In one letter, for example, Burt points out the ‘superior strength and durability’ of his Buoy and Knipper, as well as its cost effectiveness compared to Massey’s machine, which, he notes, had cost the Royal Navy almost a thousand pounds in repairs in the first year of use alone (RGO 14: 181-182). In another letter, Burt even asks to be given a greater reward than Massey (RGO 14/31: 189-189a).

In the end, however, the Board appear not to have endorsed Burt’s machine due to the unfavourable reports on its effectiveness, and the last letters in the series see Burt demanding the return of his papers. Massey must have been pleased!

The letters provide a fascinating glimpse into an exciting world of competitive invention and discovery, at a time when improvements in navigation could literally save thousands of lives. The digitisation of this collection will undoubtedly reveal many more stories of the people behind some of the greatest maritime innovations.

Interested in navigational instruments and want to see more? Examples of Massey’s sounding machine and patent log are held in the National Maritime Museum and can be seen on their website: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42885.html,  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42944.html and http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/42940.html.

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