Archaeology & Ada Lovelace Day: Mrs. Janet Taylor and the Dividers

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 on the site I found information about a much earlier school of navigation that was once held on the site.

Come closer, my friend.

An engraving of the 1707 disaster.

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.

Mrs. Janet Taylor’s Mariner’s Calculator

In 1834 Janet Taylor invented the Mariner’s Calculator, a device that enabled the finding ‘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 by the king of Prussia, the king of Holland and even by the Pope. After the death of her husband she 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!

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

8 thoughts on “Archaeology & Ada Lovelace Day: Mrs. Janet Taylor and the Dividers”

  1. A very interesting story, and what a lucky find! I guess it’s different to be working someplace with a long and well-documented history.

  2. Clement Lindley Wragge 1852-1922 – Ben Nevis Observatory & noted Queensland Meteorologist and Commander of the Mount Kosciuszko NSW Meteorological Observatory, (Wragge’s Hut) studied navigation at Janet Taylor’s Academy.

  3. My great grand father, Captain Albert Edward Sykes (1837-1928) studied navigation with Mrs Janet Taylor some time in the late 1840s – early 1850s. I am presently digitising his memoirs.

  4. Thank you for the ‘divider’ article.
    After purchasing a E.J. Dent aneroid barometer (ca.1848), retailed from Janet Taylor’s 103 Minories address, I’ve been looking for more information about Mrs. Taylor. I found the recent biography: Mistress of Science, very interesting reading. Are there any photos of 103, The Minories, London, in circulation? This was the era of early photography, too.
    Scott Page, M.Arch
    Berkeley, California

  5. Hi Colleen,
    Janet is my fourth great-grandaunt and John is my cousin. Both incredibly brilliant mathematicians. Janet is my idol. 8 children and achieving her level of success within her field was an amazing achievement. I hope you get to read the book. It’s fascinating. Nina 😊

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