There is Nothing New Under the Sun

I was poking around on the internet, following up on something I had read about the longitude prize (300 years old as of this summer)

Thomas Jefferson and the search for the longitude in America

Not surprising: Jefferson was interested in the longitude issue. He was very scientifically minded, so it’s reasonable a major science/technical issue of the day would be of interest. But here’s the thing — as a prominent face of things scientific, he was a crackpot magnet. (Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say a crackpot lodestone)

Jefferson apparently rued his status as an unofficial scientific clearing house, writing to a friend after a longitude projector approached him in the street that his ‘false reputation […] has made me a kind of Vortex into which the projects of our country are very much emptied’. Although he responded considerately to most supplicants, he feared ‘the sacrifice of the remains of my life in the investigation for others of projects which very often require a great deal of consideration, much research, and sometimes elaborate calculations’.


One troublesome consequence of his undaunted advocacy of a “method of ascertaining the longitude by the moon’s motion without a time piece” was a flood of methods more controversial than his own. Among his papers are even more letters from discoverers of longitude than from inventors of perpetual motion machines. Fellow longitude addicts seem to have been particularly hard for Jefferson to rebuff.

I find it interesting that he referred to his as a “false reputation” as an expert — I’m guessing that he properly viewed it that no matter what he knew, there was much that he did not, so he didn’t consider himself as an expert, even if he had the ability to debunk. Also that he was an advocate of the lunar method of determining longitude (making him a lunatic, of sorts)

But mostly it’s interesting to note, although it should be thoroughly unsurprising, that crackpots existed back in the day, and they would pester someone with a public presence and some sort of science credentials to comment on (and presumably endorse) their ideas.