The plagiarising of John ‘Longitude’ Harrison’s Account of the Discovery of the Scale of Musick  / Tim Eggington

In preparing a recent display of Whipple books I encountered this slim volume which, amongst other things, includes a little known facet of the work of the famous John Harrison (1693-1776).  Best known for having solved the ‘Longitude Problem’ Harrison occupies an important position in 18th-century history. By the end of a protracted 30 year quest Harrison had famously perfected an accurate clock able to withstand the motions of a ship at sea thereby enabling navigators to locate their position at sea with greater accuracy and ease than before.  As well as extraordinary mechanical insight Harrison had called on immense powers of determination to win the £20,000 prize that had been offered for successful accomplishment of this task under the terms of the 1714 Longitude Act. A man of humble origins and no formal education, Harrison felt that throughout this long process he had been obstructed at every turn by the scientific and academic establishment who sought to deny him the cash reward for his discovery.  The emotional scars of this experience are widely evident in his Account of the Discovery of the Scale of Musick.

Although of no special musical significance, Harrison’s purported ‘secret discovery’ of the ‘true scale or basis of musick’ is interesting for the human story it entails, concerning a bitter rift that occurred with his erstwhile supporter in the Longitude affair, Robert Smith (ca. 1689-1768).  During a distinguished academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge Smith had been appointed Master as well as Plumian Professor of Astronomy, the latter post entitling him to an ex-officio position as one of the Commissioners of Longitude appointed to judge Harrison’s time pieces.  The source of Harrison’s ire had been Smith’s complex treatise on musical scales and tuning entitled Harmonics which, despite  its utterly intractable Algebraic approach, was widely read in its day (the famous 1769 Foundling Hospital Organ was built in accordance with some of its precepts).[1] Although the published music theorising of both men is quite different, Harrison believed that Smith had stolen his own discoveries.  In using his Account to vent fury and angst concerning Smith, Harrison provides an interesting 18th-century lay perspective on the academic establishment of which Smith had been a stalwart component.

 Although to the modern observer the musical scale might seem a curious context for such a dispute this was a subject with a long past, of which both men were acutely aware, and upon which both sought to make their mark.  Correspondences between music and mathematics had engaged theorists since ancient times when it was found that music’s natural consonances were the product of simple whole-number ratios.  Whilst Smith sought to build on this philosophical tradition through abstruse algebraic calculations, Harrison’s proposed simply to organise the scale equally using the number Pi:

As the Diameter and Radius of a Circle bear respectively to the Circumference; so do[es] the sharp [i.e. major] 3rd…bear respectively to the octave… and from whence all the others notes are generated.’

 This is not the place to explore either of these theories, suffice to say that neither ultimately proved productive in musical or theoretical terms, although they are testament to the 18th-century desire to establish the modern musical system upon a secure mathematical foundation. With regard toHarrison’s account, much of it is taken up with his perceived hurt at Smith’s mistreatment of him. Owing in part to his sometimes incomprehensible writing style it is not entirely clear from Harrison’s many denunciations what it was that Smith had stolen from him.  This passage is typical:

Following ‘an accidental Conference which happened betwixt him and me [Smith]said that he would drop his Book, and that I might make the best of mine, but instead of that, did for sometime after, alter (viz.  rather perhaps than to lose his Labour) from what he had grounded his Work upon, and so as to come as near to me, as he himself afterwards told me Demonstration would let him, and then published it; whenas it is certain, that if he had not  happened to have conversed with me about the Matter, he had printed his Book upon his first Ground or Principle, and had then been demonstratively sure of its being right, whenas it was far from being so…’

 Moreover, Harrison often appears split between claiming Smith’s theories as his own, and condemning them. Deploring that ‘Whatever University Men write or do, it must be had in Veneration’ Harrison sneered at Smith for having made a ‘fool’ rather than a ‘tool’ of algebra.

 ‘To Publish upon such a silly, weak Foundation, or insufficient, uncertain Way of trying, as wherein…mine might be taken or aimed at, instead of what he calls his own! O fie!  Infamous Cambridge Craft indeed!  Such Experience as that, not being able to verify the Truth of what he thought, or might think, he had brought with the Alteration of his Book to!’

 In Harrison’s distress we cannot but see a footnote to the Longitude affair. Following years of frustration at the hands of establishment academics and scientists he only finally prevailed when nearing the end of his long life.

 ‘But this is the way of University-Men, and they want to suck the Virtue out of every Body’s Works, and then call it their own; for through me, he (the doctor) brought his Scale of Musick very near to mine, or nearly to the truth, but, as in the main to be taken, left a little Difference, that it might be called his, and not mine: Nay, with respect to these sort of men (or University Gentlemen) I have smelled a Design, of the same Sort of kind, upon another Discovery of mine…’

 John Harrison’s Account of the Discovery of the Scale of Musick was published in 1775, two years after he was finally recognised and rewarded for having solved the longitude problem. Although he hoped to publish a more detailed account of ‘the Scale and Use of Musick’ this project remained unrealised as Harrison died the following year in 1776.  An unpublished manuscript entitled ‘A True and Full Account of the Foundation of Musick, or, as principally therein, of the Existance of the Natural Notes of Melody‘ is cataloged as item 8961 in Bibliotheca Chemico-Mathematica issued by Messrs. H. Sotheran of London in 1921, but this is now lost.


[1] Harmonics, or, The Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749; 2nd edn, 1759; postscript, 1762; shortened version, 1778)
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