The nineteenth century saw Great Britain expanding vociferously into new markets, extending its influence, for better or worse, into every corner of the globe on the strength of its colossal merchant marine fleet. It was an enterprise fraught with peril for the mariners who undertook it. Charts of the newly employed waters were often woefully incomplete, and did not include dangerous formations that could lead a ship to its ruin. Even when the charts were accurate, and the latitude and longitude of a hidden obstacle was known, to avoid it required precisely determining the coordinates of one’s own ship, employing a series of instruments and formulae that each allowed for errors which, in the compounding, often spelled disaster.
This was a world where survival depended on an almost religious devotion to accuracy, but was often served by an educational and publishing community that took Good Enough as its watchword. If the mariners were going to reliably make it home after their journey’s course, they needed an ally on the land who took their perils and frustrations as seriously as they did, and acted to overcome them. In 1833, just such a figure exploded on the nautical scene in the form of Janet Taylor (born Janet Ionn, 1804-1870). That year, she published the first in what would be a series of books aimed at giving sailors means of determining their position that were both easy to use, and more accurate than any employed theretofore, the Luni-Solar and Horary Tables.
For the next three decades, Taylor would devote every shred of her prodigious energies to guaranteeing the safety of mariners from a multitude of directions that occurred to her broad imagination, from designing new instruments of measurement, to creating and running a school of navigation, to performing laborious calculations and creating new equations for the determining of global position, to writing books about navigational theory and stellar configurations, to researching the reliability of compasses in the age of iron ships, any one of which would have been a significant contribution to the maritime trade, but taken in sum represent an astonishing life’s work the full impact of which is perhaps impossible to calculate.
Taylor’s life mission was written into the story of her youngest days. Her father was a teacher with a passion for astronomy and navigation who taught her the constellations and encouraged her to sit in on the classes where he was attempting to instill the basics of latitude and longitude computation in his students. Her mathematical precocity manifested itself early as she was routinely able to find the answers to tricky positional problems that baffled her older male classmates. This earned her no shortage of ill-will from the students, but impressed her father as a gift that needed development. And so, when a scholarship arose to attend the Royal School for Embroidering Females, an institution within a few dozen miles of London sponsored by no less a person than Queen Charlotte herself, Taylor’s father embraced the opportunity.
The school’s minimum admission age was fourteen, and Taylor was only nine, but upon learning of her mathematical prowess, Queen Charlotte waived the age requirement. At the Royal School, Taylor was finally allowed to unambiguously be herself. Her older classmates took to her as a younger sibling, and far from bullying her for her mathematical talents, celebrated her for them. She remained there for five years, indulging her love of globes, maps, and geometry, until the death of Queen Charlotte in 1818 caused the school to lose its financial backing, and Taylor had to move on to a boarding school at Hendon, where she continued her studies and also worked as a tutor, providing her at a young age with her first taste of life as an educator.
Leaving that school at sixteen, she took up the first in what she expected, according to the standards of her time, was to be many appointments as a governess in a private household, where she honed her skills in making mathematics and astronomy accessible and even exciting to young minds. In 1821, however, her father died, leaving her a decent legacy but removing from her life the figure who had been such a sustained source of inspiration and encouragement. Three years later, her brother approached Taylor with an offer to live with him at his home, where she could employ her mathematical abilities in helping him set up and maintain his business.
It was a pleasant enough life, as other siblings came to join the family enterprise, all working together when work was called for, and relaxing together in a comfortable way they hadn’t known since their early childhood when it wasn’t. Taylor had a place to live, a loving family around her, more intellectually stimulating work than fell to most women of her position in that era, and the ability to satisfy her scientific curiosity by delving into her father’s old library or scouring the local bookshops. She began posing for herself and solving ever more difficult navigational conundrums, but as of yet this was entirely a matter of satisfying a private intellectual drive, without any particular thought to what end her talents might be applied in the public sphere.
That all changed in 1829, when the breakup of her brother’s business compelled her to relocate to Antwerp to live with one of her sisters. It was there that, exiting an English language bookshop with her usual stack of selections, she stumbled on the slick streets and watched in horror as her precious books scattered along the road. A passerby by the name of George Taylor saw her struggling, went to her aid and, seeing that she had a volume of David Mallett’s poetry in her stack, quoted his favorite lines of Mallett’s work from memory, and then proceeded to escort her home, placing his umbrella over her and her books while he was drenched by a sudden renewal of the rains.
Yeah. I know, right?
Janet’s family was excited at the prospect of a suitor whom she seemed to actual take seriously, but was worried that her “weird” interest in mathematics and navigation would scare him away. As it turned out, quite the contrary was true, and George was captivated by Janet’s passion for science and calculation, and fully intended to support her in whatever way possible in the development of her gifts. They married in 1830 and immediately set about the process of figuring out how best to turn Janet’s abilities into a viable business model. They decided upon a multiple pronged strategy that would use income from book publishing, the sale of nautical charts, and the development of new nautical instruments, to fund the establishment of a navigational school whose curriculum Janet would design.
With no other woman navigational authority in existence, and certainly no woman running something as male-dominated as an instrument business or navigational school, it was a financial leap into the unknown, but George, who had a business of his own running a public house, was supportive of the effort, come what may. Meanwhile, Janet got down to work writing her first book, which posed a challenge to nautical navigation as it had been practiced for centuries: Why do we base our navigational equations on the assumption that the Earth is a perfect sphere, when we know perfectly well it isn’t?
The answer had always been that the spherical assumption produced answers that were good enough and that, the calculations being so much easier on the basis of that assumption, why not just use them? Taylor would have none of that. She sat down and performed the laborious calculations for the spheroid planet we actually inhabit rather than the spherical one of previous computations, and produced new position tables based on those calculations. These were to form the core of her Luni-Solar and Horary Tables, published in 1833, and which went through seven editions in the next twenty years. She followed this up in 1834 with The Principles of Navigation Simplified, which sought to teach simplified methods of using not only the tables from her first book, but all of the various other methods sailors had at their disposal for determining their position and heading at sea.
Both of these books had been reviewed favorably, if diffusely, in periodicals of general interest, but it was not until 1835 that the 1st edition of the Tables was reviewed in a publication that mattered to the maritime community, the Nautical Magazine. That review savaged Taylor’s book, her intelligence, and her character. It declared her spheroid concerns of no importance, and that the entire book showed a woman impudently reaching beyond the scope of her abilities and producing an inferior product thereby. Taylor was not one to take a blow lying down, and fired back a response published in the next issue of that magazine, demonstrating concrete cases where a spherical versus spheroid assumption meant the difference of dozens of miles of inaccuracy in position, and attacking the anonymous reviewer’s ignorant condescension. Her spirited self-defense won her increasing admiration among the nautical community, and in the long run her books became standard additions to the mariner’s library in spite of reviews such as these from the Good Enough camp. Meanwhile, her business was dancing the razor edge of solvency after having sunk all of her inheritance into the development of an all-in-one instrument of ingenious design, the Mariner’s Calculator, which she patented in 1834, becoming thereby the only woman in two hundred years to have patented a nautical instrument. She sent it to the Admiralty for evaluation, where it fell into the hands of a man who would eventually become a staunch ally of Taylor’s, but who for the moment was deep in grief over the death of his wife, and who as such was not in a place to give his all to evaluating this curious new instrument placed in his hands. He found it clever, but too fine and intricate to be used by the average rough-handed sailor, and therefore of no practical use to the navy.
It was, in effect, a death sentence for the instrument, and stifled at once a revenue stream that Taylor had been depending on. Fortunately, Taylor’s reaction to adversity had always been to throw herself with redoubled energy into new ventures rather than crumpling in defeat, and the failure of the Mariner’s Calculator caused her to push her publishing, chart-selling, and educational projects with renewed vigor. Janet Taylor’s Nautical Academy opened its doors in 1835, and she released a 2nd edition of her Tables in 1835, a 3rd in 1836, and a 3rd edition of her Principles in 1837, all while doing battle with the principle agent for Admiralty charts, Robert Bate, through whom she had to purchase official charts for her store and who was also responsible for updating charts with new information provided by the maritime community, both of which tasks he undertook with an unfathomable lethargy that she could neither understand nor countenance.
In addition to these responsibilities, she also gave birth to eight children from 1831 to 1844, refusing to allow herself rest and recovery after each birth before continuing the work that she felt meant the difference between life and death for the nation’s mariners. Her zeal was recognized by foreign governments – the Dutch and Prussian monarchs and even the Pope conferred gold medals in recognition of her contributions to navigation and mariner safety, but her own government was unspeakably tardy in following suit. Taylor repeatedly applied for an annual pension, such as the 300 pounds annually given to Mary Somerville, but was just as repeatedly denied one until after the death of her husband when her country decided at last to give her some assistance – of 50 pounds annually, the least possible amount that could be awarded at the time.
As time wore on, however, Taylor became known amongst mariners as somebody earnestly concerned with their good, and sea captains regularly came to her shop to give her information from their voyages and pick up the maps that she amended by hand to include dangers not yet evident on the Admiralty charts. Her books were selling well, her Academy was growing, her instruments were getting a good word of mouth reputation, and a new windfall was soon to come her way in the form of the iron age of ship construction.
On its surface, coating boats in iron seems a solid principle. Iron doesn’t rot, doesn’t catch on fire, is largely indifferent to termites, and can repel damn near anything you fire at it. The problem, however, is that it also plays absolute havoc with ship compasses, rendering them all but useless. In 1838, George Airy developed a technique for compensating for a ship’s magnetism by “swinging” a ship through 360 degrees (thereby exposing the ship’s iron to the Earth’s magnetic field in all possible orientations) and placing a series of permanent and movable magnets around the compass that would make up for the iron ship’s natural magnetism and return the compass to true readings. Taylor saw the life-saving potential of this method and soon trained one of her assistants in the technique, verifying his measurements after every boat swung. Taylor’s company adjusted the compasses of hundreds of craft using the method, and the money generated thereby was a most needed supplement after her chief instrument maker left her to set up a competing shop of his own.
Then, in a slow instant, everything came apart. Taylor’s husband George died in 1853, and her chief compass adjuster used that opportunity to join her former instrument maker in establishing his own compass service that was located just down the street and competed with hers. The success of her instrument business, meanwhile, caused her to boldly take out a new lease that would prove a financial mill around her neck in the years to come, while simultaneously a rival nautical academy opened up just two doors down from her own. In 1863 she published the 6th edition of her popular Directions to the Planisphere of the Stars, an invaluable and lovingly detailed guide to the night sky, but it was not enough to turn the financial tide and, with none of her children expressing any remote interest in continuing on with her faltering business, she decided to declare bankruptcy in 1864, and to leave London entirely in 1866.
Her nautical career was over, and for the four years left to her she spent her life with one relative and another, living well enough amongst loved ones while her lungs, a lifelong source of woe for her, slowly gave way to the bronchitis that would take her life in 1870. Among her last requests was that the windowshades be opened so that she could see one more time her old friend Polaris, the North Star which is the guardian angel of the sailor at sea. She had given her life and the contents of her genius to devising new ways to educate and protect those very same sailors, to guide their way in the world and see them returned home safely. Her works were a North Star in and of themselves whose effects worked at all places, for all peoples, and in all weathers, and when she died we can but hope that she knew she had indeed achieved her purpose as well as -perhaps more deeply than- her celestial friend of long standing.
Just don’t tell the North Star.
FURTHER READING: Mistress Of Science – The Story Of The Remarkable Janet Taylor, Pioneer Of Sea Navigation (2016) by Professor John S. Croucher and Professor Rosalind F. Croucher is the book to get for all things Janet Taylor. It is a chronicle not only of her life but of the challenges of mid-century naval culture and the often ordinary figures who played extraordinary roles in saving lives by their devotion to measurement and accuracy. It’s also engagingly written and authoritative in its knowledge of the source material. In terms of something you might have on your shelves already, Taylor also shows up for like, a paragraph, in Catharine Haines’s International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950.
Image Credit: photo of Janet Taylor taken by Bec Lorrimer; from the collection of Professor John S. Croucher and Professor Rosalind F. Croucher, as featured in their book, Mistress Of Science (2016); photo is republished on Women You Should Know with the authors’ express permission.