The log book as timekeeper

By Kate Wersan


A Journal of a voyage from Salem to St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape de Verd Islands in the Brig Augusta 1803 and 1804, Log 1067.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, captains and navigators, even those educated in the most cutting edge navigation practices, struggled to translate what they knew at their “finger ends” into generalizable maxims or—perhaps more crucially— accurate navigation.  The extensive collection of ships’ logs in the Phillip’s Library collection testify to the frequent sense of disorientation, frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty that plagued navigators as internal perceptions of space, time, and movement clashed with astronomical observations, soundings, or observations of the natural world. In these entries we can see mariners weighing what they know about their local environments and geographical and temporal locales, seeking reliable patterns, and trying to identify anomalies or outliers.


Good Hope (Brigantine) logbook, 1801-1802, Log 1067.

Sometimes uncertainty could be directly traced to instruments.  “First & latter part of this Day light winds.  Middle part calm & excessive hot,” Abyah Northey recorded in 1803 aboard the Brig Augusta in a typical example, and continues, “for the want of an Azimuth Compass we cannot get the variation exact of course what we do get is more guess work than any thing else — winds variable.” Other times, a navigator might not be sure why his reckoning and observations differed, and could not determine which—body or an instrument—was closest to the truth. “These observations differ 6 degrees from the time deduced from last ob.[servation]: viz 10 Oct. & More by my dead reck.  This difference which is more than I can acc’t for must been made since I passed the Cape,” John Holman wrote in the log for the Two Brothers (MH 88, volume 2, log 16) in 1802.  Compounding this uncertainty about what could be felt or measured, was the certain knowledge that there were forces affecting the ships’ movement that a navigator might not feel or see.  These forces might escape his notice for many days, until through a good observation he discovered he was miles off course.  Currents, for example, could be difficult to detect from the deck of a ship. Luther Dana noted in the journal of the Recovery (MH 88, volume 2, log 13) after more than two weeks of uncertain traveling in July and August of 1802: “having made the necessary allowances for lee way & variation and what I supposed a large allowance for Current, Find I had a set by the Current to the Southward of between 90 and 100 miles since the last Observation.“


Joseph Orne’s journal in the Essex (Ship), 1802-1803, MH 88, Volume 2, Log 14.

Other ways of reckoning location could not be so easily qualified.  The color of the water, the presence of sea-kelp or shore birds often signaled land, for example. “I think that the water looks a little discollored.” Nathaniel Hawthorne noted in the log for the ship America in 1796, “saw some Cape hens and Albatrosses Round the ship. […] This morning passed by Great quantity of Rock wead and Sea wead also saw several Albatrosses which makes me think that we are not far of[f] of the Island Triston de Combe.” Even when they didn’t quite know what an observation meant, navigators would often note them in the log just in case the event they observed might develop into useful rules of thumb in the future.  “It is perhaps worthy of Remark,” Elias Hasket wrote in his log aboard the Grand Turk  for example, “that from Lat 10 North we had great quantity of fish of different kinds about the ship as far as 10 South Lat & since our arrival in that Lat have not evin seen any flying fish, or any Bird which before were frequent about us.”

But note the uncertainty in all of these entries. Chronometers ran fast or slow; observations on a rocking deck were more and less accurate; soundings misled; natural phenomena appeared or disappeared; the log was too short or too long; the navigator wrote down the wrong number—these and many other sources of uncertainty permeate the log-books of the era.  To help buttress this uncertainty, navigators often bundled all the geographical and temporal markers they could observe into one log-book entry. From the Grand Turk:


Grand Turk (Ship) logbook, 1792-1793, Log 23, transcribed below.

Sunday February 1, 1789: Calm Caught a Dolphin & Shark saw several Sharks & other Fish, middle & Latter part light breeze from NE Whilest Calm tryed the Current & found it set NW 4 1/4 fast my Watch, the Variation of which by several Observations of equal Altitude I have found but small & that very regular until these 24 hours it has gained 4 1/2 Minutes. This with the decrease of the Variation of the Compass, convinces me of having been in a strong Western Currant. Lat Observed 1.48 S  Long by Acct 26.57 W  Long by Variat^n 28.08 W Long^d by Sun & Moon dis. Observ^d 29.24 W.

At first glance this entry might seem like a confusing and unsystematic jumble of observations and commentary, but if you read this entry closely, attending to the layers of perception the author is trying to integrate, we can see a fascinating process taking place. This entry balances methods of knowing time and space against each other.  It begins with the date according to the civil calendar (Feb. 1, 1789) which runs midnight to midnight, but the entry itself is structured according to the three watches of a day’s work, which runs from noon to noon.  This author has previously wondered if the geographical distribution of fish might be signals of currents or larger patterns, so his early entry on the presence of sharks and fish are another installment his earlier pattern-seeking efforts.

He finds a current, discovers that his watch, which he confirmed has been accurate based on astronomical sightings, had now begun to run too fast.  The relative slowness or fastness of chronometers and the variations of compasses could be used as geographical cues since the relative humidity, temperature, and variations in the earth’s magnetic field could affect each instrument.  Like a dowsing rod, this author uses the presence of variation in his watch and compass to determine whether there are other phenomena effecting his ship that he cannot feel himself.  Based on the compass variation, he concludes he must be in a current. His entry concludes with two observations giving his position in latitude and longitude.  He has provided a systematic tally of all the available ways of knowing time and location that occurred during that day, carefully balancing qualitative and quantitative ways of reckoning temporal and spatial locations.


Neptune referenced in Grand Turk (Ship) logbook, 1792-1793, Log 23.

All of these observations–not simply those connected to his watch or astronomical observations—are examples of timekeeping aboard ship.  Time-keeping is the practice of perceiving, interpreting, and situating the fluid relationships between phenomena in the world as they change overtime into a matrix that is replicable, portable, and meaningful.  Efforts to find order in the tumult of wind and waves, currents and soundings, fish, tides, and eclipses are all part of this history. Far from being simply the means of collecting seemingly disconnected or discordant environmental observations in addition to necessary spatial observations, in the eighteenth century log-books developed into a timekeeping technology capable of assisting a navigator in interpreting, balancing, and correlating the multiple temporal orders that flowed through and around the ship.


Grand Turk (Ship) logbook, 1792-1793, Log 23.

In these log-books we can see that even as Europeans and Euro-Americans turned increasingly to mechanical time measured by the clock in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they also continued to cultivate “organic time,” measured through the rhythms of the natural world.  More than simply attending to these rhythms, American mariners developed surprising non-clock timekeeping technologies to make natural patterns more legible and easier to follow. Developing those practices in the pages of their log-books, systematizing, rationalizing, and standardizing observations and formats, mariners also participated in the process of modernizing organic timekeeping.

Kate Wersan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Specializing in the environmental and cultural history of the United States, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries,  Kate trains under the supervision of William Cronon and dissertation committee members, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagan, Charles Cohen, and Adam Nelson.  Blending her interests in spatial history, environmental history, and historical geography, Kate’s dissertation examines the environmental history of American timekeeping practices from 1660 to 1920, exploring the tangled truth that in order to know where you are, you also have to know when you are. Profile / Website

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