Perhaps, to a non-sailor with pretty much nil interest in the problems of navigation, a biography about a landmark genius in the field would seem to have limited appeal. However, as the title and subtitle of this book make clear, there is something special to the point of uniqueness here that might incite even the general reader’s interest. This is no tale of a gnarled old sea-dog downing rum with one hand and measuring sea miles on maps with the other while burning the midnight oil. This is the story of a woman – a wife and mother of a large family indeed – whose genius as an innovator was acknowledged in her lifetime by her peers.
Yet it is shameful that it has taken nearly 150 years for her story to be celebrated – even for her name to be known outside the most meticulous historians of science. History has got the airbrushing out of female geniuses pretty much to a fine art. But thanks to this book, at least Janet Taylor is making a comeback. And not before time.
Born in 1804 in County Durham, in the north of England, Janet was lucky in that her father, a learned curate, encouraged her in her intellectual endeavours. She was even luckier when her abilities came to the notice of Queen Charlotte, who awarded her a special scholarship to a girls’ school where she could flourish.
For a while it seemed as if her ambitions were to be subsumed by the traditional role of a late-18th-century British female. She married and quickly fell pregnant, besides having to care for children from her husband’s first marriage. But while there is never any suggestion that she neglected her husband or family, her over-riding ambition was to improve the lot of sailors – they lived by the port of London and felt every report of accident and death at sea like a blow – through a reworking of the tools of navigation.
Using every waking moment, she published her first book, Luni-Solar and Horary Tables, in 1833, at the age of 29. Its gestation had been fraught, due to family bereavement and anxiety about her own second pregnancy.
As can be gleaned from its title, this work was hardly the sort of literary frippery expected of female writers at that time. It consisted of sixty pages of mathematical calculations and 233 pages of tables, listing the position of the sun and moon at particular times. This was Janet’s shot across the bows of the traditional nautical patriarchy. It was merely the beginning of an illustrious career, in which she consistently – and usually successfully – sought to break new ground. As she wrote: ‘… surely when our shelves groan with a cargo of accumulated books, it would be an offence unpardonable to think of adding to the number, without at least the redeeming supposition of increasing the stock of knowledge also.’
One day, hopefully, it will no longer be necessary
to dwell on her gender at all, and simply list her
as one of the greatest British scientists
She and her husband George ran a shop and a school of navigation (later a sort of agency that provided freelance and highly professional navigators), while she was almost continually pregnant. Over the years she was to lose children – all too common a situation in those early Victorian days – and though her grief was intense, work was always her panacea and driving force.
She was, in fact, perhaps curiously successful in her lifetime, at least for a while – give or take the odd sexist barb. This is from a review of her first book in the esteemed United Service Journal:
‘… when it is announced that it is a lady, soaring above petty pursuits and frivolity, has drilled her mind to the difficult and responsible labour of clearing away all obstacles from the paths of the ocean, we are sure that the attempt will be received with as much gratification as surprise, and that the name of Miss [sic] Janet Taylor will be respectfully mentioned in many a floating castle.’
In a similar review, after mentioning the work of another female scientist, Mrs Mary Somerville (I know, who? Shameful, isn’t it?), it was pointed out that she need have no fear of prejudice against her work, and that surely many sailors would have cause to thank her.
Then she really rolled up her sleeves, becoming the only woman in 200 years to patent a nautical instrument, initially falling foul of the nautical hierarchy and having to cope with enormous disappointments and multiple setbacks.
Janet was even awarded a Gold Medal by King Willem of the Netherlands for her extraordinary work – by then consisting of several books and daring technical innovations. The medal bore an inscription with a slightly bizarre emphasis: ‘… Janet Taylor is Bestowed This Award for Nautical Methods Responsible for Exceptional Accomplishments By Herself’. (My emphasis.) Obviously His Majesty was keen to stress that even a woman could achieve something great by herself. Good for him, basically. And a telling footnote came when the Liverpool Mail, in a very long piece about her, asked: ‘We learn… that the King of Holland… sent her a valuable gold medal; with a suitable inscription. What acknowledgement has been made to her by our government? NONE!’
She was also to receive a medal from the Pope, but failed even to win funding from the British government.
However, Janet’s nautical business grew, training and providing navigators, eventually employing over fifty men – apparently making it five times bigger than any similar enterprise in the UK today.
Nevertheless, one is brought up sharp by the census of 1851 in which Janet’s husband is described as ‘shipwright’, while she is simply ‘wife’, though she was at the time engaged in inventing a new and very special type of compass – still highly regarded today – besides offering the best advice on ‘finding and correcting deviations in the compasses of iron ships’. And her latest navigational manual was described by the trade press as ‘without any pretensions, the best book of the kind that has yet been published.’ It is well to ponder that whatever was found in a book of nautical tables and charts could often be literally a matter of life or death. That was why Janet was so obsessive about her work.
But things went downhill. Janet was widowed, lost her money, and ended her days back in Durham, her life being described at her death in the local newspaper in just one paragraph, which dwells on her being the daughter of a local vicar, but dismisses her achievements in one sentence: 'She was the authoress of several books on Navigation and Astronomy…’
At least her death certificate described her as ‘Teacher of Navigation’, which was pitiably short of the mark, but a helluva lot better than ‘widow’, which it might very well have been.
Thanks to these Australian authors – one of whom is a descendant of Janet herself – her gravesite has been restored, and a plaque erected, which reads:
‘DEDICATED TO JANET TAYLOR… MATHEMATICIAN,
ASTRONOMER, AUTHOR, INSTRUMENT MAKER, INVENTOR
AND FOUNDER OF HER OWN NAUTICAL ACADEMY…’
This book is a labour of love, painstakingly researched, with the biographical details set against the social and political history of the day. It will appeal to feminists, obviously, and those who like to see justice done and credit duly given. But one day, hopefully, it will no longer be necessary to dwell on her gender at all, and simply list her as one of the greatest British scientists. -- Lynn Picknett