Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Janet Taylor, Inventor Who Revolutionized the Naval Industry

Janet Taylor was historically known as a “Jane of all trades” due to her aptitude for numerous fields. Not only was she a prolific mathematician, but she was also a master navigator, educator, writer, astronomer, inventor, and businesswoman. Her capabilities provided innumerable sailors with advanced instruments, maps, and charts, which in turn made sailing a significantly safer endeavor. Taylor’s contributions are made all the more impressive by the fact that she did this all at a time when ships were making the transition from wood to iron, a new era in marine travel. This surge in naval activity necessitated a notably higher degree of navigational accuracy to reduce mortality, and Taylor was the pioneer who provided this.

Janet Taylor was born on May 13, 1804, in a little village located in County Durham, England. At an early age, she was a mathematical prodigy, and her talents were carefully nurtured by her father. Thanks to his position as schoolmaster of the Free Grammar School, she received advanced education, something nearly unheard of for young women of her time. At age 9, she received a scholarship to the Royal School for Embroidering Females in Bedfordshire, and this achievement was especially impressive considering that the minimum age of attendance was 14. Being particularly enthused with navigational studies, she invested in a career of nautical education with the funds left to her following her father’s passing. At the time, this was an incredibly male-dominated field; as such, her participation in it was a profound achievement for all women of that period.

Janet Taylor’s Octant, Harvard Museums of Science & Culture

Arguably the most prolific of all her naval contributions was her revelation about the shape of the earth. Navigation required sailors to make constant calculations of their position using landmarks, such as stars or the sun, to help triangulate their position. These were carried out under the assumption that the earth was spherical in shape, and this approximation posed a severe threat to sailors, as they could be led astray by miles and hence encounter dangerous conditions. Janet Taylor helped mitigate this threat by proposing a spheroidal model of the earth, which, incredibly, she derived whilst looking at a fruit. Combined with ingenious mathematics, she was able to propose equations to more accurately calculate both latitude and longitude. Another key aspect of these calculations was her idea to use primarily the moon for lunar observations, aided with a chronometer, which was a precise time-keeping device. Resultantly, she proceeded to publish several editions of Luni-Solar and Horary Tables, the first of which was released in 1833 and were written in a manner accessible for sailors of all abilities. This approach made them incredibly popular, and consequently solidified her impact on such a male-dominated field.

Image Credit: Cambridge University Press

Another area where Janet Taylor excelled was in the design and invention of naval instruments. Her invention of the Mariner’s Calculator was a tribute to her intellectual prowess, as it combined multiple instruments used by sailors into one holistic device. Unfortunately, despite her constant investment and promotion, the Admiralty, directed by the Royal Navy, deemed it impractical for use in the navy. It was never put into production. She wholeheartedly believed that it could make all other instruments obsolete; however, the Admiralty thought that regular sailors would not be smart enough and too heavy-handed to use it. Despite the fact that her invention did not succeed in the business world, she was the only woman in 200 years to have patented a nautical instrument. Beyond her personal invention, she spent her life working on improving and developing other naval instruments to further their precision and accuracy. A key field of work was centralized around necessary adjustments to compasses when the iron age of ships dawned. Due to their magnetic properties, iron boats wreaked havoc on the onboard compasses. After a method was discovered to combat this phenomenon, she worked tirelessly to apply it to hundreds of crafts. However, despite her flourishing success over the many years of her life, financial burdens eventually caused her downfall. She had to declare bankruptcy in 1866 and succumbed to bronchitis a few years later in 1870.

Undoubtedly, Janet Taylor was a remarkable woman. Her genuine compassion and desire for sailors to return safely from their nautical endeavors left a profound impact on those she helped. The sheer extent of her contributions to the naval field is nearly impossible to quantify. Her resilience in the face of adversity and derision from male colleagues only reinforced her already-immense drive.

by Laura Jewsbury

Mistress of Science: The Story of the Remarkable Janet Taylor, Pioneer of Sea Navigation by Prof. John S. Croucher and Prof. Rosalind F. Croucher

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