Join us on a Voyage in Time…

Join us on a Voyage in Time…

By Sarah Middle, Rebekah Higgitt and Alex Butterworth

Tools of Knowledge, in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich, is launching a crowdsourcing transcription project, Voyages in Time, to record information about the acquisition, travels and repairs of the Royal Navy’s chronometers.

Alongside our main project database of Scientific Instrument Makers, we are also assembling complementary data from related sources to provide additional insights into the lives of our scientific instrument makers and the objects they produced. One such source, rich with information, is the series of Admiralty Chronometer Ledgers held at our partner institution, Royal Museums Greenwich. We hope to unlock these resources and discover their contents at scale through the power of crowdsourcing via our Zooniverse project, Voyages in Time.

The Admiralty Chronometer Ledgers comprise 28 volumes, in which the working lives of chronometers used by the Royal Navy between 1821 and 1936 are detailed. The entries document individual instruments, recording the maker, serial number, date of purchase and each occasion on which they were issued by or returned to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. The records tell us the ships and dockyards they travelled to and from, and how often they were sent for repair. For some instruments, we can trace over a century of use. Other exceptional stories include a chronometer that sailed on board the survey voyages of HMS Chanticleer and HMS Beagle, before being lost on Captain John Franklin’s disastrous Arctic expedition – its box was recovered by another that went out to discover its fate.

One of the Admiralty Chronometer Ledger pages, showing the movements of a chronometer made by Arnold

With the transcription of the information from these ledgers, our understanding of the use of these instruments and relationships between instrument makers, suppliers and users will be significantly expanded. The new information released will help us begin to answer questions such as how many chronometers were kept at different dockyards, how often they required repair, how reliable they were, how many were lost at sea, how the outbreak of war impacted purchase and use, how the products of different makers compare, and how the Royal Observatory functioned as a centre for the oversight and circulation of these precision instruments. All these topics relate to our work on object itineraries, described in a previous post. As the transcribed data accumulates, we plan to begin analysis, using data visualisation methods, which will be shared in a future blog post.

A substantial amount of work has already been undertaken by Dorothy Mellor, a volunteer at Royal Museums Greenwich, to convert these scanned images into structured data. Her database provides a solid foundation for our crowdsourcing project and has enabled us to take a more minimal approach that seeks to capture only specific sections of the ledger pages rather than the full contents. Throughout the development of the Zooniverse project, we have collaborated with Emily Akkermans, Curator of Time at Royal Museums Greenwich, who has played a key role in shaping the project and has provided crucial insights into the ledgers themselves, as well as the chronometers they describe.

D8566, Pocket chronometer 36, held at Royal Museums Greenwich (

Voyages in Time facilitates the transcription of this information by splitting it into discrete activities, or ‘workflows’:

  • Chronometer Information: key identifying features of each chronometer, i.e. the chronometer or maker name and number (this will act as a bridge between the crowdsourced transcription and Dorothy’s database);
  • Chronometer Transfers: To: instances of the Admiralty transferring a chronometer to a person, organisation, or ship; this might involve a return to its maker for repair, to a Naval depot or overseas station, or for use in navigation on a voyage or expedition;
  • Chronometer Transfers: From: records of the Royal Observatory receiving the chronometer back after its previous transfer, for checking and rating (i.e. observing and recording the average and predictable rate at which an individual instrument would gain or lose time per day).
Screenshot showing how the ‘Chronometer Transfers: To’ workflow appears to the user

In each workflow, users are presented with a scanned image of one of the ledger pages (selected at random) and instructed to draw a rectangular box around the pieces of information in the page that are relevant to that particular workflow. Once the user has made their selection, a form appears in which they can transcribe the information in their selected area of the page. Although Zooniverse is a well-known and user-friendly platform, we have additionally provided tutorials, FAQ and a field guide to assist users in their transcriptions. Users also have the opportunity to discuss their experiences with each other and the project team via a discussion forum on our ‘Talk’ page.

Anyone with an internet connection can contribute to Voyages in Time, although we have found that the ledger pages are easier to read on a large monitor. You do not need to register for a Zooniverse account, although this can be useful for keeping track of your activity and participating in discussions with the user community. Please do join us in transcribing these records, to make a valuable contribution to Tools of Knowledge. We will make sure to post an update on our findings in the coming months.

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