Professor Jim Bennett

  • Scientific instruments
  • History of Astronomy
  • History of practical mathematics
  • Navigation and travel
Featured Publication

Navigation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Navigation from Herodotus to GPS with a target of 36,000 words – a challenge.

From the Bronze Age mariners of the Mediterranean to contemporary sailors using satellite-based technologies, the history of navigation at sea, the art of finding a position and setting a course, is fascinating. The scientific and technological developments that have enabled accurate measurements of position were central to exploration, trade, and the opening up of new continents, and the resulting journeys taken under their influence have had a profound influence on world history.

In this Very Short Introduction Jim Bennett looks at the history of navigation, starting with the distinctive cultures of navigation that are defined geographically - the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. He shows how the adoption of mathematical methods, the use of instruments, the writing of textbooks and the publication of charts all combined to create a more standardised practice. Methods such as longitude-finding by chronometer and lunar distance were complemented by the routine business of recording courses and reckoning position 'by account'. Bennett also introduces the incredible array of instruments relied on by sailors, from astrolabes, sextants, and chronometers, to our more modern radio receivers, electronic equipment, and charts, and highlights the crucial role played by the individual qualities of endeavour and resourcefulness from mathematicians, scientists, and seamen in finding their way at sea. The story of navigation combines the societal, the technical, and the human, and it was vital for shaping the modern world.


‘The First Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris’, C. Hohenkerk and K. Seidelmann, eds, The History of Celestial Navigation (Cham, 2020), pp.145-56

(with Rebekah Higgitt), ‘London 1600-1800: Communities of Natural Knowledge and Artificial Practice’, British Journal for the History of Science, 52 (2019), 183-96

‘Mathematicians on Board: Introducing Lunar Distances to Life at Sea’, British Journal for the History of Science, 52 (2019), 65-83

‘Thomas Tompion, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren’, The Clive Collection of Exceptional Clocks and Watches (London: Bonhams, 2019), pp. 23-5

‘“That incomparable instrument maker”: the reputation of Henry Sutton’, in J. Nall, L. Taub and F. Willmoth, eds, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science (Cambridge, 2019), pp. 83-100

‘Adventures with Instruments: Science and Seafaring in the Precarious Career of Christopher Middleton’, Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 73 (2019), 303-27

(with Sylvia Sumira) ‘Were Globes Used in the Practice of Early Modern Astrology?’, in Richard Dunn, Silke Ackermann and Giorgio Strano, eds, Heaven and Earth United: Instruments in Astrological Contexts (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 210-229

Mathematical Instruments in Florence: a Cataloguing Project and its Relevance for Historians of the Sixteenth Century’, Oberwolfach Reports, 14 (2017), 3477-3480

‘Instruments and Practical Mathematics in the Commonwealth of Richard Hakluyt’, in Anthony Payne, ed., Hakluyt & Oxford. Essays and Exhibitions Marking the Quartercentenary of the Death of Richard Hakluyt (London, The Hakluyt Society, 2017), pp. 35-52

'Prenten en de prentkunst in het werk van Robert Hooke', in Esther van Gelder, et al, 'Dingen die ergens toe dienen': Verhalen over materiële cultuur van wetenschap (Hilversum, 2017), pp.12-15

In the Media

BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ (all available on the BBC website,

2021, 11 November, William and Caroline Herschel
2021, 13 May, Longitude
2016, 27 October, John Dalton
2015, 28 May, The Science of Glass
2013, 28 November, The Microscope
2012, 29 March, The Measurement of Time
2011, 17 November, Ptolemy and Ancient Astronomy
2010, 20 May, The Cavendish Family
2008, 19 June, The Music of the Spheres
2007, 1 March, The History of Optics
2005, 2 June, Renaissance Maths