1818: Dr. Stephen Hall to Dr. Philander Hall

This letter was written by Dr. Stephen Hall (17xx-1822) to his wife Lucy (Cook) Hall (1766-Aft1818) and their son, Dr. Philander Hall (1790-18xx). Lucy Cook was the daughter of Lt. Colonel Isaac Cook; she married Stephen Hall in 1788. A history of Lebanon Springs says that: “in the eastern part of the village, Stephen Hall had a store, the lower part of which was used as a distillery.” Rensselaer County records reveal that Dr. Stephen Hall died in September 1822, a victim of “quick consumption.”

Dr. Philander Hall married Harriet Betts (17xx-1817) in 1811.

The substance of this letter centers upon claims by four different gentlemen for the invention of an instrument capable of accurately measuring longitude — critical for the navigation of ships. So important was this instrument marine commerce that the British government formed “The Board of Longitude” in 1714 to administer a scheme of prizes to solve this problem. The board was disbanded in 1828.

A better understanding of the predicament Dr. Hall finds itself in is revealed by an article appearing in the 30 August 1817 Niles Register:

Doctor Hall, of Savannah, sailed in May last for England, with an instrument, to claim the emoluments and honors of a discovery of longitude; but, though he may obtain those, the merit of the discovery of the theory, is unquestionably due to Dr. Joel Abbot, of Georgia, member elect of the 16th Congress. For nearly twenty years the writer of this has occasionally corresponded with him on this very interesting discovery. I have now before me his memoir on the subject, published in Philadelphia, in 1814, entitled, “An Essay on the central influence of Magnetism.” The author conceives that he has discovered, in the laws of magnetism, a native principle, by which, with proper mechanical ingenuity, longitude may be discovered…

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Mr. Philander Hall, Lebanon Springs, State of New York

Liverpool [England]
September 1818

Dear Wife  & Son,

Almost nine weeks have elapsed since I arrived at Liverpool during which period I have been anxiously waiting in a very disagreeable state of suspense. As no letters have yet arrived, I have made up my mind to make the best arrangement I can and return to the Unites States.

Page 1

After waiting seven weeks in Liverpool, I went to London and spent a week there. I had several conferences with Mr. Rush and found him a very friendly and agreeable man. I returned last evening to Liverpool & have just passed an hour this morning with Mr. [B. B.] Wood. I find some difficulties in our business that I can not get over — from a train of misrepresentations and malicious report Mr. Wood had written to Doct. [Joel] Abbott ¹ a little more than a month before I sailed from Savannah — the Packet has arrived at New York ten days before I sailed from Savannah but no answer has yet arrived from Doct. Abbot. Doct. Abbot’s claim, I understand, has been laid before the Board of Longitude and rejected upon the ground that the Theory is not tenable, that it is not original, & that even if it was, that the Doct. had excluded himself from all claim by publishing his work and dedicating it to all men of science for the benefit of mankind, & that all experiments emanating from and connected with that theory merit no claim. And I believe the pride and prejudice of the nation is such that they would support Mr. Wood in a claim for the discovery.

Page 2

Mr. Wood says he is willing to unite according to what he contends was the agreement — that S. & P. Hall, B. B. Wood, & A. Knox shall remain an equal share of the honors and emolument of the discovery — being divided into 4 equal shares. As my agreement with Doct. Abbot will not admit of such an arrangement, I am at loss how to act. The only step that we can take if we should not agree with Mr. Wood will be to go to London, set up a factory, throw in our claim, and enter the field of litigation, and in that case we must set up our own claim unconnected with Doct. Abbot. Otherwise, we shall be sure to lose the whole and it will at best ruin the business to all parties.

Post Script

I shall wait about ten days longer and if I receive no letters, I shall either return to London and spend the winter or to the United States. Why I have not seen Philander or received letters is to me an inexplicable mystery. I have endeavored to account for it either by sickness or death, but in that case some one, I think, would give the news. The ways of Providence are mysterious. But believing whatever is, is right, I shall endeavor to rest satisfied on that ground for the present.

Love to all our dear friends & accept the warmest affections of your best friend, — S. Hall

P. S. The reports as far as they have been received of _______, sent out for experiment are favorable. Some have been reported perfectly correct.


¹ Dr. Joel Abbot (1776-1826) published An essay on the central influence of magnetism (1814).


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