Ann Smith's octant

quadrant (a technical navigation instrument) in a wooden box

"ANN SMITH (Widow of the late EGERTON SMITH) begs leave to inform her friends and the Public that she carries on the Business of her late HUSBAND"

A woman taking on the family business following the death of her husband doesn’t seem too unusual to us today, but how many of you would have guessed that this advert dates from the late 18th century? In fact Ann Smith, owner of a Liverpool based navigation shop and maker of scientific instruments, was far from the only woman involved in business at this time but she is unusual because we know her name and have a sample of her work.  

The octant pictured here, made by Ann, was the best navigational instrument of its day, allowing seafarers to plot their global position with greater accuracy than ever before.

Ann herself seems to have been adept at navigating her way through a male dominated profession. Her husband died when their eldest son was just 14, leaving her to raise two children and run the business alone and she seems to have made a roaring success of it.  We see references to ‘Mrs Smith’s Navigation shop’ in numerous newspapers of the time.  These carry adverts for their goods but also reveal that the shop was a place to collect tickets for a trip to the Theatre Royal (Liverpool’s main theatre in the 18th century), revealing it was well known within the city. 

Revolution comes in many forms, sometimes just in navigating a world stacked against you. A single mother balancing raising two children with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) career and a successful business still sounds like quite the achievement today. We know women are still under-represented in the sciences and we know that there is often a lack of female role models in the sector, that women have found it harder to achieve recognition. Ann is amazing in her own right but she also serves to represent all the women we don’t have any record of, and her octant represents a story of success against adversity.

This octant, which isn't currently on display, is from the Maritime History collection at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

  • Accession number MMM.2004.173