A round robin is a petition or the like signed by a number of persons in such manner that the order of signing cannot be determined, usually as if the signatures were spokes radiating from a hub.
This method of submitting a petition is supposed to have originated among British sailors during the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries when presenting a grievance to the captain and officers of a ship.
In those days the captain had absolute authority, when at sea, over the members of his crew and, usually, would inflict severe punishment upon any man who dared question any order or make any complaint. But a captain could not punish an entire crew who signed a petition, nor could he pick out the instigator of such a petition for punishment if he could no who had first signed it.
The name is often supposed to have come om the French rond ruban, round ribbon, but the course is difficult to follow. In the sixteenth century, however, there was some device, perhaps a toy, or some trick practiced by sharpers that w=as known as a round robin.
It is mentioned both by Miles Coverdale, in 1546, and by Nicholas Ridley, in 1555, and in association with “jack-in-the-box,” which at that time was, to quote Nares, “a thief who deceived tradesmen by substituting empty boxes for others full of money.”
Coverdale, defending a religious ceremony, wrote: “Certayne fonde talkers applye to this mooste holye sacramente, names of despitte and reproche, as to call it Iake in the boxe, and round roben, and suche other not onely fond but also blasphemouse names.” In those days, “fond” meant foolish.
As the nature of this sixteenth-century “round robin” is wholly unknown, we cannot determine why it was so called nor the reason for giving its name to the sailors’ petition.