See Inside A Matter of Time

A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

Solving the Longitude Problem
WHEN THE ROYAL OBSERVATORY, Greenwich, was founded in England in 1675, part of its charter was to find “the so-much-desired longitude of places.” The first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, used clocks fitted with anchor and deadbeat escapements to time the exact moments that stars crossed the celestial meridian, an imaginary line that connects the poles of the celestial sphere and defines the due-south point in the night sky. This allowed him to gather more accurate information on star positions than had hitherto been possible by making angular measurements with sextants or quadrants alone.

Although navigators could find their latitude (their position north or south of the equator) at sea by measuring the altitude of the sun or the polestar above the horizon, the heavens did not provide such a straightforward solution for finding longitude. Storms and currents often confounded attempts to keep track of distance and direction traveled across oceans. The resulting navigational errors cost seafaring nations dearly, not only in prolonged voyages but also in loss of lives, ships and cargo.

The severity of this predicament was brought home to the British government in 1707, when an admiral of the fleet and more than 1,600 sailors perished in the wrecks of four Royal Navy ships off the coast of the Scilly Isles. Thus, in 1714, through an act of Parliament, Britain offered substantial prizes for practical solutions to finding longitude at sea. The largest prize, £20,000 (roughly 200 times the annual wage of a skilled engineer of the time), would be given to the inventor of an instrument that could determine a ship's longitude to within half a degree, or 30 nautical miles, when reckoned at the end of a voyage to a port in the West Indies, whose longitude could be accurately ascertained using proved land-based methods.

The great reward attracted a deluge of harebrained schemes. Hence, the Board of Longitude, the committee appointed to review promising ideas, held no meetings for more than 20 years. Two approaches, however, had long been known to be theoretically sound. The first, called the lunar-distance method, involved precise observations of the moon's position in relation to the stars to determine the time at a reference point from which longitude could be measured; the other required a very accurate clock to make the same determination. Because the earth rotates every 24 hours, or 15 degrees in an hour, a two-hour time difference represents a 30-degree difference in longitude. The seemingly overwhelming obstacles to keeping accurate time at sea—among them the often violent motions of ships, extreme changes in temperature and variations in gravity at different latitudes—led British physicist Isaac Newton and his followers to believe that the lunar-distance method, though problematic, was the only viable solution.

Newton was wrong, however. In 1737 the board finally met for the first time to discuss the work of a most unlikely candidate, a Yorkshire carpenter named John Harrison. Harrison's large and rather cumbersome longitude timekeeper had been used on a voyage to Lisbon and on the return trip had proved its worth by correcting the navigator's dead reckoning of the ship's longitude by 68 miles. Its maker, however, was dissatisfied. Instead of asking the board for a West Indies trial, he requested and received financial support to construct an improved machine.

After two years of work, still displeased with his second effort, Harrison embarked on a third, laboring on it for 19 years. But by the time it was ready for testing, he realized that his fourth marine timekeeper, a five-inch-diameter watch he had been developing simultaneously, was better. On a voyage to Jamaica in 1761, Harrison's oversize watch performed well enough to win the prize, but the board refused to give him his due without further proof. A second sea trial in 1764 confirmed his success. Harrison was reluctantly granted £10,000. Only when King George III intervened in 1773 did he receive the remaining prize money. Harrison's breakthrough inspired further developments. By 1790 the marine chronometer was so refined that its fundamental design never needed to be changed.

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