Longitude

220px-Pierre_Le_Roy_chronometer_1766Few years back I visited Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Inside you can find a progression of marine chronometers. As you walk past the cabin sized clocks you marvel at the diabolical complexity of these devices. You go past these devices and then you stop. At the pedestal is a small, compact and simple looking device.This is H4 created by self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison. It’s simple, beautiful and totally different from all the predecessors. Somehow it seems to represent a quantum leap onwards.

Marine chronometers and “the longitude problem” were of crucial importance during the great ages of exploration. Lacking the ability to determine their longitude, sailors were literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Ships ran aground on rocky shores;  desperate captains in search for land navigated their ships away from nearest costs. Thousands perished in vain.

In 1714, England’s Parliament offered a huge reward to anyone whose method of measuring longitude could be proven successful. The scientific establishment–from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton–had mapped the heavens in its certainty of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution–a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had been able to do even on land. And the race was on….

Longitude is a book by Dava Sobel. Inside you find “the True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time”. This is a real story of discovery, challenges and political intrigue. An excellent read.

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