Within the early eighteenth century, a pocket watch might preserve fairly correct time, give or take a minute per day. This may increasingly not sound too unhealthy, given how we now regard even essentially the most superior know-how of that period. Nevertheless it definitely wasn’t ok for marine navigation: every day, a ship might tolerate its clocks gaining or dropping solely a few seconds. With out correct dependable details about the time, sailors on the open sea had no approach of understanding fairly the place they had been. Extra particularly, the solar advised them how far north or south they had been, their latitude, however they didn’t know the way far east or west they had been, their longitude.
Theoretically talking, the “longitude drawback” was simply solvable. You can calculate it, writes Gear Patrol’s Ed Estlow, “by sighting the solar at excessive midday the place you had been, and if you had a ok clock for the time again dwelling, you could possibly examine the 2 and, with some easy arithmetic, decide your place.” However engineering such a good-enough clock in actuality took about half a century. “In 1714, the British authorities provided the large prize of £20,000 (roughly £2 million at present) to anybody who might remedy the longitude drawback as soon as and for all.” However the cash wasn’t absolutely claimed till 1773, by a Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison.
Harrison’s identify looms giant within the annals of chronometry, and never with out motive. His work of inventing an correct ship clock concerned the creation of 5 totally different fashions, recognized by historians as H1 by way of H5. H1 was a conveyable model of the form of sizable picket clock with which he’d already made his identify. It was solely in with H4, in 1765, that he realized small is gorgeous, or moderately correct, not less than if outfitted with outsized inner stability wheels to carry up extra reliably in opposition to the fixed motion of a ship at sea. This design labored and not using a hitch, besides, the Board of Longitude solely noticed match to award him half the cash provided.
Neither Harrison’s fixing of the longitude drawback nor his receipt of a disappointingly halved prize appear to have stopped his obsession with constructing ever-better timekeeping units. This comes as no shock given the qualities of thoughts that emerge in “The Clock That Modified the World,” the episode of BBC’s A Historical past of the World on the high of the submit. Whereas engaged on H5, Harrison “sought the help of King George III” (he of the well-known insanity). “The King, a pure thinker in his personal proper, examined H5 himself and promised Harrison his help.” That help lastly acquired the aged Harrison his promised quantity after which some, however one senses that — like every pursuit worthy of 1’s lifelong dedication — it was by no means actually concerning the cash.
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Based mostly in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and tradition. His initiatives embrace the Substack e-newsletter Books on Cities, the e book The Stateless Metropolis: a Stroll by way of Twenty first-Century Los Angeles and the video sequence The Metropolis in Cinema. Comply with him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Fb, or on Instagram.
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