Within the early eighteenth century, a pocket watch may preserve moderately correct time, give or take a minute per day. This may increasingly not sound too dangerous, given how we now regard even essentially the most superior expertise of that period. Nevertheless it actually wasn’t adequate for marine navigation: every day, a ship may tolerate its clocks gaining or shedding solely a few seconds. With out correct dependable details about the time, sailors on the open sea had no approach of realizing fairly the place they had been. Extra particularly, the solar instructed them how far north or south they had been, their latitude, however they didn’t understand how far east or west they had been, their longitude.
Theoretically talking, the “longitude drawback” was simply solvable. You might 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 adequate clock for the time again house, you possibly can 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 in the present day) to anybody who may clear up the longitude drawback as soon as and for all.” However the cash wasn’t totally claimed till 1773, by a Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison.
Harrison’s identify looms massive within the annals of chronometry, and never with out motive. His work of inventing an correct ship clock concerned the creation of 5 completely different fashions, identified by historians as H1 by way of H5. H1 was a conveyable model of the form of sizable wood clock with which he’d already made his identify. It was solely in with H4, in 1765, that he realized small is gorgeous, or relatively correct, at the very least if outfitted with outsized inner stability wheels to carry up extra reliably towards the fixed motion of a ship at sea. This design labored with out 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 gadgets. 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 publish. Whereas engaged on H5, Harrison “sought the assist 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 assist.” That assist lastly received 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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Primarily based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and tradition. His tasks embrace the Substack publication Books on Cities, the ebook The Stateless Metropolis: a Stroll by way of Twenty first-Century Los Angeles and the video collection The Metropolis in Cinema. Observe him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Fb, or on Instagram.