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The Quest for Longitude

An English artisan with little formal education (but super woodworking skills) developed the navigational device that in the 17th Century charted the course of the British Empire. Even though King George III tried to intervene in his behalf, John Harrison died in 1776, on his 83rd birthday, bitter because he felt cheated out of the money and honors due him for his discovery. Harrison is a hero of a traveling exhibit of the National Maritime Museum in London called Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude.

This fascinating exhibit begins a six-month stint at Mystic Seaport starting September 19. Sponsored by United Technologies Corporation, it first opened in London to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the British Longitude Act of 1714, which offered a huge prize for any practical way to determine longitude (east-west position) at sea. It tells the story of Harrison and others – including Galileo, Captain James Cook and Isaac Newton – who quested for more than a century to come up with a solution. Unlike latitude, which starts with zero degrees at the equator and can be determined by the sun and the pole star, longitude lacks a naturally fixed starting point. Rather, zero degrees was arbitrarily assigned to the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England.

To use the Greenwich meridian, sailors need to know accurate time. But temperature and humidity at sea made it virtually impossible with the pendulum locks of the 18th century. Navigation – and, as a result, exploration and conquest – was severely hampered. Harrison came up with sea clocks (which evolved into marine chronometers) with important parts of their mechanism made of wood. Replicas of three of his sea clocks are featured in the exhibit.

Harrison’s clocks did not need clock oil, which was of poor quality and often failed. He knew the quality of woods and natural oils, says Dr. Richard Dunn, senior curator of the history of science at the London museum. Along with Harrison’s clocks, the exhibit features a bevy of early navigational devices – not models but the real thing – that were developed during the quest for longitude, as well as antique navigator’s books.

As an aside, Dunn notes that many old salts of the 18th Century worried that the new devices would create such dependence that sailors would lose their basic skills of seamanship. It’s a reaction echoed by traditionalists today who bemoan too much reliance by pleasure boaters on GPS equipment.

The exhibit is part of Mystic Seaport’s effort to draw visitors during the upcoming winter, the first in three years during which it has remained continually open. The Seaboard has launched an ongoing campaign to provide more indoor exhibits, and a large new exhibition building is under construction near the R.J. Schaefer Building, which is hosting Ships, Clocks & Stars.

United States Representative Joe Courtney will lead a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. Sunday, September 19 to open the exhibit. For more information visit www.mysticseaport.org/ships-clocks-stars.

Image Credits: Photo by Andy Price/Mystic Seaport.

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