There is a tormented man scribbling on the wall of Bedlam, in the background of Hogarth's final print in the famous 1735 Rake's Progress series, on show in a major new exhibition at the
Beside it there is a loaned pirate copy of the print, made within a year of the publication of the best selling series, the first time the two have ever been exhibited together. It was made by a hack draftsman who was sent to get a sneaky look at the originals and then draw as much as he could remember. He got most of the details, but the debate about it has already moved on: the unfortunate is now agonising about clockwork mechanisms, and has written "the clock does strike by algebra".
"Both prints show that the longitude debate is perfectly familiar to both the draftsman, and the members of the public, who will know without any further explanation that the attempt to solve longitude is a huge joke, the problem that will never be solved," curator
"Already the navy is teaching more traditional navigation. Some time in the next 30 years there is going to be a catastrophic failure of GPS, either from the cascade effect, as in the film Gravity, or some dire world event which it is not pleasant to contemplate.
And then we will be back to sea watches, sextants, and the stars."
It was no laughing matter for thousands of sailors shipwrecked, because attempts to establish where they were in the ocean were hundreds of miles out. In a storm in 1707, when an entire British fleet was driven onto the rocks at Scilly believing they were safely out at sea, more than 1,400 sailors drowned.
The exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, passed in 1714, which established the Longitude Board and offered a vast £20,000 prize to anyone who could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea.
It includes the actual act of parliament, passed in the last weeks before the death of
The story of
But as Dunn points out, the story began long before Harrison: a sea clock was tested as early as the 1660s. "Many of the earlier solutions were highly ingenious, and worked very well – on dry land."
The exhibition brings together paintings, books, scientific instruments, letters from luminaries including
As well as the Harrison watch taken by
Ships, clocks and the stars: the quest for Longitude.
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