News Column

Maritime museum finds time for celebration of Harrison's sea clocks

July 10, 2014

Maev Kennedy, theguardian.com



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 Maritime Museum in Greenwich. He has already drawn a globe striped with lines of latitude and the 20,000 question torturing many of the best minds of scientists, mathematicians, naval officers and astronomers of the day longitude. The poor man is covering the walls of the mental hospital with calculations, literally driven mad by the problem of longitude.

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 Richard Dunn said.

John Harrison's perfectly accurate clocks, which became the standard issue marine chronometer, essentially solved the problem. But none of this is ancient history, made obsolete by modern technology, Dunn insists: the skills so painfully won of using time and the stars to work out position at sea will be needed again.

"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 Queen Anne, on display for the first time.

The story of John Harrison, the carpenter and self-taught genius clockmaker who invented a series of ever more accurate clocks and then a cabbage-sized watch which solved the problem, but never got the full prize from the board, inspired Dava Sobel's bestselling book and film, Longitude. All of the Harrison clocks, brought back to the museum from their home in the Observatory for the first time in decades, are ticking away beautifully in the exhibition. Just seven staff members, including Dunn and art curator Katy Barrett, are trusted with the task of winding them first thing each morning.

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 Isaac Newton, and even the Georgian astronomer royal Nevil Maskelyne's extraordinary padded silk romper suit for long, cold nights watching the stars. It continues for almost a century after Harrison's death, as research continued, and work on making instruments reliable and cheap enough to supply to every ship.

As well as the Harrison watch taken by Captain Cook which he called "my trusty friend", the display includes a later version of the Harrison watch, which was issued to the Bounty. After the mutiny, when Fletcher Christian cast Captain Bligh adrift in the Bounty's longboat, the mutineers refused to give him the watch, making his surviving the 3,600 mile journey, in an open boat with his remaining loyal crew members, even more extraordinary. The watch went to Pitcairn, where it was eventually bought by a traveller and made its way back to England.

Ships, clocks and the stars: the quest for Longitude. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until January 4 2014.


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Source: Guardian Web


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