The Lon­gi­tude Act

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In or­der for sailors to know ex­actly where they were at sea, it be­came in­creas­ingly vi­tal to cal­cu­late lon­gi­tude – the ship’s east/ westw po­si­tion. Ac­cu­rate pen­du­lum clocks ex­isted from the 17th cen­tury but the e move­ment of the ship, air hu­mid­ity and tem­per­a­ture badly af­fected the time­pieces. In 1714, the Bri­tish govern­ment is­sued a com­pe­ti­tion of­fer­ing a £20,000 re­ward for any­one who could come up with a so­lu­tion to the lon­gi­tude prob­lem and pro­vide a por­ta­ble clock ac­cu­ra­tee to within three sec­onds a day – unhe eard of at that time. En­ter John Har­ri­son (1693-1776), a joiner/clock maker from York­shire who had built his first long­case clock aged 20. The fac­tual but quasi-fic­tion­alised Lon­gi­tude by Dava So­bel, pub­lished by Harper in 1995, de­picts his en­deav­ours and was filmed by Granada TV in 2000. The de­vel­op­ment of his clocks to solve the lon­gi­tude prob­lem is ex­plained by the Royal Mu­se­ums s in Green­wich at rmg.co.uk/ ex­ploore/as­tron­omy-and-time/ timme-facts/har­ri­son# lon­gi­tude.

There was con­sid­er­ably chi­canery in­n­volved in pay­ing him the prize ffund and he had to sub­mit all his cclocks to the com­mis­sion­ers be­fore hhe could re­ceive any­thing. Hav­ing started his work in 1728, he was awwarded £10,000 in 1765 but it toook an ap­peal to King Ge­orge III in 17722 be­fore he was fi­nally be­stowed a fur­ther £8,750 by Act of Par­lia­ment in June 1773. Over 23 years, he re­ceived a to­tal of £23,065 worth more than £1.25 mil­lion to­day – a prize well worth striv­ing to­wards.

Ex­am­ples of his clocks are held at the Sci­ence Mu­seum, Lon­don, and Nostell Pri­ory, York­shire.

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