Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Longitude Prize and The Man Who Made Time Travel

  Hoi An, Veitnam. Jan 10, 2013:
This morning we caught a flight out of Da Nang to Hanoi and then back to Taiwan. There's a new job waiting and a new life. The girls had such fun in Vietnam. I have to say, it was a gas!
One last Vietnam memory:  While riding bicycles through rice fields and chasing my girls through traditional markets, I came upon this little history paperback I rolled up and stuck in my back pocket and at night I would sit on the balcony overlooking the South China Sea and read by candle light.  The subject concerned the various mathematical geniuses all vying to claim the Longitude Prize of 1714.
You see, about three hundred years ago, almost everyone was a sailor or impacted mightily by the sea.  Ships crashed.  Men were lost.  Good and merchandise sunk to the bottom of the ocean.  All because men had no accurate way of measuring a ship’s true location.  Latitude was easy.  One could measure the height of the sun at noon or the height of the North Star above the horizon at night.  This showed how far north or south of the equator a ship was.  But longitude needed time.  Each day, as the earth rotates, it spins eastward 360 degrees or 15 degrees per hour.  At noon, if one had a fixed location, a home port, the distance east or west could be calculated.
But how could time be bottled?  And what was this fixed port?  There were no clocks stout enough to handle the rigors of a sea voyage  and certainly no clock accurate enough.  Thus, the British Parliament passed The Longitude Act, promising to pay 20,000 pounds of sterling (roughly 12 million dollars) to anyone who could create a “useful and practical method of measuring longitude.” 

Let the games begin…
The wackos came out of the woodwork.  Most these boys were sailors who claimed they’d seen mermaids so… One method was called the God Clock, which detailed measuring the moons orbit past certain stars.  Astronomers believed the sky a heavenly clock and the moon it’s minute hand. This later became known as the Lunar Distance Method.
Another was the TipToe Method created by a clergyman who plotted an imaginary set of lines in the sky stars would pass through each night, but since they moved so fast, one had to quickly move to your tippytoes to catch them.
Another was the Barking Dog Method.  In this, a sailor believed a dog had super powers and would know the exact moment his wounds were healed.  So a dog was cut and bled and taken on board a ship, and at certain times of the day, powder would be poured on the bloody bandages left behind.  Then the dog, far away on the ship, would bark, signaling the time. 
Yeah… these were great ideas for sure!
But it took a young boy named John Harrison to set everyone straight.  Harrison was a church bell ringer and carpenter who studied Newton in his evenings and put many of his ideas to test.  Over the course of his full life, he began to develop numerous clocks that could be taken to sea.  Of course, rivals disputed him, but he never gave up.  Until finally, as an old man, his own son took a clock 147 days all the way to Jamaica, swaddling the glass clock in a blanket like a child.  When the ship finally returned, it was only a minute and 54 seconds in error.  This should have been enough to win the Longitude Prize, but further rivals stepped in and claimed the clock was a fake.
Eventually as an old man, Harrison presents a final version of his clock, a small time piece in a sturdy box, to King George III in 1772, and is granted the remainder of the prize, which he shared with others.
I’m not sure why this book captured my attention so much.  I guess it’s because, I don’t ever want to give up.  Time won’t beat you if you never let it catch you.  Here’s to safe seas.  Keep sailing people and looking at stars!

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