Greenwich and the story of time
|Finding longitude at sea|
Making navigation safer
Many European countries were looking at ways to make navigation safer. England had much to gain by finding an accurate method for calculating longitude.
Foundation of the Royal Observatory
The Royal Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It was completed in 1676 at a cost of just over £500. In order to keep expense to a minimum, many materials used in the construction were re-cycled. Selling off spoiled gunpowder raised much of the budget!
John Flamsteed - the first Astronomer Royal
Mapping the heavens is an extremely lengthy process. It takes almost 20 years just to observe the Moon through its complete cycle through the heavens.
On every clear night, Flamsteed would watch the Moon as it moved across the stars. He suffered from cold as heating was not allowed for fear the warm air would distort light as it entered the telescope.
Flamsteed was able to produce such accurate charts and tables only with the use of the latest scientific instruments. Telescopes and clocks were his main tools. Part of the reason the longitude problem was not solved earlier is that accurate clocks were developed only in the 1660s.
In 1657 Christian Huygens, the Dutch mathematician, was the first to make clocks that kept time to within a few seconds rather than many minutes a day.
Huygens developed a portable version of his pendulum clock, but when it was tested at sea, it did not meet his expectations. Most people believed a clock would never be of use in navigation and the future was in using the positions of stars.
The competition to find longitude at sea
On 22 October 1707 one of the worst ever maritime disasters forced the British government to renew its effort in solving the longitude problem.
Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel, commanding a fleet of 21 ships, was sailing from Gibraltar to England when five of the ships struck the Isles of Scilly. Four of the vessels were wrecked and almost 2000 men were killed. This was only one of many such disasters at the time and poor navigation was to blame.
The Longitude Act
To claim this prize, the winner would have to find longitude within half a degree on a journey from England to the West Indies, an accuracy of about thirty miles (50 km). This would be quite a feat for a voyage of several weeks.