I saw this movie years ago when it was a made-for-TV A&E movie with Sir Michael Gambon in the starring role as poor, put-upon, obsessed watchmWOW!
I saw this movie years ago when it was a made-for-TV A&E movie with Sir Michael Gambon in the starring role as poor, put-upon, obsessed watchmaker John Harrison. But it was in Astronomy class last month when the professor mentioned the book again to our students that I immediately pulled out my tablet and purchased it on Kindle.
The read was surprisingly quick. The author had enough foresight not to bog the average reader down with too much high science-speak and technical talk, but yet enough was given so that we could actually follow the story in all its turmoil.
Before this book was published, I'd studied science all my life (and am continuing to do so now back in University), but I never realised just how big a navigational problem finding a ship's Longitude proved to be for so many unfortunate and just plain unlucky sailors. Latitude could be found using the sun's angle at high-noon, but Longitude proved to be more difficult and nearly impossible. As the Earth rotates at a regular rate, the time difference between the chronometer and the ship's local time can be used to calculate the longitude of the ship relative to the Greenwich Meridian (defined as 0°) using spherical trigonometry. Since the Earth revolves 360° in 24 hours, or 15° per hour, the time difference in hours multiplied by 15 is the ship's longitude in degrees.
So, in London, the King assembled a group of men known as the "Board of Longitude," and offered a twenty-thousand pound prize to the person who could come up with the solution of the Longitude problem first. This opened the door to some of the most frightening, illogical and hair-brained schemes ever conceived by seemingly rational men.
One of the most atrocious was called the powder of sympathy; a form of white witchcraft. Wikipedia explains it more succinctly than I:
"The powder [being copper sulfate] was also applied to solve the longitude problem in the suggestion of an anonymous pamphlet of 1687 entitled "Curious Enquiries." The pamphlet theorised that a wounded dog could be put aboard a ship, with the animal's discarded bandage left in the trust of a timekeeper on shore, who would then dip the bandage into the powder at a predetermined time and cause the creature to yelp, thus giving the captain of the ship an accurate knowledge of the time. There are no records of the effectiveness of this procedure. It is also uncertain if it had ever been tried, and it is possible that the pamphlet was a form of satire."
Apparently, the notorious problem was that timekeepers on ships simply didn't keep accurate time. Moisture and ambient temperature were the main plagues of the day, and apart from the ridiculous sympathy cure, some of the Astronomer Royals were convinced that the way to the Longitude prize was through the navigation of the moon, and in fact, some of those methods lasted up until the late 1950s, but they were always used in tandem with the chronometers (a term coined by Harrison's protegé, Jeremy Thacker, to now mean a watch that has been tested to stringent and high standards and proven worthy).
But a lone watchmaker named John Harrison was convinced otherwise, and approached the board with his idea. They agreed to forward him the sum of five-hundred pounds as an advance on what is now known as H-1--the first sea clock Harrison ever made. It weighed close to 87-pounds, but kept spectacular time. The Longitude Act specified that the method that would finally win the prize must be accurate to finding Longitude to 1/2 of a degree. Harrison's clocks proved, on several outings, to be well within those margins of error, and thus prompted the Longitude Board to hand him over 1/2 of the prize, with the conditions that he then turn over every clock in his possession to them, along with the drawings and explanations for how they worked, including making extra copies of H-4 in case "the first one was a fluke". This didn't make Harrison happy, but it was all his life was about at this point, and knew he needed to comply if he wanted to earn the rest of the prize money.
Over the next fifty years (yes, fifty!), Harrison produced three other sea clocks, but the one that finally convinced him his work was finished was the H-4 after a five-month sea trial in 1761. It weighed a sleight 1.45-kilograms and is the size of a pocket watch, at 13-centimeters. Carried across the Atlantic from England to Jamaica and back, Harrison's clock was found to be five seconds slow, corresponding to an error of only 1.25 minutes of longitude.
The sad thing is, Malskelyn, the Astronomer Royal at the time, somehow ended up in charge of overseeing Harrison's time trails at sea, which was a huge conflict of interest, because he was Harrison's biggest competitor with his lunar distance method, and his moon tables and positions of the stars. And he would make sure Harrison's clock was set back at every single turn, once even going so far as to fudge data that made the clock look foolish, and all because he was too flustered and stupid to know how to work the mechanism properly.
In the end, Harrison never officially won the Longitude Act's Longitude prize for his invention, because the board at this point, kept revising and augmenting the Longitude Act with ridiculous stipulations that Harrison, now an old man of 80+ years, could never accomplish. (The board was also officially disband at some point not long after this.) So Harrison petitioned the King directly. H-5, his last sea clock/chronometer, was put on trial by the King himself in 1772, and performed superbly. The Board of Longitude, however, refused to recognise the results of this trial, so John and his son petitioned Parliament. They were finally awarded £8750 by Act of Parliament in June 1773. Perhaps more importantly, John Harrison was finally recognised as having solved the longitude problem.
This man is one of history's unsung heroes, and today the restored H-1, H-2,H-3 and H-4 can be seen on display in the National Maritime Museum at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. H-1, 2 and 3 are still running; but when people come upon the breathtaking H-4, they stop dead in their tracks: it doesn't run. It is kept in a stopped state because, unlike the first three, it requires oil for lubrication and will degrade as it runs. H-5 is owned by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers of London and is on display at the Clockmakers' Museum in the Guildhall, London, as part of the Company's collection.