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The Longitude Problem

by Jordan Ficklin

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Hamilton 992bAs many of you may know the standardization of time in the United States came about because of the railroad. Every station needed to know what time it was exactly, as did the train engineer to keep the trains on time and to keep them from running into each other. This resulted in the American watchmaking industry developing “railroad grade” watches which were and are amazingly accurate as well as for the development of the time zone system still in use today.

Long before the railroad there was another form of transportation which helped shape the world of timekeeping. When navigating the seas it was easy to determine ones latitude based on the positions of heavenly bodies but it was problematic determining ones longitude. For many hundreds, if not thousands of years men tried to figure out how to do it by looking at the heavens. Books were published full of tables and complicated machinery devised to analyze the heavenly bodies to determine ones position. Trouble was it was it took along time to perform all the calculations and it was terribly inaccurate.

In order to try and solve this problem the British government offered a prize to the individual who could provide a method of determining longitude in an accurate fashion.

John Harrison’s H4While all the scientists of the time tried to solve this problem a cabinet maker named John Harrison figured out that if you had an accurate enough clock you could simply compare your present location’s solar noon to your home time and determine how far away you are. Every four minutes of deviation from your home time resulted in one degree of longitude. The problem was making a clock that would be accurate enough (on a swaying ship) to maintain a home time.

John Harrison did it, but it wasn’t easy. He made all kinds of improvements to the timekeepers of his day in order to achieve the desired result and eventually win the Longitude Prize. You can read all about it in Dava Sobel’s book, Longitude.

Funny thing is we still determine global position in the same way. With atomic clocks accurate to nanoseconds and beyond a GPS unit compares the time a signal leaves a satellite with the time it arrives to determine how far away it is and triangulates your position between several satellites. John Harrision I salute you!

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 8, 2008 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I love the Harrison story.

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  1. […] are interested in watches, but just in case here it is. With a grasshopper escapement designed by John Harrison and a simple but unique movement this is a pretty cool clock. I’ve been sent this video by my […]

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