Board of Longitude

From Academic Kids

The Board of Longitude was a British Government body formed in 1714 to solve the problem of finding longitude at sea. Its establishment was largely motivated by the 1707 grounding of Vice-Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell's fleet off the Isles of Scilly. The Board gathered the greatest scientific minds of its day to work on the problem, including Sir Isaac Newton, and also put up prizes for those who could demonstrate a working device: the massive sums of 10,000 British pounds for a method that could determine longitude to within 60 nautical miles, 15,000 for one that could determine it within 40, and 20,000 pounds (equivalent to millions in today's currency) if the method could determine longitude within 30 nautical miles.

Even though many tried their hand at winning the prize, none were able to come up with an efficient, practical and relatively economical solution to the problem. Some were so desperate for the prize that they made up ludicrous methods for keeping time and determining longitude at sea.

A young clockmaker named John Harrison thought that he was up to the enormous task presented by the Board of Longitude. He proceeded to try to create a supremely accurate timekeeper that could be used to determine the longitude of a ship at sea.

His first product, which he dubbed H1, was extremely accurate. However, the Board determined that it was not accurate enough. Harrison was not deterred, though, and he devoted decades worth of work into improving his H1. This fostered the "improved" models of H2 and H3, but they were cumbersome and did not show a much greater percentage of accuracy than their predecessor.

Harrison realized that he was looking in the wrong direction. While H1, H2 and H3 were all huge timekeepers, the realization of creating a smaller timekeeper dawned on him. He started work on the most accurate pocketwatch of the time. This proved to be a success; his son tested the clock on its first sea voyage. (Harrison was already too old at the time of his finishing his newest development.) The watch lived up to its creator's expectations. However, Harrison did not receive his prize from the Board of Longitude. They were doubtful that the solution to the longitude problem could be obtained by a mechanial means. They had been certain that the only resolution would be to find an astronomical clock through mathematics and the study of the heavenly bodies. The Board did not trust that this timekeeper was the answer.

Harrison was obviously upset with this turn of events, even though his newest timekeeper was precisely what sailors needed. He turned the King George III. He explained his situation to the King, who was moved by his years of hard work and dedication to his cause. He proclaimed that Harrison would be righted, and made certain that the clockmaker would receive his rightful prize from the Board of Longitude.


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