COOK – HARRISON – GREEN: THREE YORKSHIRE MEN WALKED INTO A BAR

 

 

‘He [John Harrison] wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch’. Dava Sobel, Longitude, Fourth Estate, London, 1998

Harrison H-4 Chronometer

Since earliest times sea-faring nations England, Portugal, France, Spain the Netherlands vied with each other to solve – the Holy Grail of Navigation – longitude – calculating with precision a ship’s position at sea while beyond sight of land.

1714  – Westminster: Legislation, The Act of Longitude 1714, followed an enquiry into England’s first recorded 18th century maritime disaster.

In 1707 off the Cornish coast in heavy weather six (6) of Admiral Clowdisley Shovell’s ships having lost their bearings dashed to pieces against the Scilly Isles with the loss of 1500 lives.

As a consequence in 1714 The Board of Longitude was established to invite and evaluate submissions and award a prize of £20,000 to whom-so-ever solved the problem of determining longitude at sea.

To the detriment of the world’s seafarers the contest developed into a naked grab for cash. The king’s ransom, reckoned now more than £400,000,000 did much to delay recognition of the solution; ‘the perfect time-keeper…a pocket- watch’. .

There were only two (2) viable contenders for the Longitude Prize. Astronomer Royal Rev. Nevil Maskelyne’s Nautical Almanac – Luna Tables  and Star Cataglog –  a system favoured by a succession of Astronomer Royals – and John Harrison a Yorkshire carpenter with his invention a sea-going  pocket-watch’. See: Lotto and Longitude

‘The Board of Longitude was top-heavy with astronomers, mathematicians and navigators…[Harrison] made a special enemy of the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the [Longitude] prize money and whose tactics at certain junctions can only be described as foul-play’. Dava Sobel. ibid.

The contest cost countless lives.

‘As early as 1514, the German astronomer Johannes Werner struck on a way to use the motion of moon as a location finder. The moon travels a distance roughly equal to its own width ever hour’. Dava Sobel. ibid.

A succession of Astronomer Royals, understandably Rev. John Flamsteed the first appointed in 1676 by King Charles II and whose Luna Tables were his life’s work. Followed by Edmond Halley, James Bradley, Nathaniel Bliss and, in 1765 the fifth appointee Nevil Maskelyne, all remained wedded to Luna Tables.

‘The Almanac represents Maskelyne’s enduring contribution to navigation – and the perfect task for him too, as it embodied an abundance of excruciating detail’. Sobel. ibid.

Yet accurate time – the essential ingredient for solving the problem of longitude – had been conquered. In 1736-7 in HMS Centurian John Harrison had taken H-1 on a supervised time-trial voyage London to Lisbon. It performed within the guidelines required by the Board of Longitude.

‘…a banner week for Harrison, because on the 30th [June 1737] the commissioners of the Board of Longitude convened for the very first time – twenty-three years after the board was created – citing his marvellous machine as the occasion’. Sobel. ibid.

The might of one commissioner, Astronomer Royal Rev. Nevil Maskelyne however, was brought to bear on Harrison personally and against his ‘marvellous machine’ the ‘pocket-watch’.

Shortly before Cook sailed [for Tahiti]’ Maskelyne published his Nautical Almanac. See: Moon Versus Machine

So when in 1769 Yorkshire-man Lieutenant James Cook RN, after observing the Transit of Venus at Tahiti sailed Endeavour, in accordance with ‘Secret Admiralty Instructions’, to search for the fabled Great South Land, he had with him Maskelyne’s ‘tedious’ celestial Almanac but not Harrison’s ‘never-failing pocket-watch’. See: Captain Cook Caught Short

‘[It] was bolted to a window-seat at the Observatory’. Dava Sobel. ibid.

Cook did however have the invaluable service of Charles Green a fellow Yorkshire-man. Green, an accomplished astronomer, had served as official Assistant to two (2) Astronomer Royals. Firstly under James BradIey who succeeded on the death of Edmond Halley in 1742.

Bradley held the post for twenty (20) years until his death in 1762. Nathaniel Bliss followed Bradley in 1762 but ill-health marked his short tenure. Bliss did not take up residence at Greenwich remaining at Oxford University where he died in 1764.

During the hiatus 1762-65 Charles Green acted as surrogate Astronomer Royal. In 1764 with Bliss too ill to travel, Green acting as official representative of the Board of Longitude, travelled to Barbados with Maskelyne to assess yet again the accuracy of John Harrison’s ‘watch’.

While Green found that it satisfied all that was required Maskelyne took the opposing view. See: The Third Man – Charles Green

At the beginning of 1765 King George III announced Maskelyne ‘s appointment as Britain’s fifth Astronomer Royal. Green logged his final Observations on 15 March 1765 and left the Observatory soon afterwards.

Nevil Maskelyne, after negotiating a more than satisfactory salary, assumed his active role as Astronomer Royal in mid March 1765 and held the position until his death in 1811.

‘At the heart of Dava Sobel’s fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and horology stands the figure of John Harrison and his forty-year obsession with building the perfect timekeeper’. Sobel, Longitude, Cited Cover Paperback Edition

‘John Harrison, the man who solved longitude in 1759’. Peter Ackroyd, Revolution, Macmillan, London, 2016 See: Lieutenant William Dawes & ‘The Eternal Flame’

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