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

Harrison H-4 Chronometer

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

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

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

Under the 1714 Act a 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 longitude.

‘The Board of Longitude was top-heavy with astronomers, mathematicians and navigators’. Sobel. ibid

£20,000 – reckoned now perhaps at £400,000,000 – had unintended consequences and did much to delay recognition of the solution – time – Harrison’s ‘watch’ ‘the perfect time-keeper’. A delay that cost countless lives.

‘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 Back Cover Paperback Edition

There were only two (2) viable contenders for the Longitude Prize. The Nautical Almanac – Luna Tables – favoured by a succession of Astronomer Royals and a sea-going ‘Watch’ the invention of John Harrison a Yorkshire carpenter. See: Moon Versus Machine

‘[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.

To the detriment of the world’s seafarers the contest developed into a naked grab for cash with one powerful contender – Maskelyne – crushing the other. See: Lotto and Longitude

A succession of Astronomer Royals James Bradley, Nathaniel Bliss and Nevil Maskelyne were wedded to Luna Tables. In 1765 Maskelyne published his Nautical Almanac.

‘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.

But well before 1765 – time – the essential ingredient for solving the problem of longitude had been conquered.

John Harrison, the man who solved longitude in 1759′. Peter Ackroyd, Revolution, Macmillan, London, 2016

However the might of Greenwich Observatory was brought to bear on Harrison personally and against his ‘never failing guide’ the marine chronometer.

So when in 1769 James Cook, a fellow Yorkshire-man sailed, in accordance with ‘Secret Admiralty Instructions’, to search for the fabled Great Southern Land he took with him Maskelyne’s ‘tedious’ celestial Almanac but not Harrison’s ‘watch’.

‘[It] was bolted to a window-seat at the Observatory’. Dava Sobel. ibid. See: Captain Cook Caught Short

Cook did have the invaluable service of yet another Yorkshire-man, Charles Green, an astronomer who had served as Assistant to two (2) Astronomer Royals, James Bradley and Nathaniel Bliss. In 1764, as a representative of the Board of Longitude, Green travelled to Barbados with Maskelyne to assess the veracity of John Harrison’s ‘watch’ he found that it satisfied all that was required while Maskelyne took the opposing view. See: The Third Man – Charles Green

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