Monday, November 3rd, 2014
The sailor in my bones called out to read Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time by Dava Sobel. The longitude problem had plagued seafaring civilisations since Ptolemy. It was a scientific problem that eluded answers until, in 1773, an Englishman named John Harrison, after forty years of experimentation, development and political warfare, claimed the 20,000 pound reward put forward by the Longitude Act 1714. This was the pressing scientific question of the age.
Consider the scientific simplicity of the latitude problem that can be understood through cosmic cycles including the length of a day or the height of the sun or by identifying known stars above the horizon. Latitude is a series of concentric circles that include the Equator where the Sun passes closest to the Earth and the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer that respectively mark the sun’s extremes of journey from Southern-most-to-Northern-most traverse. Latitudes are a series of parallel lines around the planet. Any sailor could know their latitude, how high up or low down a parallel line they were traversing, because latitude is fixed by the laws of nature. But consider the complexity of determining longitude.