Visiting the “Ships, Clocks & Stars” exhibit at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, confirms how successfully historians are following the traditions set by traveling art exhibitions. This exhibition from the National Maritime Museum in London is sponsored by United Technologies and Comcast.
The sextants, chronometers, and marine watches on exhibit are both works of art and artifacts that show the progress towards solving the problem of determining longitude, a mystery that consumed legislators, mariners, and inventors alike.
The incredible story that the exhibit retells is about the prize purse of £20,000 (equivalent to £2.58 million in 2016) offered for a method that could determine longitude within 30 minutes. Once these financial promises were made, John Harrison, a carpenter-turned-clockmaker, came to claim the reward for determining longitude. According to the artifacts in the exhibit:
“John Harrison’s watch had kept time within the most stringent limits of the 1714 Act, its error being just 39.2 seconds or 9.8 miles (15.8 km) at the latitude of Barbados.”
Unfortunately, the full purse was withheld when the Board of Longitude created additional requisites, including the production of similar timekeepers by other inventors. They voted to award Harrison a portion, only £10,000, until other makers could produce similar timekeepers.
With successive inventions that improved upon his original design, Harrison did eventually collected £23,065, but only after many years of contention with the Board of Longitude.
The Quest for Longitude only has a few more days until it travels to its new location at 33.8650° S (latitude), 151.2094° E (longitude).
*Hint* Harrison could plot that location.