harrison Q4 project

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“Longitude has been utterly unattainable for most of human history.” -Dava Sobel

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In the 1700s the world was in a race to find longitude. The British Parliament set up a Board of Longitude to combat the problem. They offered £20,000 for the solution. Its purpose was to discover the most “practical and useful” solution to finding longitude at sea.

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Finding longitude quickly was worth so much because using the “most reliable” method at that time, lunar observation, it took 4 hours to calculate. That’s not including double-checking the answer. And by that time the ship would have drifted so far from the original location, the calculation would be useless. Ships hugged coastlines in order not to get lost, but this caused traffic, pirating, and increased the risk of a shipwreck.

Scientists understood that the simplest way to calculate longitude was to know the time of the home port and then subtract the time of one’s current position. : 

Scientists understood that the simplest way to calculate longitude was to know the time of the home port and then subtract the time of one’s current position. Little did they know that the perfect timepiece would soon be invented by this man... However, in the 1700s a clock at sea could not keep accurate time, so such a measurement could not be performed.

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John Harrison 1693-1776

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John Harrison was born on March 24, 1693 in Yorkshire, England. He taught himself to read and write and became a village wood worker like his father. He would devote his entire life to unlocking the answer to finding longitude at sea. Yet he was a genius.

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As of yet, no clock of any type could withstand the hardships of a sea voyage. These included: Humidity Heat Cold Constant Movement Centrifugal Movement and Dampness Taking all of this into account, Harrison used innovative methods to counteract each of these obstacles.

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He created four clocks throughout his lifetime for the purpose of finding longitude. Each an improvement over the last. Harrison’s first three were named… H-1 H-2 H-3

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But, his masterpiece was… H-4

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Each clock underwent extensive tests and eventually even King George III of England got involved in the trials. Each timepiece passed with flying colors and qualified to win the Longitude Prize. However… Most clocks lost 5 to 10 minutes daily aboard ship. H-4 lost only 5 seconds in 81 days which was the most accurate measurement in maritime history.

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Harrison never won the Board of Longitude prize due to biased members who could not believe that a village wood worker could create the solution that even Sir Isaac Newton struggled with. He was compensated with money from the British Parliament.

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Harrison died on March 24, 1776 at the age of 83 before he saw his true impact on the world. His clocks would inspire future designs as well as travel with Captain James Cook to New Zealand and Australia. The same design was aboard the H.M.S. Beagle which took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Isles.

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Harrison’s clock enabled the British Empire to expand, both politically and economically, allowing a new sea culture to emerge, and empowering sea technology to leap forward. Imagine the world without longitude. There would be no time zones, GPS systems, and the world would not be as internationally connected as it is.

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“With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space and time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth--temporal--dimension to link points on a three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch” -Dava Sobel

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Works Cited Produced By: Claralyn Burt Associate Producer: Ms. Miller Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time. London: Harper Perennial, 1996 Howse, Derek. Greenwich Time: and the Discovery of Longitude. Oxford University Press, 1980 Gagnon, Thierry. "Master and Commander ." 2009. 25 May 2009 <http://thierrygagnon.com/en-article103.html>. Super Stock

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