Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chron - Lon...


In the age of the great navigators--of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Frobisher, Bering and others--finding your latitude was the easy part. Captains knew how to use the noontime Sun, the North Star - and before sextant was invented, a less precise instrument known as the cross-staff was widely used.

Longitude was a much harder nut to crack. In principle, all one needs is an accurate clock, set to Greenwich time. When the Sun "passes the meridian" at noon, we only need to check the clock: if Greenwich time is 3 p.m., we know that 3 hours ago it was noon at Greenwich and we are therefore at longitude 15° x 3 = 45 degrees west.

However, accurate clocks require a fairly sophisticated technology. Pendulum clocks can keep time quite accurately on firm land, but the pitching and rolling of a ship makes them quite unsuitable for sea duty.

Non-pendulum clocks--e.g. wristwatches, before they became electronic--use a balance wheel, a small balance wheel rotating back and forth through a small angle. A flat spiral spring is wrapped around its axis and it always brings the wheel back to its original position. The period of each back-and-forth oscillation is then only determined by the strength of the spring and the mass of the wheel, and it can replace the swing of the pendulum in controlling the motion of the clock's hands. For navigation, however, such a clock must be very accurate, which is not easy to achieve: friction must be minimal, and so must changes in the dimensions of the balance wheel and properties of the spring due to changing temperature and other factors.

In the 17th and 18th century, when the navies of Britain, Spain, France and Holland all tried to dominate the seas, the "problem of longitude" assumed great strategic importance and occupied some of the best scientific minds. In 1714 Britain announced a prize of 20,000 pounds--a huge sum in those days--for a reliable solution, and John Harrison, a British clockmaker, spent decades trying to achieve it. His first two "chronometers," of 1735 and 1739, though accurate, were bulky and delicate pieces of machinery; they have been restored and are ticking away on public display, at the Royal Astronomical Observatory in Greenwich. Only his 4th instrument, tested in 1761, proved satisfactory, and it took some additional years before he received his prize.

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