"Longitude" by Dava Sobel is subtitled "The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time." It's a fun and easy book that opens with a quote by Mark Twain. Sobel introduces us to the book's hero, John Harrison, and his mastery of space and time. "He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth -- temporal -- dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars..."
Harrison dedicated his life to the creation of an accurate seagoing clock, a marine chronometer, that could help sailors determine longitude in order to map commercial opportunities, prevent shipwrecks and avoid contact with enemy fleets or pirates.
In 2014, there are some notable milestones in the search for calculating longitude:
1514: Five hundred years ago this year, German astronomer Johannes Werner found a way to use the motion of the moon as a location finder.
1664: Three hundred and fifty years ago, Galileo's "intellectual heir," Christiaan Huygens's pendulum clock sailed aboard ship to and from the Cape Verde islands in the North Atlantic off the west coast of Africa and kept track of the ship's longitude. However the clock's pendulum would prove to have difficulty in long voyages and in rough seas.
|John Harrison's H-1|
"So enamored was Cook of K-1 that he carried it out on his third expedition, on July 12, 1776 [eight days after our Declaration of Independence]. This voyage was not so fortunate as the first two. Despite the great diplomacy of the renowned explorer, and his efforts to respect the native peoples of the lands he visited, Captain Cook ran into serious trouble in the Hawaiian archipelago."
|Captain Cook commemorative stamps from 2003.|
Sailors worldwide adopted the new technology at the end of the eighteenth century.
"By the turn of the century, the [U.S.] navy had procured a stock of chronometers for storage in Portsmouth, at the Naval Academy, where a captain could claim one as he prepared to sail from that port. With supply small and demand high, however, officers frequently found the academy's cupboard bare and continued to buy their own."
1814: Two hundred years ago, during the War of 1812, there were thousands of chronometers in use.
According to Sobel, on Charles Darwin's voyage aboard HMS Beagle in 1831, there were 22 chronometers on board to help fix longitudes of foreign lands, including the Galapagos.
Sobel includes snippets of poetry by Robert Burns, Diane Ackerman, W.H. Auden, Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare. Her book is endorsed by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., who writes of "Longitude," "An exquisitely done narrative of the chronometer. It is a wonderful and engrossing achievement."
Throughout, the narrative is a yin-yang of nature/technology, time/distance and, in the case of the Prime Meridian, Greenwich/Paris (England/France), where there was some negative "l'attitude" about where the first line of longitude should exist.
Sobel's is an understandably Eurocentric view of the tension, history, and art of ocean navigation, with most of the story focused on the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Of course, there's another side of the globe where Chinese and Polynesian voyagers were sailing accurately with nature's "star compass."
Yesterday members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society departed Oahu aboard two Hawaiian voyaging canoes for the beginning of a three-year tour around the globe. Dignitaries and well-wishers for master navigator/mentor Nainoa Thompson and his navigators and crew were Ocean Elders Captain Don Walsh, musician Jackson Browne and oceanographers Jean-Michel Cousteau and Dr. Sylvia Earle. Hōkūle’a was envisioned by legendary artist Herb Kāne, and voyages today were inspired by wayfinder and master navigator Mau Piailug and heroic Eddie Aikau, among others.
From Hokulea.com: "Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia, our Hawaiian voyaging canoes, are sailing across earth’s oceans to join the global movement toward a more sustainable future. Traveling through 47,000 nautical miles of Earth’s oceans and visiting 26 countries, Hōkūle’a carries a message of mālama honua (caring for Island Earth and each other)."
After a stop at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, the first long leg of the journey is to Tahiti, and the voyagers plan to not use modern instruments -- no maps, sextants, clocks or GPS, only the sun, moon, waves, wind, sea life, and stars and their "houses." No Harrison's chronometer.
Again from Hokulea.com: "As we voyage, we bring together tradition and technology, timeless values and new visions, and the next generation of leaders that can build hopeful solutions for Island Earth’s and Hawaiiʻs future."
|Nainoa Thompson looks at weather charts with Lt. Bill Karch in 1978.|
On land, people around the world, expecially young people in classrooms, can witness how Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia navigate and follow the journey through the Web and via social media, including Facebook.
“That piece about the navigation to me, it teaches perseverance," says master navigator Nainoa Thompson. "It teaches young people to be willing to take risks to train and prepare, to find their destination. It helps understand the power of vision, and it makes people work together. It teaches leadership.”
In 2011, U.S. Navy Sailors home-ported in Pearl Harbor sand pieces of a Polynesian canoe for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Sailors helped restore the canoe, support vessels and work areas while learning about ancient Hawaiian culture in the process. (Photo by MC2 Paul D. Honnick)