The Longitude Prize

Harrison's Maritime Clock

Forty years is longer than most of us would spend on a single problem. Forty years is a life’s work. Forty years is what it took one man to revolutionise the seas.

In the 18th century, we had no means of calculating the longitude of a vessel at sea. Maritime disasters caused by the erroneous reckoning of ship’s positions were not uncommon. The eventual ability to calculate accurately the longitude of a ship would lead to an explosion in global trade. It was one of the most difficult scientific problems of the time, and was recognised as such to the extent that the British government created the Board of Longitude in 1714 to dole out prizes to those who came up with more and more accurate ways of calculating Longitude.

Of course, it is obvious to us now, that using accurate marine chronometers are the key to calculating Longitude. However in the 18th Century, clocks were all pendulum driven; and we all know what happens when you put a pendulum on a ship. Because of this ships stuck religiously to established trade routes for fear of being lost at sea. For many years, lunar tables were used, but they proved inaccurate and could typically amount to errors of approximately 15 nautical miles at the equator. Eventually John Harrison, a self educated carpenter, realised that creating a reliable clock that could keep time while at sea would provide the most accurate measure of longitude. He created three marine clocks over more than thirty years period and in doing so, invented the bimetallic strip and the caged roller bearing. He then realised that a large sea clock was actually unnecessary and that a smaller watch would do just as well and so turned his attention to creating the first “sea watch”. After six years of work creating the device, Harrison sent it on a transatlantic voyage with his son William. The tests proved the watch to be incredibly accurate, but Harrison was never quite accepted by the scientific community and the Board of Longitude attributed his clock’s accuracy to luck. Forty years of work and a timepiece that would revolutionise global travel, and still, the self-educated carpenter was not recognised by the scientific elite.

None the less, the Longitude Prize prompted fierce invention and today the prize is being re-instated; though of course, not for discovering better ways to calculate longitude. Instead a £10m prize is being launched to help solve one of the greatest issues of our time. In true 21st Century style though, the challenge will be set, not by the government, nor by the monarchy, but instead by the public who will be alloved to vote after a special viewing of the show Horizon:

The Longitude Prize 2014 commemorates the 300th anniversary of the original Longitude prize – a £20,000 reward for finding a way to determine longitude at sea accurately. The prize was overseen by the Board of Longitude, comprising the scientific, political and naval leaders of the day.