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A history of violence?

John Harrison

How can you fight a sea battle if you don't know where you are in relation to the enemy?

The problem of finding a ship's longitude at sea became a serious naval concern in the 17th century. After a British fleet ran aground on the Scilly Isles in 1714, Parliament quickly passed the Longitude Act. It offered a cash prize of up to £20,000 (£ millions in today’s money) for the precise determination of a ship's whereabouts.

The problem was eventually solved by a working class joiner from Lincolnshire with little formal education. John Harrison surprised the government scientists winning the longitude prize with his precision chronometers developed through extraordinary mechanical insight, talent and determination.

Dava Sobel’s bestselling book Longitude gives a gripping account of John Harrison’s lifelong pursuit of an accurate and reliable maritime clock. Whilst Harrison was not a physicist, his knowledge of astronomy and the measurement of time was exceptional.

 And what really motivated Parliament to offer the huge cash prize?


What do you think motivated Harrison?
The prize money on offer from the Board of Longitude?
An obsession with designing ever-better clock mechanisms?
A chance of fame and glory?
Or an interest in making Britain’s navy more effective at war?


Next: Count Rumford


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John Harrison

Text equivalent:

Issues of funding

It is not entirely clear as to whether Parliament offered the cash prize because they were concerned about safety of ships or whether they wished to wage war more successfully - England was at war with France and Spain at the time. Does it matter?

John Harrison and the longitude problem
Lost at sea: The search for longitude