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Longitude

Last week I was in nerd heaven. 

Nerdvana? 

It was all because in 1707, a fleet of British ships headed for home were 107 miles off course. Four of them crashed on the rocks they didn’t know were there, drowning more than 2,000 sailors. 

The problem was in the 1700’s there was no good way of telling your longitude. Latitude is fairly easy, but that only gets you halfway there, and a lot of drowned sailors can attest that close isn’t good enough. To find longitude, you need to know the time difference between where you are and the Prime Meridian, which is the line between the North and South poles, where the line goes through Greenwich, England. 

The only hitch is that you need a very, very accurate clock, and three hundred years ago that level of accuracy didn’t exist. So, thinking about wrecked ships and drowned sailors, the British Parliament announced a prize, 20,000 pounds (roughly a million dollars in present day American money), to anyone who could build a clock accurate enough to use for navigation. 

One man, a carpenter named John Harrison, had built wooden clocks and decided to take a whack at winning the prize. 

And he did. But it took 25 years.  

Keep in mind that when Harrison was inventing a clock that would gain or lose a couple of seconds in a week, most people were content with measuring time by sunrise, sunset, and the noon church bells. If your clock was off by one minute a day, that meant in a six-month voyage, you’d be over 200 miles astray. That’s a lot...that’s like thinking you’re outside Minneapolis but you’re actually west of Des Moines. The only way to get back on course was to go until you saw something you recognized, and hopefully it wasn’t a rock big enough to sink a ship. 

Our youngest daughter and her husband and my wife and I took advantage of some cheap airline tickets and spent a few days in London. There’s a lot to do in the city, but my only request was that I wanted to go to Greenwich to see the Harrison Clocks. He made four different versions as he perfected his design. Three of them have been running for nearly 300 years. 

Three hundred years. Think about that. This winter the thermostat on our kitchen stove burned out and the repairman winced at the thought of ordering parts. “It can be hard to get parts for these old ones,” he said.   

The stove is four years old. 

There’s a fine line between crazy obsession and passionate commitment. One leads to divorce and possible jail time, the other to wondrous creations that change the world. I’ve been known to say that the difference between a stroke of genius and a crackpot idea is fairly slim. Throughout my life I’ve spent time on both sides of that equation, so I’m confident in what I’m saying.   

I wouldn’t say that standing in front of those clocks was a religious experience – I have too much respect for religion to say that - but it certainly was something. Brass and steel, springs and gears, pendulums and some other contraptions I couldn’t even identify. All of it springing from the inventive brain and talented fingers of a man who just couldn’t let go, couldn’t say, “That’s good enough.” That striving for perfection, the self-motivating drive for doing what no one thinks can be done is certainly one of the cool things about the human race. 

I don’t have that level of...whatever it is, but I can recognize it when I see. John Harrison changed the world; it just took him twenty-five years and four iterations of clocks to do it. 

Nerd heaven, baby. Nerdvana.  

Copyright 2024 Brent Olson 

 



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