Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: Britain

A Ship-Shape Ticker

John Harrison in a 1767 portrait.

If I could bring back Google Maps to early eighteenth-century Britain, I’d be a millionaire. See, figuring out a ship’s longitudinal coordinates was a huge problem back then. So much so that the British Parliament offered a prize of what amounts to $2.2 million in today’s dollars to anyone who could produce a practical method for pinpointing a ship’s location.

Latitude was pretty easy: All you needed was the sun and some charted data. But longitude had theretofore only been discernible by sheer instinct and guesswork, which often led to ships crashing into unforeseen hazards and hundreds of casualties. Even renowned navigators armed with a compass (which were still unreliable at the time) had to basically hope they weren’t going the opposite way or that the ship didn’t run aground.

That’s where John Harrison came in. Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time tells the story of this lovably odd son of a carpenter with no formal scientific training who created a revolutionary maritime clock. Previous ship clocks couldn’t keep time in bad weather, but Harrison’s was self-stabilizing and self-lubricating so that it wouldn’t wear down and wouldn’t be affected by the briny sea air and turbulent waters.

Harrison responded to Parliament’s challenge for a longitudinal tool, but unlike other people with crackpot submissions, he wasn’t in it for the money. He was like the Nikola Tesla of maritime horology: eccentric, hermetic, obsessive, but in it only for the joy of the scientific challenge itself. And like Tesla with Thomas Edison, Harrison had a natural antagonist in Nevil Maskelyne, a royal astronomer appointed to Parliament’s “Board of Longitude,” which controlled the terms of the prize money. Maskelyne had his heart set on the lunar distance method, which involved gauging the moon’s distance from another star to calculate the local time, and gave Harrison all kinds of politically motivated headaches along the way in order to get the lunar method some headway. Harrison’s son even had to resort to writing King George III (the King George) to get some help moving the intransigent Board along. Turns out the young monarch was a science geek himself and gladly helped the Harrisons out (just as he was levying heavy taxes on an increasingly disgruntled colonial America).

Overall, Sobel’s book, though heavily biased toward Harrison, is an accessible, breezy account of his engineering process, the radical innovations he made in every version of his “chronometer,” and the obstacles he had to surmount to achieve recognition from a skeptical scientific community. Take some time to read it.

Terror Will Lose

At the climax of The Dark Knight, Joker has Batman trapped on the top of a skyscraper while he waits for the boats full of prisoners and civilians to blow up. The clock strikes midnight — the deadline the Joker gave to those on the boat — but there’s no explosion. For the first time in the movie, the Joker looks surprised and out of control. Batman, despite being momentarily trapped and defenseless, chides him: “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s exactly like you? You’re alone.”

I thought of this scene when reading about this brave British woman named Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who confronted the knife-wielding terrorists immediately after their barbarous acts today. They told her they wanted to start a war in London, to which she replied: “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose; what would you like to do?”

Terror and fear don’t get to win. These men can be angry about people who are dying in Afghanistan, but propagating the “eye for an eye” principle leads only to self-destruction. These cowardly villains can make a grand show of their hate, but they won’t start a war in London nor anywhere else they wish. They won’t win converts to their twisted ideology, save for a few other confused souls. They are alone. And people like Ingrid Loyau-Kennett prove that every day.

© 2017 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑