Today in the United States we’re celebrating Columbus Day. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail for Spain with his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in search of a shorter route to the Asia (the Indies). Instead of landing there like he thought, he hit what is now the U.S. coastline. If it weren’t for Columbus’s terrible sense of direction we wouldn’t have the day off, so we thank dear Columbus for his efforts. The reason ships couldn’t sail with any degree of accuracy was that nobody could determine longitude at sea, which made for some pretty wild ship road trips. You need latitude and longitude to determine your position. On the water you can accurately determine latitude by using the altitude of the sun at noon and a table showing the sun’s declination for the day.
Longitude wasn’t so easy. You need an accurate clock because time correlates directly to longitude. For example, every hour the local time moves ahead, you’ve traveled east 15° longitude. Back up the time an hour and you’re 15° west from your last point. But try getting a clock to work accurately in the late 15th century while it was being bumped and jostled around by waves and probably some rowdy shipmates as well. It was a simple carpenter named John Harrison who solved the problem much to the dismay of the Royal Society who put their best minds to work on the subject.
In 1735, Harrison presented his first sea clock called the H1 and perfected it with the H4 by 1761. Disgruntled that a working class man trumped the astronomers and scientists of the time, Harrison had to fight for his sizable reward of £20,000, which would be almost £3 million pounds today. In fact he had to petition King George to force Parliament’s hand. In 1773, 12 years after proving his marine chronometer worked, Harrison, who was by then 80 years old, finally received some more money from Parliament but never was officially awarded the prize. Finally, in 2006 Harrison was recognized as an equal to English horology superstars George Graham and Thomas Tompion with a memorial table in Westminster Abbey, where both are buried. So today we honor both Christopher Columbus and John Harrison.