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Longitude

Screwing with people's lives is, of course, nothing new, and Microsoft doesn't even have a "virtual monopoly" on it. The need to wield power and maintain control over a fellow being seems to be one of the basic instincts on this planet. In the animal world, it usually revolves around who will be "leader of the pack" and enjoy the mating rights that go along with that position. Human beings, however, seem to put no limits on the extent to which one person wants to exert his power over another.

Personally, I have enough trouble trying to control myself; I don't have the energy to try and control someone else as well!

My wife and I finally got around to watching A&E's "Longitude" which was broadcast about a year and half ago. It is the story of two very different men (well, actually three with a few other significant characters as well). One, John Harrison, spent a lifetime developing, building and testing a "marine timepiece". This was back in the early to mid 1700's. Most if not all clocks of the period used pendulums, but pendulums do not work on a ship that is in constant motion. With an accurate timepiece, the ship's captain (or navigator) can easily and accurately determine the ship's longitude. Without it, longitude is but a guess. (Longitude measures how far east or west you are from the prime meridian which runs through Greenwich, England.) Indeed, one of the most serious causes for loss of life and ships was incorrectly calculated longitude. The other, Rupert, a shell-shocked survivor of the First World War, made it his life's avocation to restore the various timepieces that John Harrison made in pursuing his quest.

The third man was John Harrison's son, William. Just a boy, barely old enough to accompany his father when John Harrison began his quest, William would devote the better half of his life assisting his father.

John Harrison was a carpenter. He built one of the most accurate time pieces all out of wood. It was still running in the 1930's (and, presumably, still is) almost 300 years after it was built. But he had no formal training as a watchmaker, or an astronomer or a scientist. He was "unlearned". Those who had more formal training, but who lacked his abilities, nevertheless tried their best to deny him his due.

Recognizing the serious need for an accurate measure of longitude that was also "practical", the British parliament established a prize of 20,000 pounds for the person who could produce a "practical" solution. The Royal Astronomical Society over saw the competition. They naturally favored an "astronomical" solution rather than a "mechanical" solution. In the end, they did everything they could to prevent John Harrison from receiving the prize he had so clearly earned.

John's first timepiece was large and had a hidden flaw. However, to prove the accuracy of his timepiece, it had to be tested at sea. John, a "landlubber" had to go along. He was quite ill for the first part of the journey. During this time, the timepiece inexplicably lost a significant amount of time. After John gained his "sea legs", he was able to monitor the time piece and it kept much better time, although still not as accurately as John expected. It was accurate enough, however, for John to warn the captain that the point of land coming into view was not the land fall they believed it to be. Instead, it was an extremely dangerous area about 60 miles from their intended location. Realizing the mistake just in time, the captain signalled the admiral who authorized a course change which undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of sailors as well as a fleet of ships. Still, neither the captain nor the admiral were willing to admit that their mistake had been corrected by John and his machine, so no record was made in the log books.

John had essentially won the prize at that point, only a couple of years after he began. But his timepiece was not quite accurate enough, and it was really too large to be a "practical" solution. John also realized what was affecting the accuracy of the timepiece: While the timepiece withstood the lateral movements of the ship as intended, it did not compensate for the circular movements of the ship as it changed direction. Since sailing ships usually have to change course often to take advantage of the wind's direction, the timepiece would always be somewhat inaccurate. So John set about building a second and then a third timepiece. They were smaller, but still somewhat unwieldy, and they did not completely correct the problem of the ship's circular motion. During much of this time, John worked alone, with some assistance from William.

When first making application for the competition, John was introduced to a watchmaker who became something of a champion for him. (During the voyage, John made friends with a young sailor. The sailor would eventually become a captain and would end up being John's greatest champion.) The watchmaker introduced a young protege to John. The protege had some design ideas that helped John produce a watch that would have made a perfect pocket watch for Jack's giant. It would not fit in an ordinary pocket, they kept it in a special box about the size of a cookie tin, but it could be held in one hand.

This watch solved all the problems that plagued the earlier timepieces: it was accurate, even being unaffected by the ship's circular motion, and it was small enough and simple enough to be practical. Still, it needed to be tested at sea. For this and all other such tests, William undertook the sea tests. The ship was lost, according to the captain's reckoning, and the water supply was contaminated. The ship was near to mutiny and the sailors were close to dying of thirst. William told the captain that, if he maintained the present course, he would strike land fall by morning. The captain indulged him, but made it clear to all, that their fate was in William's hands. In the morning, no land appeared. The captain was about to order a course change when something loomed up vaguely in the distance. It was the land fall William and his timepiece had predicted.

John and William's story should have had a happy ending at that point. But those in authority didn't want the prize to go to an "unworthy" and unlearned carpenter's infernal machine. They did everything they could to delay and thwart John and William's claim for the prize. I'm not sure how many years passed between the first successful demonstration of the watch and the eventual granting of the prize (by a special act of parliament, not by the committee supposed to award the prize), but I would guess it might be as many as twenty or thirty years. It was bad enough that these supposedly "learned" men would deny John his prize, but more importantly how many sailors' lives were lost as a result of these men's arrogance.

John lived only two years beyond the winning of his prize. William, by now past middle age, at last took a wife and never made another watch.

I don't really enjoy movies that use the "flashback" technique, particularly when they let you know the outcome right at the start. While "Longitude" doesn't really reveal the outcome, it does take the "flashback" technique to new heights of overuse. At times, there are mere seconds before it switches over three hundred years forward or backward. It's the only negative thing I have to say about the film.

The film is, in a way, based on Rupert, with Rupert providing the story of John and William, although this is not really brought out until near the end, when Rupert's role is taken over by his companion.

Rupert suffers a nervous breakdown, largely because of his participation in "The Great War". He has trouble finding suitable work, but becomes obsessed with restoring John's time pieces. He spends so much time with the timepiece that his wife leaves him. In the '30's and '40's, divorce was not easy to obtain. There were essentially two reasons: infidelity and mental cruelty. Infidelity was not a possibility, so his wife used his long absences and his fragile mental condition to prove mental cruelty. In those days, divorce was also a stigma that followed the divorcee around, particularly if the individual was found guilty of mental cruelty and was somewhat in the public eye. So it was with Rupert. He failed to get a position he wanted and deserved for largely these reasons. He eventually restored all the timepieces, and even made radio appearances where he was exceptionally gifted at explaining complicated scientific ideas to children.

When the second world war arrived, it brought back Rupert's mental anguish and he was once again committed for mental treatment. There he met a nurse who brought him back to health and invited him to join her when she left to take care of her mother. Exactly what the nature of their relationship became was not revealed. However, after the war, Rupert finally received some of the recognition he deserved and even appeared on television regularly. Alas, it was short lived, for he died in 1948. Rupert, like John, struggled a lifetime to overcome the prejudices of less intelligent men who happened to be in a position of power and control. Both survived their successes by only a year or two.

I wish we could say that man has outgrown his instinct to wield power and control even at the cost of many innocent lives, but it isn't so. Perhaps the latest example of man's injustice to his fellows is the collapse of Enron in the U.S. It almost certainly won't be the last.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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