National Maritime Museum celebrates the great minds in the quest for Longitude

By Robin Valentine | 27 June 2014

The National Maritime Museum will mark the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act 1714 with a major new exhibition and book

An oil painting of Captain James Cook.
Captain James Cook consulting his chart of the Southern Ocean© ®National Maritime Museum
Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude tells the story of the landmark international race to develop reliable maritime navigation during the 18th century, when naval trade was becoming increasingly vital despite lacking an accurate method of determining longitude voyages.

With slow surveillance techniques making the issue increasingly dangerous, the UK Parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1714, offering a huge cash prize to anyone who could solve it.

The National Maritime Museum uses the latest research to shed new light on the ensuing race for longitude and the many ingenious scientists and engineers who took part.

Inventor John Harrison has typically been cast as the hero of the story - for creating the maritime chronometer - but Ships, Clocks and Stars provides a new perspective, placing the emphasis instead on the collaboration of the many great minds involved, and the discoveries of others that formed the foundation of Harrison’s success.

Famous names such as Galileo, Isaac Newton, James Cook and William Bligh are all featured, as well as Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, whose work helped originally demonstrate the vital link between longitude and time-keeping.

A highlight of the exhibition is a display of all five of Harrison’s original prototype clocks, dubbed H1 to H5, together for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Also featured is the original Longitude Act 1714 document, on public display for the very first time, an intricate 1747 model of the Centurion, the ship which carried out the first proper sea trial of Harrison’s H1, and the elegant silk "observing suit" worn by Nevil Maskelyne during his time at the Royal Observatory.

Accompanying the exhibition is an official book, Finding Longitude: How Clocks and Stars Helped Solve the Longitude Problem, written by curators Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt. For a chance to win a free copy, (closes July 14).

Click on the picture to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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