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REVIEW: Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude

Ships, Clocks and Stars - National Maritime Museum, Greenwich 3REVIEW: Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude

2014 is the 300th anniversary of the start of the Georgian period (1714 – 1830) in England. Want to see something Georgian? A visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for their latest exhibit, Ships,  Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, is definitely in order. The exhibit opened July 11th and will close January 4th, 2015.

It’s a fascinating look at how Georgian scientists, politicians and thinkers of the day tried to solve the problem of Longitude (the East-West position of a ship at sea) for sailors. Why was this so important?

The Problem with Longitude

Latitude (the North-South position of a ship) was easily measured by sailors using the angle of the sun or the Pole Star but longitude (the East-West position) was difficult to determine accurately. On long transatlantic voyages, inaccuracy often lead to tragedy, like the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707 where 1400 men lost their lives because they could not correctly plot longitude. During the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, known as “The Age of Sail”, ships were the prime mode for moving trade, exploration and warfare . It was, therefore, of paramount importance to accurately predict a ship’s location to avoid future disasters and loss of life. Until longitude was accurately estimated, sailors used “dead reckoning, which meant they plotted their position based on their ship’s sped and direction of travel but this method could be wildly inaccurate so a new means of determining longitude needed to be found.

Ships, Clocks and Stars Exhibit - NMM
Ships, Clocks and Stars Exhibit – NMM

Ships, Clocks and Stars celebrates the three hundredth anniversary of the 1714 Longitude Act, established by The Board of Longitude, which offered a reward of £20,000 (£2.45 million in today’s money!) to the most viable solution. This was a milestone event in the history of navigation and cartography. The exhibit examines the two solutions to the Longitude problem: clocks and stars, i.e., the invention of an accurate marine chronometer, and lunar distance navigation, developed by Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne and published in a Nautical Almanac.

John Harrison's H1 Marine Chronometer
John Harrison’s H1 Marine Chronometer

It features amazing time pieces, like John Harrison’s maritime clocks, H1-H5, and Larcum Kendall’s K1, K2 and K3. It features Although no one person was awarded the entire Longitude prize directly, Harrison won the vast majority of the money, totalling £15, 315 of the £20,000 offered. The exhibit looks at the struggles Harrison faced over the 31 years he took to build his five clocks and how Harrison and others overcame the problems of building working pieces that were resistant to heat, humidity, the roll of a ship and pressure.

The exhibit is large and wends its way through the problems early sailing and the creation of the board followed by a display of the incredible time pieces, letters, and artefacts of the day. It’s easy to move about and see everything without being cramped by crowds. The pieces are displayed nicely, and well spaced and information is clearly presented. The discoveries made by Harrison, Kendall and Maskelyne paved the way for modern developments such as our GPS systems and international times zones. It’s well worth your while to visit the National Maritime Museum to see these navigational wonders.

Opening Hours

Daily 10:00 – 17:00 (except Thursdays, it is open until 20:00)


£8.50 and includes entry into the Royal Observatory and Longitude Punk’d exhibit.

For more information on this exhibit, please visit: www.rmg.co.uk

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