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Longitude prize

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The longitude prize was a prize offered by the British government in 1714 for the precise determination of a ship's longitude.

The measurement of longitude was a problem that came into sharp focus as people began making transoceanic voyages. In one incident in 1707, Admiral Cloudsley Shovel[?] and his fleet were afloat in fog and thought they were in the middle of the ocean; they ran aground and over 2000 men died. That incident in the general context of British maritime endeavors led to the establishment of a prize for finding a method of measuring longitude.

"The Discovery of the Longitude is of such Consequence to Great Britain for the safety of the Navy and Merchant Ships as well as for the improvement of Trade that for want thereof many Ships have been retarded in their voyages, and many lost..." Parliament, in 1714, voted to offer a reward (10,000 for any method capable of determining a ship's longitude within one degree; 15,000, within 40 minutes, and 20,000 within one half a degree) "for such person or persons as shall discover the Longitude."

John Harrison was the man who solved the problem of measuring longitude. While most efforts had focused on a precise catalog of stars, to be used together with the moon's position to determine longitude, Harrison attempted to build a precision clock which kept the time of the home port. This, together with determination of the local time using the height of the sun, would allow mariners to calculate longitude. With support from the Longitude Board set up to administer the prize, he started in 1730 to build several spring-driven clocks, finally succeeding in 1761 with a determination of better than half a degree.

However, the Longitude Board refused to believe that longitude could be determined without astronomical measures, first awarding only half the prize and then dragging the process out with more demands for evidence and several copies of the clocks. Finally in 1773, King George III got Parliament to award the prize to Harrison, bypassing the board.

Dava Sobel's 1996 bestseller Longitude (ISBN 0140258795) recounts Harrison's story.

Today a sailor has a number of choices for determining longitude, including radar and the satellite navigation system GPS.


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