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It's about time

Why keeping an eye on the clock matters in the world of innovation


On 29th September 1707 a fleet of 21 ships under the command of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell was returning from Gibraltar where it had been supporting action during the long-running war with the French. Crossing the Bay of Biscay the weather grew worse and they were struggling to make their home port of Plymouth in the south-west of England. At around 6pm they believed they were in safe waters but in fact were heading on to the rocks near St Agnes’s Bay in the Scilly Islands — fifty miles west of where they thought they were. Four ships were lost in the disaster including HMS Association, the flagship of the fleet which carried Sir Cloudesley and over 1400 other sailors to their deaths. It was one of the worst naval disasters to befall the British Navy.


And an avoidable one. The problem — which urgent follow-up enquiries highlighted — was familiar. The ships were lost because the experienced seamen steering them didn’t know where they were. Navigating the rocky coastline with hidden shelves and shallows depended on accurate awareness of position — but the methods available at the time weren’t up to it. Depth soundings could help but the key missing ingredient was an accurate measurement of longitude. For which they needed a reliable timepiece on board; despite an array of clocks and pocket watches the technology wasn’t good enough to maintain an accurate sense of the time relative to the Greenwich clock on which all naval longitude is based. Time slipped away — and with it any clear sense of where they were.


Cue one of many early innovation contests — attempts at crowdsourcing a good solution to the problem as fast as possible. The British government offered a huge prize of £20,000 in 1714 equivalent in today’s money to around £3m) to anyone who could construct a clock that would enable sailors to calculate their longitude at sea with an accuracy of within half a degree. It was famously won by John Harrison, a carpenter by trade who spent over twenty years working on the problem, producing four models of chronometer each improving on the previous one. His H4 model finally achieved the accuracy and reliability required and he duly won the prize. More important he — and the many others working on the problem — changed the face of seaborne navigation forever.



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