The Journey Begins- In the days before quartz crystal clocks one of my jobs as third mate of an ocean going tramp was time officer. Whenever the old man decided to flog the clocks for a new time zone </a> I had to go around and alter the hands of every clock in the ship except the chronometer, which was kept in a locked cabinet on the bridge. Only the captain and I had a key. The chronometer was my responsibility. I had to wind it every day with seven turns of the key after receiving a radio time signal at noon Greenwich Mean Time. I recorded any error from GMT in a book called the rate book and analysed the rate of change, which was affected by variations in temperature as the ship steamed northwards or southwards.
The chronometer was the most important instrument on board. Without the chronometer shipwreck was a real possibility. It was the only means of determining the longitude. For many centuries sailors had been getting wrecked because they didn’t know where they were. The problem came to a climax in 1707 when four British warships were wrecked on the west coast of England with the loss of about 2000 men, one of the worst maritime disasters in history. The British government were so enlivened by this event that they offered a huge prize for anyone to solve the problem of longitude at sea. An amateur clock-maker named John Harrison won the prize but had to fight to actually collect the prize money and then only got part of it. Dava Sobel’s book Longitude tells the story.
Saint Augustine in the Middle Ages asked himself “What is time? If no one asks me I understand the passage of time but am unable to explain it to he who asks.” In these posts I attempt to cast a light on the subject from a sailors viewpoint.