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In the 18th century, the only way to navigate accurately at sea was to follow a coastline all the way, which would not get you from Europe to the West Indies or the Americas. Observing the sun or stars would give you the latitude, but not the longitude unless done in conjunction with a clock that would keep time accurately at sea, and no such clock existed. After one too many maritime disasters due to navigational errors, the British Parliament set up a substantial prize for a way to find the longitude at sea. The film's main story is that of craftsman John Harrison: he built a clock that would do the job, what we would now call a marine chronometer. But the Board of Longitude was biased against this approach and claiming the prize was no simple matter. Told in parallel is the 20th century story of Rupert Gould, for whom the restoration of Harrison's clocks to working order became first a hobby, then an obsession that threatened to wreck his life. Written by
The eighteenth century chronometer H4 is described as having a mechanical balance that ticks 5 times per second, however the second hand of the watch shown moves only once a second which is characteristic of a modern quartz movement. See more »
Lieutenant John Campbell:
I thought only of one thing: a piece of twisted brass spinning. There, look. Look at its little heart still beating. I thought to myself, this'll never happen again. There'll be a machine to tell us where we are. I swore that if I lived, I'd come and find you.
John, when they were dying, who did your men curse for their misfortune?
Lieutenant John Campbell:
Their God, or their admiral; when you're a foot, there's little difference.
And if they'd a clock, and the clock didn't work, and the men still died... who would ...
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Who would of thought that a movie about Longitude could be so engaging? Great acting and a compelling story telling turn an historical footnote into a great drama.
The story flip flops back and forth between the life of a shell shocked (literally) 20th century academic and the tale of an 18th century clockmaker, John Harrison, obsessed with winning the Prize of Queen Anne for calculating longitude.
The surprising part is that the two loosely related plot lines work so well together, despite frequent and rapid cuts back and forth. This is a tribute to the great acting skills of the cast, including Jeremy Irons as the 20th century academic. At times, you have to wonder what the heck Iron's struggles with sanity have to do with the 18th century story, but it all seems to quietly tie together in the end.
Harrison knows that if he can develop an accurate watch, solving longitude was a breeze. This may seem academic, but the lives of British seamen were literally at stake. Developing an accurate timepiece was a far more difficult task than we can today imagine, and Harrison faced a skeptical board of theoreticians who preferred more complex scientific solutions than they thought could be provided by a humble clockmaker. The board utterly fails to grasp that the simple solution is the product of a profoundly complex and innovative device.
We think so highly of the great technological achievements of our times, and they are great. We need to be reminded from time to time, as this film does so well, that the breakthroughs of other generations were in there time quite profound. Moreover, we would not be where we are today without them. As the great Sir Issac Newton once said, "If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the backs of giants".
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