Time and Place

I spent most of yesterday wandering around Greenwich, which is a lovely town (or I suppose these days, suburb) famous for the Cutty Sark clipper ship (which is impressive, but somehow less so since they don't actually have any of the sails flying - it seems somehow less ship-like that way) and for the Prime Meridian. It is the site of the National Maritime Museum, home to all things nautical, and the site of the Royal Observatory, home of the aforementioned Meridian. It is also home to Greenwich Park, which is one of the loveliest urban parks I've ever wandered through, and a very nice pub. None of those things is the reason why I went to Greenwich.

Instead I went to Greenwich to pay my respects to an 18th century carpenter and clock-maker from Linclonshire, John Harrison and to his life's work. Those of you who have read Dava Sobel's book, "Longitude" or who saw the NOVA program on PBS based on the book (or the A&E mini-series, for that matter), know Harrison's story. For those of you who don't, go read the book. Sobel tells the tale far better than I possibly could. Go on, it's short, less than 200 pages - fast reading. Really. Go read it. It's good. (Don't worry, I'll stop being a librarian now.)

The Extremely Condensed Version of Harrison's story is that he created the first truly accurate clocks, which could be used by ships at sea to determine their longitude (saving them from becoming lost at sea, never to be seen again, or wrecked on some unforeseen coast). In the 18th century, figuring out a practical method of determining longitude at sea was a scientific challenge akin to trying to put a man on the moon. Governments offered a great deal of money for a practical solution to this problem. No one expected the solution to come from an entirely self-taught clock-maker from a village in northern England, but Harrison surprised a lot of people with his genius. The downside to the story is that, because no one expected a clock to be accurate enough to solve the problem (most had put their faith in a solution from astronomers), even after spending a large portion of his life creating a clock accurate enough to be useful, Harrison still wound up spending most of the rest of his life fighting for official recognition.

My own interest in Harrison's story began about a decade ago, when I saw the NOVA program and was intrigued, though for one reason or another I didn't get 'round to reading the book until about 2 years ago (though I'd had the sense to tape the NOVA program and it remains a favorite - the A&E mini-series is good too). Ever since I saw the NOVA program, I promised myself that when I finally made it to England, I'd go to the Royal Observatory and pay my respects to Harrison and his marvelous sea clocks. 10 years later, I finally made it.

It was worth the wait.

The 4 Harrison sea clocks are quite simply the most beautiful machines I have ever seen. Three of them still run, and sit in their cases in the Royal Observatory, gently ticking off the seconds and the minutes and the hours. They are mesmerizing to watch - their movements are not fast - they tick at a measured pace that makes them seem as if they could go on doing the same forever (which with proper care, they well might). From H-1, with its wooden wheels to H-3's nearly Rube Goldbergian complexity of brass gears these clocks are works of art, as well as scientific instruments.

Harrison's final masterpiece, H-4, sits quiet (it would run if wound, it's still mechanically sound, however it is kept still to save it from wearing out - it is possibly the most valuable clock ever made, from a scientific perspective) in well-deserved rest in a place of pride at the Observatory.

I consider myself privileged to have seen all these clocks.

I spent quite some time wondering through that room, crowded though it was on a holiday Monday, enchanted by these scientific relics. Then in a rather contemplative frame of mind, took myself off to the Trafalger Tavern and quietly raised a pint in toast to John Harrison, and all the other unknown tinkerers who have over the centuries toiled away in obscurity to give us the technology that has allowed us to explore the Earth from the depths of the ocean to the top of the world, to set foot on the Moon, and send probes beyond the the reaches of the solar system.

The people who do the exploring, who set foot on unknown shores and raise the flag, are the ones who get the recognition, but the folks behind the scenes are just as deserving, and they usually get lost in the shuffle. (I'm ashamed to say that even I don't know the names of the folks who designed the Saturn V rocket that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren on the Moon, nor the names of the folks who designed the Voyager spacecraft, sailing still beyond the solar system.) Harrison got lucky. He is remembered, and his work is given a place of honor in Greenwich. Most of the engineers who work on such projects are not so lucky. Not that fame is everything, but we'd do well to remember these folks more often than we do.

I then boarded a boat for the trip back up the Thames to Westminster pier, considering it a day well spent. If I am very lucky, I will have a chance to go back.