In Greenwich, England, it's all about time

Email|Print| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Staff / October 17, 2004

GREENWICH, England -- A 19th-century headline in the London Times read: "Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off."

If the British don't still regard themselves as the world's primary civilization, they do consider themselves the titans of time. A half-hour ride down the Thames River from Westminster Pier in London brings travelers to a lyrical little town where time itself begins. Here, one can stand with a foot on either side of the prime meridian -- longitude zero -- the center of the world from which all time and space on earth is measured.

That may not be on everyone's list of thrills, but then Greenwich is a place for serious history buffs with a bent toward the maritime life. From the Royal Observatory that houses the great Transit Circle telescope whose crosshairs mark longitude zero, to the Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and the Queen's House, Greenwich contains an impressive concentration of relics that tell the story of Britain's rise to empire through her prowess at sea.

Buses and cabs run regularly to Greenwich from London, but the ferry ride down the river from Westminster sets the tone for the first sight of Greenwich history: the tea clipper Cutty Sark, fastest ship of her generation, preserved in a dry dock and open for touring.

Built of teak on an iron frame, Cutty Sark was launched in Scotland in 1869, the very year that sealed the ship's doom. For that was also the year the Suez Canal opened for steamers only, the beginning of the end for the sailing ships. Yet in its prime, the powerful clipper that became famous in the Australian wool trade ran down several ships and left them astern.

At 963 tons, Cutty Sark crowded on 32,000 square feet of canvas and could reach 17 knots, with its best day's run a record 363 nautical miles. "Cutty Sark" is Scottish for "short shift" or "dress," and the ship's figurehead is the witch from Robert Burns's ballad "Tam O' Shanter," dressed in her cutty sark and holding the tail of Tam's horse, which she tore out of the animal in her mad pursuit of him.

Near Cutty Sark on the quay is a bit of modern British maritime history in the white ketch Gipsy Moth IV. It was on this boat that Sir Francis Chichester, then 65, sailed single-handed around the world in 1966-67, making one stopover in Sydney. Though the public cannot tour Gipsy Moth IV, it's easy to see that the spartan design was built more for speed than comfort; the 12,000-mile voyage took but 226 days.

When Chichester sailed into Greenwich, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in the Grand Square of the Royal Naval College, near the resting place of his yacht. In his book, "Gipsy Moth IV Circles the World" (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2000), now out of print but available at the Greenwhich Maritime Museum bookshop, there is a photo of Chichester taken from a low-flying plane. The ship is flying just a storm trysail (a small, heavy-duty sail) as it makes its way in hurricane-force winds off Cape Horn.

Of all the great historic treasures in Greenwich, though, from buildings to ships to artwork, perhaps the most impressive is a small ornate pocketwatch, known as John Harrison's H4, which may have saved thousands of lives and certainly became the most important timepiece ever created.

By the 17th century, with the development of the New World and expanding trade routes, one of the greatest threats to shipping was the lack of knowledge of longitude. While navigators could figure out their latitude by sun or star sightings, they had no way of telling how far east or west they were from land, except for the rather error-plagued system of dead reckoning.

In October 1707, the worst of several marine disasters befell the British Navy. Four Royal warships commanded by Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell, and thought by navigators to be farther east than they were, ran into the treacherous rocky reefs off the Isles of Scilly in the approach to British waters. All four ships went down and nearly 2,000 sailors drowned, prompting a public outcry and action from Parliament.

Seven years later, a Board of Longitude had formed and offered a prize of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could develop a method for determining longitude at sea. This attracted serious scientific minds as well as any number of crackpots and charlatans. One fellow claimed to have developed a "powder of sympathy" that, when sprinkled on a knife blade that had wounded a person, would cause the person to experience the original pain all over again.

Thus, if the powder were sprinkled on the knife blade at a given time in Greenwich, a bunch of shipboard dogs that had been wounded by the knife would yelp, letting the navigator know the time in Greenwich and figure what the ship's longitude was by how many hours he was from the knife. This was no prize-winner.

The race for the prize came down to Harrison, a carpenter's son and clockmaker, and the academy-trained astronomers including Sir Isaac Newton, who were trying to find ways of telling time by the movements of the stars and planets.

The problem with clocks at sea was that the moisture and movement of the ships made it impossible to keep accurate time. Salt air, extremes of heat and cold, and the heaving motion soon threw off the mechanisms, and nothing had been invented to keep accurate time over long trading voyages.

Harrison spent a lifetime trying to perfect his timepieces, and in 1772, more than half a century after the Longitude Act put forth the challenge, his small watch worked nearly perfectly at sea.

The enclosed case, and the mechanism using a high-frequency oscillator and a bimetallic construction that resisted temperature changes, made for a much more stable timepiece than the large clocks he had spent nearly three decades trying to perfect.

Harrison won the prize, even if he did have to wheedle it out of the board with the help of King George III. The watch, and several of Harrison's earlier versions, are on display in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park.

Once again, though Greenwich is not a typical seaport resort and certainly won't appeal to travelers looking for Disney World thrills, it is a weighty dose of history that transports one to the 18th century, when England was busy building an empire from the sea.

Tony Chamberlain can be reached at

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