Mystic Seaport Exhibition Examines Quest for Longitude


This fall, Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, will present “Ships, Clocks & Stars – The Quest for Longitude,” a new exhibition that tells the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude at sea and how one of the greatest technical challenges of the 18th and 19th centuries was eventually solved by building the perfect clock. The exhibition draws on the latest research to shed new light on the history of longitude—one of the great achievements of the Georgian age—and how it changed our understanding of the world.

“Ships, Clocks & Stars” will open in the renovated R.J. Schaefer Building on September 19 and run through March 28, 2016. The award-winning, visually stunning exhibition from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England is traveling beyond the U.K. for the first time, and Mystic Seaport is one of only 3 sites worldwide selected for the honor of presenting the exhibit.

This exhibition tells the dramatic story of John Harrison’s 4-decade obsession with developing his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. He dared to imagine a mechanical answer to sailors’ longstanding, life-threatening challenge of being unable to determine their longitude and thus accurately measure their position at sea soon after losing sight of land.

Passed by the British government in July 1714, the Longitude Act aimed to solve the problem of determining a ship’s longitude (east-west position) at sea. For a maritime nation such as Britain, investment in long distance trade, outposts, and settlements overseas made the ability to determine a ship’s accurate longitude increasingly important. As different nations, including Spain, the Netherlands and France, sought to dominate the world’s oceans, each offered financial rewards for solving the longitude problem. But it was in Britain that the approach paid off. With life-changing sums of money on offer, the challenge became the talk of London’s 18th-century coffee houses and captured the imaginations and talents of astronomers, skilled artisans, politicians, seamen, and satirists; many of whom came up with ingenious methods and instruments designed to scoop the Board of Longitude’s tantalizing rewards and transform seafaring navigation forever.

Highlights from the exhibition’s 148 artifacts and art objects include 3 working replicas of Harrison’s H1, H2, and H3 chronometers, and the original case of the award-winning H4. Also featured is the original Longitude Act of 1714; an intricate 1747 model of the Centurion, the ship which carried out the first proper sea trial of Harrison’s H1, and the elegant, padded silk “observing suit” worn by Nevil Maskelyne at the Royal Observatory during the 1760s.

“Ships, Clocks & Stars” will integrate relevant Mystic Seaport elements to create a highly participatory encounter for visitors of all ages, including demonstrations in the Treworgy Planetarium and the village’s Nautical Instruments Shop.


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