A couple years ago, I saw a film (DVD) made for British television called Longitude. I meant to blog about it then but turned elsewhere for material, yet the film has stayed on my mind. It tells the story of John Harrison and his decades-long work singlehandedly inventing an accurate marine chronometer, which eventually won him the Longitude Prize from British Parliament, though according to the film he had difficulty convincing the Board of Longitude that his inventions deserved the award. Harrison’s marine chronometers made navigation on sailing ships in the 18th century more accurate than dead reckoning or line-of-sight navigation. Though this may sound like a routine technical development, it was judged by many 17th- and 18th-century scientists, inventors, and technicians to be an unacheivable goal and in its effects might be comparable to the Gutenberg press or even the medieval clock. This is partly why Parliament incentivized seeking a solution through the Longitude Act of 1714 and why it took decades for the prize to be claimed in full by Harrison. The other part is that many lives were lost due to maritime disasters attributable to navigational error during a time when the British Empire was in its imperial-colonial phase and safe overseas travel was a highly desirable achievement.
I suspect this distinguished bit of history survives in the British mind in good company with many other British scientific and geographical/exploratory achievements, such as those by Newton, Darwin, and Burton. In the U.S., our own celebrated history comes somewhat later, as with Fulton, Edison, Bell, Ford, and others. My greater familiarity with American invention is an accident of birth, and I warrant that whatever achievements we Americans can claim — including those of the 20th century such as the television and computer — we should be humble enough to recognize they were built on earlier work done abroad, much like the currently preeminent West owes consideration to Islamic cultures and early developments in the Middle and Far East.
What interests me about this slice of history (I’m not really reviewing the film) is that it represents a technical achievement during the nascent part of what might be called the Materials Age, already well into the Age of Exploration, which along with advances in communications conferred upon international trade much greater reliability and profitability. Maritime history is replete with horrific stories of hardship and loss. Over the centuries, so many ships when down it’s hard to fathom just how difficult the life was, often initiated through impressment. (One could make a worthwhile comparison, I think, with modern soldiers who risk joining up out of economic desperation only to suffer torments at what they’re forced to do and witness, resulting in high suicide rates among active military and veterans alike.) Motivation to improve conditions was accordingly powerful and was neither dispassionate science nor mere profit seeking.
The closest thing we have in the modern era may be the U.S. space program (now more of an international venture), which ran hot and cold for a decades but (IMO) suffers diminished public interest today. NASA is gearing up for its newest manned spaceflight program: Orion. Unlike the marine chronometer, however, the motivation for Orion (and before it, Mercury, Titan, Altas, Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttles, and the International Space Station) is idealistic, not born of direct need. I must confess that I believe the space program to be a gigantic boondoggle for two reasons: (1) the vast, untraversable space between bodies in the solar system and galaxy, and (2) the technical difficulty and cost of maintaining human habitats in space. Putting men in space, on the moon, and eventually on Mars are technical achievements in want of any need, however romatic they may be.