Standing on the center of the world

I spent all last week on vacation in and around London. I had a fantastically geeky time. At one point, the person we were staying with noted that all our activities had been rather history oriented, and I had to admit that that happens in most of the places I go. (For example, I was possibly the only person on my semester abroad in Chile saying things like, “Oooh, the ex-Congressional building! You know, Pinochet banished the Congress to Valparaíso…” rather than, “Hey, the bar district!”)

Anyway, the trip to London seemed particularly timely to me, because of my growing fascination with the Enlightenment. I spent most of my time walking around recognizing places that Isaac Newton worked, or Christopher Wren built, and feeling like I was walking through books I’ve read. And one of the best places for invoking this feeling was the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. So much important scientific history happened in that place, it’s quite awe inspiring.

First of all, of course, I stood on the Prime Meridian.

Prime Meridian

(But I had to get off of it quickly, as many, many other people wanted to take pictures, too. Alas.)

Then I went and toured the Observatory itself. On the outside wall, before going in, they have moved Halley‘s tombstone to be on display. He was the second Astronomer Royal after Flamsteed, who built the Observatory and whose star maps were the most comprehensive ever seen at that time. His numerical star designations are still in use today.

The most impressive part of the museum, though, is in the basement, where there is an impressive exhibit on John Harrison and the Longitude Problem. It is truly humbling to be able to stand in the presence of Harrison’s original prototype chronometers, and see them still working. Accurately. I can’t tell you how amazing they are. The number of obstacles he had to overcome to invent an accurate clock that would function without losing time while being wound or on rough seas is just astounding. And then, after having made 3 incredibly accurate prototypes, he realized he could take an entirely different tack, and simply did so, making his fourth, and last prototype, on an entirely different design than the first three, at which point he was finally satisfied enough to submit it to win the longitude prize. Any of the others probably would have won as well, but he was never satisfied, always realizing about halfway through making one clock that there were improvements to be made, and insisting he could do better when presenting the finished clock. As our guide said, she would be using the word “genius” a lot during her talk, and there was a reason for it. I haven’t yet had time to read Dava Sobel’s Longitude, but I’m even more anxious to now.

On another note, a random fact I picked up about the establishment of the Prime Meridian at Greenwich: When the International Meridian Conference was held in 1884 to establish the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, Oxford objected strenuously, claiming it had had as much, if not indeed more, to do with solving the longitude problem as Greenwich. Therefore, Oxford declared it would not adhere to Greenwich Time, but would instead hold to Oxford Time. Oxford Time is 5 minutes and 2 seconds later than Greenwich Time, and the bells at Christ Church do indeed, to this day, ring at 5 minutes past the hour for the last hour of the day (9:05 pm), rather than on the hour.


9 Responses to Standing on the center of the world

  1. laikal says:

    There was a bit of an arms race on during the ol’ age of sail, as Portugal, Spain, England, and France raced to develop these technologies. Longitude, more accurate star charts, and the naval super-weapon (in the hands of those who can tell longitude and latitude accurately), the gridded map. It’s a fascinating little piece of history.

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I think it’s great that you and the other tourists could agree to take turns and stay out of each other’s pictures. So very civilized 🙂

    Yay for geeky adventures and church bells!

  3. Dana says:


    Yeah, they talked about how, even in England, there was a lot of competition between the star chart/almanac method of calculating longitude and the clock-based method. The Royal Society was so taken with the star chart method, given their personal involvement in helping Flamsteed create his charts and almanac, they held off giving Harrison the prize for his H4 chronometer until the king ordered them to do it, only 3 years before Harrison died. In the meantime, Capt. Cook had been sailing around the world testing out both methods, and far preferred the clock method, because the chart-and-almanac took 4 hours to calculate.

  4. B Barron says:

    I believe it was also during this time (1769) that Capt. Cook, sponsored in part by the Royal Society, charted the Transit of Venus from Tahiti. His observations were among those later used to calculate the distance of the sun from the earth.

  5. akdmyers says:

    I also fell in love with Harrison’s chronometers when I was at Greenwich – not only is his accomplishment remarkable, but they are such beautiful machines.

    As a fan of the Enlightenment you might be interested to know that the University of Wisconsin at Madison has several books from Isaac Newton’s personal library, including one with heavy annotations by Newton himself. Unfortunately I don’t remember what the book was, but every single page’s margins were full of his notes, and he made corrections to the text as well. I think it would be fascinating to study things like that and be able to track someone’s thought process.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Dana–you weren’t the only person in Santiago more interested in history etc. than the bar district!! 🙂

  7. Dana says:


    Thank goodness! Maybe it was a Grinnellian thing… We did seem to be in the minority most of the time, though, don’t you think?

  8. […] Standing on the center of the world, on visiting the Prime Meridian while in England. […]

  9. […] As it turns out, I was so excited about my trip to the Observatory, I already wrote about it: Standing on the center of the world. Visiting the Observatory was pretty much my entire reason for wanting to go to Greenwich in the […]

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