Longitude rewards

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Longitude prize)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Longitude Prize" redirects here. For the contest established in 2014, see Longitude Prize 2014.

The Longitude rewards refer to the system of inducement prizes offered by the British government for a simple and practical method for the precise determination of a ship's longitude at sea. The rewards, established through an Act of Parliament (the Longitude Act) in 1714, were administered by the Board of Longitude.

This was by no means the first reward to be offered to solve this problem. Philip II of Spain offered one in 1567, Philip III in 1598 offered 6,000 ducats and a pension,[1] whilst the States General of the Netherlands offered 10,000 florins shortly after.[2] However, these large sums were never won, though several people were awarded smaller amounts for significant achievements.

The Longitude Problem[edit]

The measurement of longitude was a problem that came into sharp focus as people began making transoceanic voyages. Determining latitude was relatively easy in that it could be found from the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun's declination for the day.[3] For longitude, early ocean navigators had to rely on dead reckoning. This was inaccurate on long voyages out of sight of land and these voyages sometimes ended in tragedy. Finding an adequate solution to determining longitude at sea was of paramount importance.

For details on many of the other efforts towards determining the longitude, see History of longitude.

The need for better navigational accuracy for increasingly longer oceanic voyages had been an issue explored by many European nations for centuries before the passing of the Longitude Act in England in 1714. Monarchies in Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands offered financial incentives for solutions to the problem of longitude as early as 1598. [4]

Addressing the problem of longitude fell, primarily, into three categories: terrestrial, celestial, and mechanical. [4] This included detailed atlases, lunar charts, and timekeeping mechanisms at sea. It is postulated by scholars that the economic gains and political power to be had in oceanic exploration, and not scientific and technological curiosity, is what resulted in the swift passing of the Longitude Act of 1714 and the largest and most famous reward, the Longitude Prize being offered. [5]

Establishing the Prize[edit]

In the early 1700s, a series of very public and very tragic maritime disasters occurred, including the wrecking of a squadron of naval vessels on the Scilly Islands in 1707. [6] Around the same time, mathematician Thomas Axe decreed in his will that a £1,000 prize be awarded for promising research into finding “true longitude” and that annual sums be paid to scholars involved in making corrected world maps. [7]

In 1713, when the Whiston-Ditton longitude proposal was presented at the opening of the session of Parliament, a general understanding of the longitude problem prompted the formation of a parliamentary committee and the swift passing of the Longitude Act on July 8, 1714. [7] Within this act, is detailed three prizes based on levels of accuracy, which are the same accuracy requirements used for the Axe prize, set by Whiston and Ditton in their petition, and recommended by Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley to the parliamentary committee. [8]

  • £20,000 – highest prize offered for being able to determine a ship’s longitude within ½ degree, requiring sustained accuracy within two seconds in any twenty-four period maintained under the conditions of an ocean voyage
  • £15,000 – second highest prize offered requiring accuracy within 2/3 degree
  • £10,000 – lowest prize offered requiring accuracy within 1 degree, which is a span of 60 nautical miles

The method would be tested by sailing through the ocean, from Britain to any port in West Indies (about six weeks) without losing its longitude beyond the limits listed above. The parliamentary committee also established the Board of Longitude. This panel of adjudicators would review proposed solutions and were also given authority to grant up to £2,000 in advances for promising projects that did not entirely fulfill the terms of the prize levels, but that were still found worthy of encouragement. [6] The exact terms of the requirements for the prizes would later be contended by several recipients, including John Harrison. Ultimately, the £20,000 prize was not awarded to anyone, though John Harrison came closest with a series of payments totaling £23,065. [9] The Board of Longitude remained in existence for more than 100 years. When it was officially disbanded in 1828, an excess of £100,000 had been disbursed. [8]

Notable recipients[edit]

The Longitude Prize offered a very large incentive for solutions to the longitude problem. Some later winners such as Euler and Mayer were very public that that the prize money was not the incentive, but instead the important improvements to cartography. Other recipients, such as Kendall and Harrison had to appeal to the Board of Longitude and other governmental officials for adequate compensation for their work. Still others submitted radical and impractical theories, a majority of which are in a collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library [10]

Though the Board of Longitude did not award any £20,000 prizes, they did offer sums to various individuals in recognition of their work for improvements in instrumentation or in published atlases and star charts.

List of awardees by amount[edit]

  • John Harrison - £23,065 awarded overall after many years of contention with the Board as discussed in detail in the next section.
  • Thomas Mudge - £500 advance in 1777 for developing his marine chronometer and a £3,000 award approved by a special committee in 1793 in recognition for his accomplishments. [11]
  • Thomas Earnshaw - £3,000 awarded for years of design and improvements made to chronometers. [13]
  • Charles Mason - £1,317 awarded for various contributions and improvements on Mayer’s lunar tables. [13]
  • Larcum Kendall - £800 total for his copies of Harrison’s marine chronometers (£500 for K.1 – Kendall’s copy of Harrison’s H.4, £200 for modified K.2, and £100 for last modification model K.3). [11]
  • Jesse Ramsden - £615 awarded for his engine-divided sextant with the requirement that he share his methods and the design with other instrument makers. [6]
  • Thomas Mudge - £500 advance in 1777 for developing his marine chronometer and a £3,000 award approved by a special committee in 1793 in recognition for his accomplishments. [11]
  • John Arnold - £300 awarded in increments to improve his timekeeping design and experiments, though the accuracy required for the prize was never met. [11]
  • Leonhard Euler - £300 awarded for contributions to the lunar distance method in aid of Mayer.

Other entrants[edit]

Only two women are know to have entered the competition, Elizabeth Johnson and Jane Squire.

John Harrison’s contested prize[edit]

The winner of the most prize money of the Longitude Prize is John Harrison for his H.4 marine chronometer. Harrison was 21 years old when the Longitude Prize was first announced. He spent the next 45 years perfecting the design of his chronometer, and did not receive his final payment until he was 80. [14]

Harrison was first awarded £250 in 1737 for construction of the H.2 model, then £2,000 over the span of 1741-1755 for continued construction and completion of H.3, which had a larger size that would become H.4.From 1760-1765, Harrison received £2,865 for various expenses related to the construction, ocean trials, and eventual award for the performance of the H.4. [8] Despite the performance of the H.4 exceeding the accuracy requirement of the highest prize possible in the original Longitude Act, Harrison was encouraged to release the details of his device and to apply for the £10,000 award instead and was paid £7,500 of it, minus payments he had received in 1762 and 1764. [9]

Harrison and his family members eventually appealed to King George III after petitions for the prize money he was owed were not answered by the Board of Longitude. [14] Prize money amounting to an additional £8,750 was granted in 1773 for a total payment of £23,065 spanning thirty-six years. [9]

In popular culture[edit]


  • Rupert T. Gould's 1923 "The Marine Chronometer" (ISBN 0907462057) is a thorough reference work on the Marine Chronometer. It covers the chronometer's history from the earliest attempts to measure longitude while including detailed discussions and illustrations of the various mechanisms and their inventors.

In the formation of popular societies[edit]

  • National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC)
  • The Longitude Symposium

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Connor, J J; Robertson, E F (1997). "Longitude and the Académie Royale". MacTutor History of Mathematics. 
  2. ^ Bell, A.E. (1950). The Life of Christian Huygens. Edward Arnold, London. p. 35. 
  3. ^ Latitude can also be determined from Polaris, the northern pole star. However, since Polaris is not precisely at the pole, it can only estimate the latitude unless the precise time is known or many measurements are made over time. While many measurements can be made on land, this makes it impractical for determining latitude at sea.
  4. ^ a b Andrewes, William J.H. (1996). "Introduction". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 1-10. 
  5. ^ Knowles, Jeremy R (1996). "Opening Address at the Longitude Symposium". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 11-12. 
  6. ^ a b c Stimson, Alan (1996). "The Longitude Problem: The Navigator's Story". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 71-84. 
  7. ^ a b Turner, A.J. (1996). "In the Wake of the Act, but Mainly Before". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 115-132. 
  8. ^ a b c Sobel, Dana (1995). The Illustrated Longitude. New York: Walker and Company. 
  9. ^ a b c Andrewes, William J.H. (1996). "Even Newton Could Be Wrong: The Story of Harrison’s First Three Sea Clocks". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 189-234. 
  10. ^ Gingerich, Owen (1996). "Cranks and opportunists: "Nutty" solutions to the longitude problem". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 134-148. 
  11. ^ a b c d Betts, Jonathan (1996). "Arnold and Earnshaw: The Practicable Solution". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitude Symposium: 311-330. 
  12. ^ Bruyns, W.F.J. Morzer (1996). "Navigation". The Quest for Longitude: The Proceedings of the Longitudinal Symposium. 
  13. ^ a b c Sobel, Dava (1995). Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Walker and Company. 
  14. ^ a b Quill, Humphrey (1966). John Harrison: The Man who found Longitude. London: John Baker Publishers. 

External links[edit]