Return of H-4

I was pleased to be invited to speak recently at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington for the opening of "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Having traveled to England last summer to see the exhibition's first iteration, I wanted to help welcome the items to the States. The numerous scientific instruments and portraits, including one of 18th-century clockmaker John "Longitude" Harrison, look splendid in the Folger's Great Hall, their new temporary home. When I arrived at the library on March 19, about an hour ahead of the two hundred invited guests, a pleasant surprise made me discard my prepared remarks. I had intended to say that the sea clocks at the heart of the show were all replicas, standing in for the venerated originals that reside at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich as star tourist attractions. I meant to praise the copies for being fully functional and exact in every detail. I wanted to make the point that although the originals were not allowed out of the UK, the replicas could tour as their inventor's ambassadors, to be seen and appreciated all over the world. But there at the Folger, staring back at me from one of the display cases, was Harrison's celebrated fourth timekeeper -- the original H-4 -- the very "Watch" that had solved the longitude problem.

H-4 was made for travel. It crisscrossed the Atlantic twice in the 176os to prove its merit on ocean trials, but it had not gone anywhere since 1964, when the Admiralty lent it to the U. S. Naval Observatory. How happy I was to see it again.

I like to think Harrison would be pleased with the replicas of his sea clocks. After all, he built them as prototypes, and hoped the best design would multiply to occupy every vessel in the Royal Navy. I doubt he foresaw H-4's future as a museum piece. It has become one only because it answered the need so well.

Victim of anniversaries

My friend and mentor Owen Gingerich of Harvard once described himself as a victim of anniversaries. The 400th of Kepler's birth was the first one to affect him, in 1971, followed soon by Copernicus's 500th, in 1973. These observances changed Gingerich from an astrophysicist computing model stellar atmospheres to a full-time historian of science. This year I find myself happily "victimized" by three big-round-number commemorations. The 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act has occasioned a new hardcover edition of Longitude in the UK, and will take me to Greenwich in July for the opening of the National Maritime Museum's exhibition called "Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude." Meanwhile the 450th birthdays of Galileo (February 15) and Shakespeare (April 23) provide good excuses for musing on the connections between the two. Not only did Galileo love poetry (reading it, critiquing it, committing most of Orlando Furioso to memory, composing his own terza rima), but Shakespeare included numerous references to actual astronomical events such as novas and eclipses in his plays.

Surely they never met, as neither man ever left his home country. Shakespeare, whose life journey took him only the hundred miles between Stratford and London, nevertheless set two plays in Verona, two in Venice, two in Ancient Rome, two in Sicily, one in Padua, and one on an island full of castaways from Naples and Milan. Galileo, born in Pisa, traveled to the Moon and stars via his telescope. Only hours after his book describing these discoveries came off the press in Venice in 1610, the English ambassador there dispatched a copy to the court of King James I.  

Both Shakespeare and Galileo addressed themselves to a wide public, because they shared a higher than average opinion of the average intellect. "Sure he that made us with such large discourse," cries Hamlet, "Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused."

Similarly, Galileo published most of his books in Italian instead of Latin, so as to inform compatriots who could not afford a university education: "Now I want them to see that just as Nature has given to them, as well as to philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them."

Let us celebrate those sentiments throughout 2014 and beyond.