Longitude and the Chronometer

The chronometer is a tale of technology whose development was encouraged and sponsored by a national government in the national interest. This technology made possible the standardization of time, reliable mapping and navigation, and the rapid extension of Western power and culture throughout the world. For better or for worse, this innovation was the result of a lone "garage" inventor pursuing a fresh approach against resistance from the scientific establishment of his day.

It might be said that the invention of the chronometer does not have much to do with the Internet per se. But it is great story of innovation, and illustrates key issues that dominate the pursuit of science in the 20th century when the Internet was developed.

Questions for discussion

The chronometer story is something of a showdown between science and technology. How did different perspectives on innovation shape the various proposed solutions to the longitude problem? What proposed solutions would you characterize as "scientific" vs. "technological" approaches? What are the strengths and limitations of science vs. technology in approaching problems such as determining longitude? How are science and technology complementary?

What if Harrison had been born 100 years earlier? Could he or would he have addressed the longitude problem in the same way? What were the prerequisites for his solution? In what ways was British society prepared (or not) to accept his innovation when he offered it?

In Harrison's time, it was British government policy to encourage and facilitate solutions to the longitude problem. How did the government support innovation and seek to benefit from it? Were the policies fair? Were they effective? What is the appropriate role of government in sponsoring and directing innovation?

What was the nature of the adversity Harrison faced in developing his technology? Why did it take so long? What could the government have done to speed progress? How was the longitude story determined by the structure of the institutions the government put in place to facilitate and evaluate new science and technology? Do things like this happen today? Are similar institutions in place (e.g., in the US) today? How should these institutions be structured to reduce obstacles to innovation?

Sobel portrays Harrison as a garage innovator with a fresh approach. Was he really a "lone genius"? What sort of individual is capable of breakthrough progress by "thinking outside the box"? What can be done to support and encourage creative people without limiting their creativity?

What other obstacles impeded the transition of Harrison's technology into practice?

What were the practical impacts of the chronometer technology?

Harrison spent his life working on his chronometers. Was it worth it?