Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Pepys & Harrison

Today I met three of my heroes, and one heroine. One in the flesh, one practically naked, another in the form of clocks, and the fourth as an "extra" in a portrait.

Chapter 1 - Br'er Fox Comes to Visit

I've heard of foxes. I've even seen pictures of them before. Cute little blighters. I was raised on a diet of Basil Brush (and swede, vegetables, meat, often pudding too). I'd heard stories of the horrors visited upon foxes by the British aristocracy, damn them. I'd even seen them in silhouette - at least I suspected the shadowy figure moving across the back garden in Dublin, a streak of black lightening in the night, was a fox. This was only because I had been told there was a fox that lived in the back garden. I might otherwise have mistaken said shadow as a marauding hedgehog, or a big kitty. I'd also seen a couple of shadowy figures down the street here, but they could have been anything - dogs, lycanthropes in the throes of transformation (ah-ooooo, werewolves of London! Ah-oooo!!).

But last night, I went outside to have a cigarette, and someone came to the gate, a foxy little thing. It looked as if it was just going to walk past, and it saw me there, and turned to come and have another look. Our eyes locked for a few moments, an inter-species connection established, a moment of some kind of understanding, or acceptance of each other. Just lovely.

Someone said to me recently that you really must be careful of foxes - you know what they did to the gingerbread man (Turner, 2009). However, I'm not planning on riding a fox to get across a river. And anyway, I maintain that the gingerbread man was a smart-ass, mocking little prick, who deserved everything he got. For god’s sake - he was made of ginger-bread - there’s only one way that story could have ended.

I love the fox that came to visit me.

Chapter 2 - A Lady Is Found In Just Her Undergarments

To Greenwich. I decide to go to Greenwich because I know the legacy of a hero of mine resides there, somewhere (detailed in Chapter 3).

I had forgotten the comely wench alluded to in the title of this chapter resided there as well, so a dalliance with her came as a surprising, and thrilling few moments, though I never truly saw her in the flesh. She showed me only her undergarments, her petticoats as it were. I had seen pictures of her in my youth, resplendent. Who was she, this vision?

A boat, OK. Just a boat. But she is one of my favourite boats, the Cutty Sark. One of the finest, and fastest tea clippers in the world. Never the fastest, although she did almost go down on record as the fastest, when she led her main rival for that title in a race, by almost 100 miles, until her rudder broke. She was on record as over-taking one of the modern steamships at the time as well. Unfortunately, when she was commissioned, the tea trade was being taken over by the new-fangled, upstart steam ships, and so she was reduced to ferrying beer at one stage in her career. A common beer wench - no profession for a lady.

And why did I see her in her undergarments? Or rather, why could I not see her in the flesh, because she was hidden behind her undergarments? On the 21st May 2007, the poor lass was horribly burned in a fire, so she was fully covered by a tent-like construction when I visited with her, while restoration work was carried out on her. I remember seeing this disaster on TV, and a tear made itself known to my eye. Eighteen months before, I'd witnessed an old Navy frigate being sunk off the New Zealand coast, so I was still feeling a little fragile. It's one of the sad things, watching a ship go down.

So I could not see her, this beauty. But 'twas enough to be in her presence, even for a moment. And I shall be there when she steps out into that glorious limelight once more.

**An aside: I decided on the metaphor of the lady in her undergarments for this part of the story last night. This morning, when I did a little bit of research on the Cutty Sark, I found that this metaphor could not be more apt, for it is how she got her name. Robert Burns told a story of a farmer, Tam O'Shanter, who late one night was riding his horse home when he came across a coven of partially dressed witches. He took a particular fancy to one of them, called Nannie, and watched mesmerised as she danced. The only item of clothing she wore was an undergarment, a type of petticoat called a cutty sark. Weird, no? She was named after an undergarment, and is currently dressed only in an undergarment.

Chapter 3 - "By God, Harrison, I will see you righted!"

Of course, you cannot go to Greenwich without going to the Royal Observatory. As you probably know, it's where Greenwich Mean Time is measured from. I have had a number of heated discussions with a few of my close ones about the accuracy of my watch, people who may have come to realise how committed to punctuality I am. I have now set my watch to official GMT (I knew it was a couple of minutes out just recently), as measured at the centre of world time-keeping. 'nuff said?

The 0 degree meridian of longitude is situated here - to be exact, the 0 degree meridian (Prime Meridian) is officially measured from the cross hairs of one of the telescopes in the observatory building. The meridian line runs through the courtyard, and with a foot planted firmly each side of it, you are said to be standing in both east and western hemispheres of the earth. So I did the usual things up there - trotted about the museum, photos on the meridian line, read the pamphlets, checked out the camera obscura, all that good stuff. But after two hours, I knew there was one thing I hadn't done, my very reason to be here, in this place, at this time.

I had come to pay homage to a man, who through sheer determination and tenacity, became one of the most influential figures in maritime and scientific history. After reading about him a few years ago, he has become one of my absolute heroes, and his legacy is held in one of the buildings at the Royal Observatory. He is the man who solved the "longitude problem" in the 1700's, and he was a joiner, scientist, and clock maker. His name was John Harrison.

It's no coincidence that GMT and the 0 degree of longitude are measured from here. As Dava Sobel wrote in her book "Longitude: The Story of A Lone Genius Who Solved The Greatest Scientific Problem Of His Time", latitude is measured by nature, whereas longitude is a temporal thing. A sailor can estimate his latitude by measuring the movements of the sun and moon, or the relation of the north pole star to his ship. However, to accurately measure longitude, he needs to know the time in his home port, or some fixed position on the earth - for example, Greenwich. The earth is divided into 24 meridians of longitude, each meridian measuring 15 degrees. If the time difference between the boat and Greenwich is one hour, it means the boat is sitting on the line of meridian at 15 degrees.

Problem was, at that time, no reliable time piece was available to accurately measure GMT on any long voyage. Clocks tended to lose minutes per day, which if used on a boat for any length of time would mean the boat would be way off course, leading to ship wrecks, lives lost, boats meandering about aimlessly on the ocean - and of course, economic costs as cargoes were undelivered. The most accurate clocks were pendulum clocks, but these could never work on a boat, as the rhythm of the pendulum is thrown as the boat is tossed about at the will of the ocean.

John Harrison was trained as a joiner. He built his first clock in his early twenties, made almost entirely out of wood, including the moving parts. He was commissioned to design and build a clock to be mounted on a building in Brocklesby Park, which still works and keeps accurate time now, over 290 years later. The incredible thing about this particular clock is that it required no lubrication, standard for clocks at the time. The reason it required no lubrication was that he'd built it out of wood, and had chosen a wood - lignum vitae - that self-lubricated. In. Bloody. Credible.

Harrison latched on to the idea of using clocks to solve the longitude problem - it had been suggested before, but he seemed to be the only person with the skill to build a clock accurate enough. And so he spent 40 years doing it, in the face of political and scientific opposition, along the way solving a raft of technological problems. He produced four clocks in that forty or so years. Each one was hailed as a masterpiece, a huge advance in clock technology and accuracy, and a great leap in the solution of the longitude problem. But it was Harrison who decided that they were not good enough, and that he needed to go away and effectively start again.

His first three clocks aimed at solving longitude, now known imaginatively as H1, H2 and H3, are objects of absolute beauty. They are huge things, weighing a number of kilos. They're all dials and arms, springs and levers. and  tick away quite merrily, still, after all this time. Sculpturally they are quite magnificent, but it is the technological advances that set them apart. These advances included an ability for the clocks to continue working while they were wound, thereby not losing any time. Prior to this, clocks would stop while they were being wound.

Harrison spent 19 years perfecting the third clock,H3. As it got close to completion, he realised that it wouldn’t pass muster, and so he decided to start again and begin work on his fourth clock, H4. The discipline of mind, astounding. For his fourth clock, Harrison took a quite different tack than for the other 3, although he used many of the advances he'd made in the earlier prototypes. But H4 is quite different than the earlier models. It sits alone in a glass case, and looks just like a large pocket watch. And it is the only one that isn't actually going! This is not due to any problem with it, but is a conservatorial decision - that watch is so delicate and complex, that having it working would shorten it's life markedly, as it would be required to be dismantled for maintenance.

When tested, this clock only lost a few seconds per month. When I went to it, I got the most incredible shiver up my spine, because this is the clock that won the longitude prize put up by the government in 1714 (although the prize was never officially awarded to Harrison, or anyone else), an amount equivalent to about 1million pounds today. This was the incredible machine that this most incredible of men had toiled on for so much of his life; the machine that enabled so much maritime activity and discovery to occur - not all of it good, but it opened up the world, and accurately.

There is a memorial to John Harrison at Westminster Abbey, which I plan to go and visit. But visiting his memorial is like saying a goodbye to him. Being in the presence of his clocks is like having him there, now, right beside you.

Chapter 4 - Samuel Peeps Over A Gentleman's Shoulder

My final hero of the day I discovered in the National Maritime Museum, just down the hill from the Royal Observatory. I found him in a side gallery, a distant and relatively unclear figure in a portrait of the Navy Board from the 1600's, hidden over another fellows shoulder. His name is Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps. Geddit? Samuel was peeping over someone's shoulder!!). Pepys was a fairly high-ranking figure in the Navy Board, responsible for the commissioning of ships. He became a very influential figure in the Admiralty, and also an MP, along with a whole raft of other posts held by him. 

Also he was about the most important diarist in English history, documenting with extreme detail life in London in the 1660's. He wrote about daily life in London, major events including a war against the Dutch, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. As an aside, and I'm not sure if Pepys was the recorder of this quote, but apparently when the mayor was first shown the fire raging across London, he exclaimed "Pish! A woman could piss it out!" Excellent.

Pepys was also something of a bounder and a cad. He documented with great attention to detail his conquests of women other than his wife. Randy old bugger. He also wrote with wincing clarity about the kidney stones that would make his urine run red; but also outlined in fascinating detail the procedure he underwent to have them removed, and his recovery.

A great man, and a great Londoner. I shall search him out further.

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