25 July 2014 08:56

Last month, BBC’s The One Show announced that the British public had voted to award the £10 million 2014 Longitude Prize - currenly funded by Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board - to further scientific research to solve the urgent global problem of rising resistance to antibiotics.

The problem of bacterial resistance, mainly a problem for Western societies, threatens to return us to a pre-penicillin age in which minor diseases and operations can kill us. It triumphed over important issues such as securing resources of food or water for the majority of the world’s population. It is sobering to learn that, because private pharmaceutical companies do not see sufficient profit in researching and developing new antibiotics, the money derives instead from National Lottery funds.

But what has big money for microbiological research got to do with a prize for longitude, or indeed with research at Lancaster University? The answers lie in the field of the history of science. The original and ground-breaking Longitude Prize of £10,000 (c.£1.2m in today’s money) or, more accurately, the “Longitude Reward” was put up by the British government exactly three hundred years ago, which is why an updated prize has been offered this year, and why tercentenary celebrations of the 1714 prize have been organized. On 11th July, 2014 an exhibition opened at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), London, called “Ships, Clocks & Stars: the quest for Longitude (do go!). On 25th and 26th July, the NMM is also hosting a related public conference, at which I and my fellow Lancaster researcher Joseph Payne give a lecture.

Why, in 1714, was “the problem of longitude” as big a deal as antibiotics are today? Like bacterial resistance it was literally a global problem, but equally not for all of humanity. Powerful European states like Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands were competing to expand their empires and colonies, and to increase their international trade. Success depended upon prowess in navigation, as naval captains charted courses to reach their desired port and to avoid ship-wrecking obstacles.

These goals depended upon knowing your exact place on the Earth’s globe, in latitude and longitude, at sea and out of sight of land. Navigators had long known how to find their latitude using astronomy. It was readily calculable from observations of the altitudes of the Sun by day, or the Pole Star by night, which changed in a regular way as you sailed north or south from the Earth’s poles. The problem of longitude was that, for places with similar latitudes, such Athens, Lisbon, New York and San Francisco, the stars rise and set in the same way, with the same altitudes, but at different times relative to your home port. For example, an observer in New York sees the sun rise, culminate and set in the same way as an observer in Lisbon but five hours later, because of the difference in longitude of 25 degrees, or a distance of 5000km.

How could a Portuguese navigator approaching the shallows of New York, with astronomical tables compiled for Lisbon, know from the stars that he was now 5000km or 25 degrees of latitude west of his home port? For several decades before 1714 scientists had known that the best solution was to have a clock on board that kept the time of the home port, Lisbon for example. Unfortunately, no-one could make a clock that kept very good time at sea, given the tossing of the ship and the corrosion of salty sea spray. The first such clocks were designed by the ultimate winner of the “Longitude Reward”, the self-taught and entrepreneurial Yorkshire clockmaker, John Harrison. The story of Harrison’s success, and the belated, somewhat grudging award of the money in the 1760s by the Board of Longitude, has been told by Dava Sobel in her book Longitude.

But her book does not tell the whole story, and the NMM conference will develop alternative perspectives, which ask whether state-funded research had a place alongside entrepreneurial individuals. For example, Harrison’s clocks were very expensive and, until a simpler, mass produced mechanism was developed, the Royal Navy could only provide them for a few of its ships. The Board of Longitude had backed a solution based on the production and dissemination, by the state, of familiar but very accurate astronomical tables. Most naval vessels used these tables rather than Harrison’s chronometers to find their longitude well into the nineteenth century.

When the Admiralty first offered its reward in 1714, a very different solution to “the longitude problem” looked promising. It involved Admiralty (i.e. state) co-ordination of worldwide observations of magnetic compass data. Sir Isaac Newton’s colleague Edmund Halley was a proponent of a magnetic solution. Earlier seventeenth-century versions of the longitude prize had also expected that compass data would solve the problem, although they ultimately failed to do so. My popular history of science book Latitude (Cambridge, 2002) recounts these earlier, magnetic attempts to solve the longitude problem.

The history of science records lots of promising, well-tried but ultimately dead ends, as well as unexpected new directions. It also highlights contrasting styles of research - for example the state-sponsored collaboration preferred by the Board of Longitude versus that of entrepreneurial individuals such as John Harrison. Recent research on the human genome reveals similar contrasts between private and public research programmes.

What kind of scientific research will win the 2014 Longitude Prize for the defeat of bacteria? Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball, but I predict that it will more likely be a collective with state funding than an individual like Harrison.

What do you think? Share your comments with us below.

Dr Stephen Pumfrey teaches on our History programmes.

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