British naval power reached its height with the Napoleonic wars and the victory at Trafalgar in 1805. For the next hundred years, Britain was unchallenged on the oceans: Britannia truly ruled the waves. British power was exercised abroad through “gunboat diplomacy”. With its total naval supremacy, the Royal Navy was able to counter piracy, enforce a ban on slavery, and chart the world’s oceans and coasts.
The Bounty was a former coal ship, purchased by the Royal Navy to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the British Caribbean colonies to grow cheap food for slaves. She was commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh, and her crew consisted of 46 officers and men. The voyage to Tahiti was particularly arduous: having failed to round Cape Horn, Bligh turned around and sailed east to Tahiti via the Cape of Good Hope instead. They were at sea for ten months, arriving in Tahiti on 26 October 1788.
After five months in Tahiti, during which time several of the men became closely involved with Tahitian women, and three sailors deserted – to be recaptured and flogged – the Bounty set sail for the West Indies. On 28 April 1789, half the crew mutinied under the leadership of sailing master Fletcher Christian, and set Bligh adrift in a 23ft open launch with 18 loyal men.
Bligh managed to navigate without charts or compass over 3,500 nautical miles from near Tonga in the Pacific to the Dutch colony of Kupang, Timor in south-east Asia. Some of the mutineers returned to Tahiti, where they were later arrested by a naval search party and taken back to face trial in England. The rest, including Christian, took a small group of Tahitians and started a new colony on the deserted Pitcairn Island. Christian and three other mutineers were killed in a dispute with the Tahitians in 1793.
The mutiny was the subject of several films, including Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton) and The Bounty (1984, Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins). John Boyne has recently published a novel about the mutiny: Mutiny on the Bounty (Black Swan, 2009).
The Rum Rebellion of 1808 was not directly about rum. It was the result of a chronic and multi-faceted enmity between Governor William Bligh and a wealthy New South Wales landowner, John Macarthur. When Bligh ordered Macarthur arrested for his supposed involvement in the escape of a convict from Sydney, the NSW Corps instead arrested Bligh, famously dragging him from his hiding place beneath his bed. Bligh was kept under house arrest for a year while Macarthur took over the running of the colony. Bligh eventually returned to England where he was promoted to rear admiral. Macarthur was never tried for his mutiny.
From the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, Europeans who did not pay their debts were commonly imprisoned, a practice which made it all the harder for them to earn the money to repay their creditors. In the UK, debtors’ prison’s were eliminated with the Debtors Act of 1869. Debtors are still imprisoned in Dubai and – under certain specific circumstances – in Greece and some US states.
Debtors’ prisons featured in Charles Dickens’ books, notably Little Dorrit, as the author’s father was imprisoned for a time in the Marshalsea.
Thomas Earnshaw (1749-1829) was an English watchmaker who mass-produced chronometers. He also built the innovative Armagh Observatory clock, considered at the time to be the most accurate clock in the world.
Invented by Thomas Mudge in c.1757, the lever escapement leaves the balance wheel free to oscillate, coupling it to the escape wheel only while the impulse is being delivered. The lever has two pallets which engage the escape wheel at one end, and a fork which catches and releases a pin on the balance wheel at the other end.
The Ingersoll watch company of New York introduced the Yankee Watch, price $1.00, in 1896. By 1899, the company was producing 8,000 watches a day. 40 million were sold over 20 years, and Ingersoll described it as “the watch that made the dollar famous”.
Ingersoll became the U.S. Time Company in the 1940s, and produced the first Timex watch in 1950. The promotional campaign featured a famous series of “torture tests”, where Timex watches were frozen, spun, submerged, and worn in all manner of dangerous activities. By the end of the 1950s, one in every three watches sold in the USA was a Timex. By the mid-1970s, the Timex Corporation had sold half a billion units.
The first Mickey Mouse watch was made by Ingersoll in 1933. It featured Mickey Mouse pointing his hands for the minutes and hours, and a rotating disk marking the seconds. Mickey Mouse watches are still available in adult and child models.
The verge escapement is the oldest known design of escapement, dating back to the 14th century. It consists of a vertical rod attached to the balance wheel – the verge – whose two pallets engage the teeth of the motive crown-wheel in opposite directions, making the rod oscillate at a constant rate.
As an example of the long-standing bad feeling between the two clockmakers, Earnshaw declared that Arnold had to use gold springs because he had “rusty hands”, which made any ferrous metal he touched immediately start to rust.
The East India Company was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600 to trade with the East Indies, but its primary operations were in China and India, where it traded cotton, silk, tea, opium and indigo dye. As its power grew in India, it took on an administrative and then military role. The Company effectively ruled most of India from 1757 until 1858 when, after the Indian Mutiny, India was ruled directly by the Crown. The Company was formally dissolved in 1873, having been one of those most powerful commercial and colonial organisations in the world.
Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth - Credit: Andrew Yong
The Royal Naval Academy was established at Portsmouth in 1733, to recruit and train officers. However, the traditional apprenticeship model remained the favoured route to promotion, and Academy graduates were viewed as having poor discipline and connections compared to those trained at sea. It was replaced by the much larger and better accepted Royal Naval College, which opened in 1808. From 1863, officer training shifted to Dartmouth, where the Britannia Royal Naval College is now the only RN officer training college.
HMS Beagle was a 10-gun 90-ft Royal Navy ship, made famous by the voyage that carried Charles Darwin to South America and the Galapagos Islands. She was a brig-sloop – a small, two-masted warship – and she was launched in 1820. She gave her name to the Beagle Channel through Tierra del Fuego, and to Beagle Gulf in Northern Australia. The Beagle 2 Mars space probe was named after the ship.
The prime meridian is an arbitrary line of longitude, chosen by international agreement to be the baseline from which all other longitudes are measured. As well as Greenwich, London, it also passes through Normandy, Gascony, Valencia, the Algerian and Mali Sahara, and Lake Volta in Ghana.
The International Meridian Conference, held in Washington DC in 1884, adopted a number of resolutions of which the first two were:
That it is the opinion of this Congress that it is desirable to adopt a single prime meridian for all nations, in place of the multiplicity of initial meridians which now exist.
That the Conference proposes to the Governments here represented the adoption of the meridian passing through the centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude.
The second resolution was passed by 22 votes to one (the Dominican Republic, for some reason, voted against – one wonders what they were doing there anyway). Brazil and France abstained.
Coordinated Universal Time (
UTC) is also used by military and aviation personnel all over the world. It is designated by the code “zulu”. So in the US, for example, pilots work off a clock that is 5-8 hours ahead of the local time.
The man who restored Harrison's clocks to proper working order shared an equal billing with him in the TV adaptation of Longitude, and indeed his own labours and dedication were comparable to the clockmaker's. Rupert Gould was a navigation officer in the Royal Navy, and so would have had a particular interest in the story of Longitude.
As well as a definitive guide to maritime clocks, he wrote books on sea serpents, "unexplained facts" and the Loch Ness Monster.
The Society for Nautical Research was founded in 1910 to foster research into seafaring and shipbuilding. It restored HMS Victory, and set up the National Maritime Museum, where Harrison's clocks are on display.
It is still active, with 1,600 members around the world.
Gould's wife Muriel accused him of being a
violent, unstable drunk who made unreasonable sexual demands upon her. Gould denied this charge, but did describe himself as a "mental sadist". He was prone to terrible depressions, and his absolute focus on the Harrison clocks did not help conjugal relations. To complicate matters further, Muriel was having an affair with a female dancing teacher, Vivian Gurney.
"In Memory of Mr. John Harrison, late of Red-Lion Square, London. Inventor of the Time-keeper for ascertaining the Longitude at Sea.
He was Born at Foulby in the County of York, and was the Son of a Builder at that Place, who brought him up to the fame Profession.
Before he attained the Age of 21, He without any Instruction employed himself in cleaning & repairing Clocks & Watches & made a few of the former chiefly of Wood. At the Age of 25 He employed his Whole Time in Chronometrical Improvements. He was the Inventor of the Gridiron Pendulum and the Method of preventing the Effect of Heat and Cold upon Time keepers by Two Bars of different Metals fixed together. He Introduced the Secondary Spring to keep them going while winding up and was the Inventor of most (or all) of the Improvements in Clocks & Watches during his Time.
In the Year 1735 his first Time keeper was sent to Lisbon and in 1704 his then much Improved fourth Time keeper having been sent to Barbadoes, the Commissioners of Longitude certified that it had determined the Longitude within one Third of Half a Degree of a great Circle, having erred not more than 40 Seconds in Time.
After near sixty Years close Application to the above Pursuits, he departed this Life on the 24th Day of March 1776, Aged 83.
Mrs Elizabeth Harrison, Wife of the above Mr. John Harrison, departed this Life March 5th 1777, Aged 72."