Why Chronometers were Important Tools in the Past

Clocks are devices that tell what time it is in a specific location. However, some clocks offer more functions than just telling time.

Enter the world of Chronometers.

The Invention of the Chronometer

Also called a marine chronometer, a chronometer is a portable timepiece used in marine navigation to determine longitude. It can accurately measure time at any fixed location.

English Horologist John Harrison started designing a chronometer in 1728, which he intended to submit to the British government’s Board of Longitude as an instrument for calculating a ship’s longitude. Harrison completed his first chronometer in 1735 and went on to create three other versions of a chronometer, with each one smaller but more accurate than its predecessor. However, it wasn’t until  1763 that his 4th chronometer when the Board of Longitude awarded him for his work, even when the three earlier versions of the chronometers he made met all the standards that the Board set.

Why Chronometers were Important Tools in the Past

Since the early modern world, accurately calculating longitude was one of the biggest challenges seafarers faced. Sailors had no means of determining their exact location at sea or whether they are traveling east or west. They only based the ship’s longitude on several factors, such as the ship’s speed, sea current, or speed of the wind. As most of these were only estimations, seafarers ended up having trouble in finding the right course or got caught up in unfavourable weather. Some cases had led to shipwrecks and the loss of life. When journeys to the New World, trade expansion among countries, and occupation of territories increased, so did the risks in sea navigation.

Many scientists and investors wrestled with various ideas and instruments, but only Harrison’s chronometer solved the centuries-old problem of calculating longitude. It also paved the way for other scientists and clockmakers, including John Arnold and Thomas Mudge, to construct replicas of Harrison’s work and make improvements. Soon after, the enhancements in the newer versions of the antique chronometers led to safer and more accurate maritime travels.

Chronometers also contributed remarkably to cartography or map-making. Maritime accidents and getting lost at sea, while did not drop to zero due to the existence of uncharted territories, had significantly reduced. Sea captains did not have to rely on dead reckoning to navigate oceans. With the use of chronometers, they were able to plan and adjust their course and were able to reach their destinations with little trouble. They were also able to choose alternative routes without losing too much time, which allowed them to parcel out food rations to the crew. Trade goods and supplies traveling at sea also reached the ports on time.

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