May 23, 2014

The Maddison Project: Take 4

AS YOU UNDOUBTEDLY KNOW, it was fairly easy for ancient mariners to calculate their latitude. It was longitude that was the problem for an awful long time. According to the famous economist Angus Maddison, King Philip III of Spain offered large financial rewards in 1598 to anyone who could solve the problem of longitude. Similar incentives were offered in France and Holland, and the British government created a Board of Longitude in 1714 that offered a prize of $20,000.

That prize was won by John Harrison, who, after 25 years of effort, made a watch that was unaffected by the movement of a ship and changes in temperature. Harrison’s chronometer was successfully tested in trial runs to the West Indies in 1762-64.

Captain Cook, the great explorer, who had used the then-new Nautical Almanac on his first Pacific voyage in 1768-71, found his longitude by the cumbersome lunar method. But for his 1772-75 circumnavigation he used a copy of Harrison’s watch, and when he returned to Plymouth three years later, the cumulative error in longitude was less than eight miles. It’s hard for us to imagine now what a miracle that must seemed at the time.

By the end of the eighteenth century great progress had been made in the design of ships and rigging. There had also been big strides in gunnery, meteorology and astronomy. The precision of navigational instruments was much greater, too. Charts had been enormously improved and were supplemented by detailed coastal surveys.

All this meant that sailing had become safer, and the duration of voyages much more predictable. Fewer vessels were shipwrecked, and there was also great progress in reducing the number of seamen who died on long voyages. For instance, during Anson’s voyage around the world in 1740-44, he successfully harried the Spanish in the Pacific and captured a huge treasure ship with the loss of only four men by enemy action. But he lost more than 1,300 men from disease, mainly scurvy.

Anson’s experience led the British naval physician James Lind to carry our dietary experiments, and in 1753 he recommended orange juice and lemon juice as a specific against scurvy. Captain Cook followed Lind’s advice in 1768-71, and tried out a number of anti-scorbutics, including oranges, lemons, and sauerkraut. It was spectacularly successful — he had only one case of scurvy — but it wasn’t until 1795 that the regular issue of lemon juice was adopted by Britain’s Royal Navy.  

In his work for the University of Groningen, Angus Maddison figured that between 1470 and 1820, Western Europe’s merchant fleet increased about 17-fold. Its carrying capacity rose even more because of technical progress in the design of ships, sails and rigging, winds and currents.

In this period, voyages became less dangerous for ships and their crews. Travel time became more predictable and regular, and ships became bigger while the number of crew required per ton of cargo was substantially reduced. European domination of the world’s oceans was reinforced by advances in naval armament, and the capacity to organize business on a large scale in ventures that required significant capital outlays over a relatively long period.

Today’s Thought
The most advanced nations are always those who navigate the most.
— Emerson, Society and Solitude: Works and Days

Just as the cruise ship was approaching Athens a woman passenger buttonholed the captain.
“What’s that white stuff on those hills far in the distance?” she asked.
“It’s snow madam.”
“Yeah, I thought so, but that darn fool of a First Officer told me it was grease.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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