An unlikely clockmaker cracked longitude

John Harrison died on March 24th, 1776. He had been born near Wakefield in 1693, and was by trade a carpenter, one that became the clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer. Following the loss of four warships that went off course in 1707 and were wrecked on the rocks of the Silly Isles with great loss of life, Parliament offered £20,000 to whomever could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea.

It was widely supposed by the day's scientists that the answer would lie in measurements of the stars or the moon, but Harrison thought it might be done with a clock, if one could be constructed with an accuracy that could cope with the variations in temperature, pressure, and humidity aboard a ship that tossed and rolled on the seas, and that could be resistant to the salt spray of sea voyages. Knowing the time in Greenwich from the clock, and calculating the difference between that and local time, longitude could be calculated.

Harrison had built his first clock, entirely of wood, aged 20. Now he set about devising and refining a clock that would meet Parliament's requirements. After years of work on several models, he finally cracked the problem. His H4 chronometer looked like a large pocket watch, and used a fast-beating balance wheel controlled by a temperature-compensated spiral spring. In ocean voyage tests it met the accuracy level required.

Unfortunately one of his rivals, Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, tried to prevent him being awarded the prize, and it took the intervention of King George III to secure justice for Harrison by having Parliament finally vote to reward him.

Parliament's approach to the problem of longitude was sound. They offered the prize for however the problem could be solved, allowing free rein for several approaches to be tested. They wanted the result, regardless of the process that produced it.

Too often regulators specify the approach and the technology that must be used, rather than allowing creativity to test different approaches. When the US wanted to control auto emissions, they specified catalytic converters, requiring them by law to be fitted to all autos. They were widely unpopular because they increased fuel consumption and cut performance. A better approach would have been to set maximum emissions levels, leaving it to engineers and inventors to find ways of achieving them. Regulation should specify the result required, rather than the process to attain it. EU regulators are notoriously inclined to require process-driven, rather than result-driven regulation.

The Parliament that passed the Longitude Act was also right not to pay people to produce the result, but to offer a prize to anyone who could. That way they had several people working on solutions, but only had to pay the successful one. The Ansari X-Prize for the first private enterprise space flight used the same principle. The success of both serves to vindicate the offering of prizes to teams that can come up with technically viable solutions to the word's problems.