August 5th, 2015

krazy koati

While I looked around for my possibilities

The museum has the houses of the Astronomers Royal, at least up to the point that Greenwich's real work moved away. They're preserved in Old Rooms museum style, and the quotidian stuff looks like almost anything except that the names attached are instantly familiar to me and not to normal people. More interesting was the Octagon Room, used in the 17th century as the showcase observatory. One could do work there, and sometimes did, but mostly it was used as a showpiece for guests like King Charles II. It's not, by modern standards, that fancy a room; it's just the nice wood floors and panels that make it stand out, really. The room has some large quadrants, as well as Tompion pendulum clocks that could run a year without the weights being re-raised. The rooms are divided among multiple noteworthy Astronomers Royal, so the rooms are a progression of about two centuries of home living.

And then there's the less personal, more scientific part of the museum. This has the great story of longitude-finding and timekeeping, with all the highlights --- Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell's disaster, the Longitude Act, the Board of Longitude, the lunar and the chronometer methods of determining longitude. John Harrison's clocks, including H-1 through H-4, and K-1 and other icons of timekeeping. I thought the museum didn't make clear enough that the Longitude Act, and its promise of £20,000 for anyone who solved the problem of determining one's east-west position, drew out every crank in Europe for generations, giving them good reason to be skeptical of things like Harrison's apparently excellent clocks. bunny_hugger thought that was explained adequately. Yes, the sympathy-powder dogs and the lightships firing canons were mentioned as crankier ideas about how to set longitude.

One of the interactive parts of the museum are pages for people to ``Design Your Own Navigational Instrument'', and then to clip them up for display. Most of these were drawn by kids and so they feature things like dragons maybe, or things that look kind of like telescopes, or there's someone who drew a dog. Someone wrote out 'Punks Not Dead' and hung that up. One guy drew what looks like Pac-Man facing a bar of chocolate with a pendulum swinging between 'good' and 'bad'. (Wouldn't you take pictures?) bunny_hugger got into the spirit of the thing and drew a ship with a homing pigeon tied to its prow.

At some point astronomy blends into longitude-determination and into timekeeping and so the museum transforms into one about the keeping of time, with halls of clocks and panels talking about things like time-announcing services. One that I wasn't familiar with was a woman who carried Greenwich time to subscribers, giving them the chance to set their watches to her record of the observatory's time. And oh, the telephones, all set up with buttons to recreate the recordings of dialing for the current time. One of the exhibits was of an iPhone, ``on loan from Polly Richards'', as a mobile phone with built-in GPS receiver. It was dated ``about 2010''.

The Time Ball, by the way --- a bright red ball raised up and then dropped to mark the middle of the day, a time-setting ritual of the 19th century whose echo is the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve --- had an interesting note in its plaque. The ball is not the original, and it's been damaged during renovations in the 90s. Apparently, workers didn't realize the Time Ball was to be restored to its pole, and so they used the thing for games of really large soccer. The ball's been fairly well-battered since, but was put back on the pole to be quite visible from a ways off. I'm honestly delighted by this; it feels so much like the casual way things of noteworthy historic import would be treated in the 1920s instead.

The last of the buildings we'd be able to get in was the series of observatories, from which successive telescopes and so prime meridians were set. I did not realize they had the telescope which James Bradley used to detect the aberration of light (and thus, prove the Earth was moving). But then everything in there is historic, and reminded me of astronomical or timekeeping or position-setting history. Much of it's great stuff, transit telescopes and other things that set how we understand where things are. Some of it is amusing or slight. Sitting next to one another are a Chinese alarm clock from about 1968, featuring a girl waving her Little Red Book, and a Bart Simpson alarm clock from ``about 1991'' that, according to the plaque, says, ``Yo dude, wake up and get out of bed!'', the way Bart Simpson naturally would.

We dared venture up some narrow stairs and the edge of the building to get to the 28-inch telescope part of the Old Royal Observatory, from which a laser shines at night to indicate the prime meridian's location. This is your classic observatory, and looks exactly like one should. It's used mostly for ceremonial purposes; the actual observing has gone over to skies with better seeing, farther from the City.

Trivia: Liberia sent a delegation to the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which chose the Greenwich prime meridian and ultimately standard time ased on that. It did not adopt standard time until 1972, despite its being the nation of registry for much of the world's merchant shipping, and despite its delegation voting in favor of the Greenwich meridian and standard time base. Source: Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent The Perfect Calendar, Duncan Steel.

Currently Reading: Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley.

PS: Reading the Comics, August 3, 2015: Things That Make Me Cranky Edition, some more mathematically-minded comic strips.