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From Nature to Machine

The transition from Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age was not simply a shift in focus from food production to the production of machine made goods. To make such a shift, a change in thinking, or more specifically, a change in the conception of the world was also needed.

Dava Sobel in her book “Longitude” gives a number of key clues to this shift in thinking in her description of the competition for solving the problem of ‘Longitude’. In particular, she discusses the rivalry between John Harrison, inventor of chronometers and the proponents of the alternate proposal, the ‘Lunar Distance’ method.

The Prevailing View

Prior to the 1600’s the measurement of time was bound up in the measurement of the universe and the natural world. This was the obvious place to look in finding a resolution to the Longitude problem and this is where the general focus was placed.

Several key thoughts reinforced this view.
  • Time was generally thought of in relation to the stars and was known generally as ‘solar time’.
  • Previous navigation methods had relied upon the stars. For example, the other key part of the navigational framework, latitude, was regularly and accurately measured according to the relative position of the sun and stars to the horizon.
  • Whilst clocks were available, particularly adorning key buildings, the most common form of time-telling in that era was the sundial which relied upon the sun to cast a shadow.
  • Given the recent development of the telescope, many of the great thinkers of the time worked in the emerging field of astronomy, including such great minds as Galileo, Cassini, Huygens, Newton and Halley. Given that none of them were clock builders, it was a natural thought for them and others to turn to nature and particularly the sky for a solution.
As per the makings of a classic paradigm, one would look for a solution in the terms in which the problem was described. The prevailing thought at the time may be summarized as:

‘Time is a measurement of nature and the answer to a more accurate and universal measure of time would surely be found in nature’s universe.’

Tracking the Sky

The general line of thinking that was taken was based upon the idea of a ‘clockwork universe’. To find a consistent and reliable reference point for determining the time and therefore ones location, it was generally thought that it was simply a matter of tracking the predictable paths of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Whilst much work went into tracking the sky, this was not as easy it seemed because the stars had a habit of moving through the night sky and to make matters worse, their relative positions were different depending where in the world you viewed them from. The key to a solution for the Longitude problem was to find a set up relationships that could be measured on a regular basis.
Early efforts focussed on solar eclipses and this worked at best once or twice a year. Galileo then proposed a solution based upon the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter, an event that occurred a thousand times a year. Whilst his efforts did work for mapmakers on land who created new and more accurate maps of Europe, this was not suitable for ships given that there were days when the stars were simply not clear enough for a precise observation.


Enormous international effort went into the scouring of the skies for a solution. This was as Sobel suggests the ‘great technological question of the time’. Observatories were set up in various cities across Europe and important discoveries about the Earth’s location in the universe were made.

The Lunar Distance Model

The primary model proposed by the ‘naturalists’ was the ‘Lunar Distance Model’.

As the name suggests, this method relied upon measuring the distance between the moon (lunar) and the sun during the day and the moon and the stars after dark. The invention of the quadrant and the sextant were critical pieces of equipment that enabled the viewer to precisely measure these distances. The observer then checked a complex array of tables to convert the measurements into longitude.

This process had a number of drawbacks. Firstly, it took many years to develop a reliable and accurate set of tables. Secondly, tabulations took almost 4 hours to complete. Thirdly, it required the observer to look directly at the sun during the day, causing many to go blind with cataracts. Fourthly, to be able to find the correct stars and then interpret the tables required some level of astronomical and mathematical knowledge.

Despite all this, the overwhelming downside of all these methods was that nature did not always make itself available for observation. A simple cloudy day or a storm would be sufficient to completely hinder any attempt to locate oneself via the heavens consistently at any time. In various times and places around the planet, storms were common for days and weeks on end and clearly this was not suitable for a task that was required on an ongoing basis.

The Alternative

Meanwhile, as the great minds looked skyward, a self-taught, non-educated perfectionist named John Harrison was constructing his own solution.

Harrison’s solution, in contrast to the natural methods of the astronomers could not have been more dramatically different. Sobel captures the stunning difference in thinking in the following quote:

In comparison, John Harrison offered the world a little ticking thing in a box. Preposterous!

Worse, this device of Harrison’s had all the complexity of the longitude problem already hardwired into its works. The user didn’t have to master math or astronomy or gain experience to make it go. Something unseemly attended the sea clock, in the eyes of scientists and celestial navigators. Something facile. Something flukish. In an earlier era, Harrison might have been accused of witchcraft for proposing such a magic-box solution.” (Page 99).

To imagine what it may have been like to have merely contemplated the proposal that Harrison offered, we may like to consider a reversal of the situation he faced.

Today, we do not give a second thought to looking at our $10 or $10,000 watch and knowing with some degree of accuracy what the time is generally agreed to be. In contrast, take a look out of your window and look up at the sky. Imagine looking at the moon, the stars or the sun and telling what time it is. Alternatively, could you imagine giving the excuse that you were late because ‘it was cloudy’ and you couldn’t tell what time it was.

For us, with our watches, these are absurd thoughts and in an earlier time, it was equally absurd to think that time could be measured by a little ticking thing in a box.

A Change in Thinking

There are several clues to a major shift in thinking here and I propose these illustrate a vast difference in the thinking of the world that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution.

Firstly, Harrison’s solution was ‘hardwired’. Industrial products are a package, a solution, all together in one neat little unit. Think about a television, a washing machine or a refrigerator – simply plug them in and they work smoothly and effectively.

In contrast, compare the washing process by hand with that of a machine. To wash by hand requires a number of different actions, a higher degree of knowledge about scrubbing technique, a suitable location, etc. With a washing machine, the task is simply to plug it in, turn on the tap, put the washing and detergent in and come back when it’s done. This is very different. Likewise, consider the difference between four hours of calculating the Lunar Distance Model versus looking at the face of a clock.

Secondly, to achieve this shift, the relationship to the task at hand needs to change.

In the case of ‘time’, this shifted from being an observation of nature to becoming a ‘thing’. Consider the way we now speak of time: losing time; wasted time, ‘the’ time; time is money; watching the clock; keeping time; time zones; daylight saving time. These ideas don’t make sense in a world where time is a measure of nature, they can only exist in a world of conceptual time.

Marshall McLuhan adds to this:

As a piece of technology, the clock is a machine that produces uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern. Processed in this uniform way, time is separated from the rhythms of human experience. The mechanical clock, in short, helps to create the image of a numerically quantified and mechanically powered universe.

…Not only work, but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs.

(McLuhan, Understanding Media, Page 146. )

Or as Sobel points out:

Time is to clock as mind is to brain. (Page 34)

Harrison’s inventions and the problem of Longitude were a critical driver in this shift from ‘natural time’ to ‘mechanical time’ and this is indicative of the shift in thinking from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age.


Dava Sobel, “Longitude”, Walker and Company, New York, 1995.
• Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1964.

Further articles in the Longitude series

1 Background
3 The Impossibility of Invention
4 The Path of Innovation


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