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Commentary: ‘Longitude’ provides timely advice on innovation

When the clock is ticking on a seemingly impossible assignment, take a page from the story of John Harrison’s determined quest to solve a maritime problem.

John Harrison knew a perfectly accurate clock could help a ship captain determine his latitude. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NOTE: This article is part of an ongoing series that examines key innovations in transportation and teases out lessons that can lead to better innovation in sea freight. The views expressed here are those solely of the author and not those of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” is the story of one of the world’s earliest successful public challenges – the use of open innovation to solve a difficult problem of great importance to the maritime community.

Harry Sangree is the founder of SeaFreight Labs.

This short book, published in 1995, reads like a novel. It sets the stage by describing the ongoing loss of life at sea from ignorance about one’s longitude. It explains how the loss of four British warships in a night crash into the southwestern tip of England in 1707 created public pressure on Parliament to do something about the problem. And it describes the politics that led to the Longitude Act of 1714. This public challenge offered prize money of up to £20,000 ($12 million in today’s currency) for a longitude solution with the specific goal of determining longitude to an accuracy of half a degree after a six-week voyage from England to the West Indies.

The main character in the quest for a solution is John Harrison, a self-taught clockmaker. A perfectly accurate clock could allow a captain to determine his longitude by comparing his local time (noon was usually used) to the London time on the clock and calculating how far east or west the ship was from Greenwich. There were two big problems: No clock of the day was perfectly accurate and clocks did not work well at sea because of constant motion, significant temperature changes and corrosive sea air.

Harrison spent a good portion of his life developing five progressively improved versions of a chronometer, a sea clock suitable for the easy determination of longitude. He finished H-1 in 1735, H-2 in 1741, H-3 in 1757, H-4 in 1759 and H-5, the eventual winner of the Longitude Prize money, in 1770. Over this extended period of time, Harrison invented friction-free clock operation to eliminate the problem of temperature-dependent lubricant viscosity. He also invented the bimetallic strip to eliminate the problem of thermal expansion and contraction. He invented a way to drive a clock without use of a pendulum because a pendulum was unreliable on the high seas. And he invented a way for a clock to keep running even while it was being wound.

The years between 1730 and the eventual award of the prize money in 1773 were filled with political and competitive intrigue. Competing designs made great forward strides during these years and the political backing of one of them, the astronomy method, put Harrison at a disadvantage for a number of years. The book does have a happy ending as Harrison lives to receive the Longitude Prize money.

The Longitude Act of 1714 generated tremendous innovation that eliminated ignorance about one’s longitude on the high seas. It also cemented Greenwich, England, as the prime meridian on all maps and Greenwich Mean Time as the anchor time zone for the entire world. It incented innovation on the existential problem of the time.

Three lessons for sea freight

1. Multiple roadblocks. Ignorance about one’s longitude persisted for so long because a solution first required picking a promising strategy, for example, clock-based or astronomy-based. Once a strategy was selected, the innovator had to solve all the roadblocks inherent to the selected strategy. In Harrison’s case, his chosen strategy was clock-based because he was a clockmaker. He succeeded because he was able to solve at least four previously unsolvable technical issues in order to create an exceptionally accurate clock for ocean use.

The most difficult problems in sea freight, like zero-carbon operation or electronic bills of lading, likewise will first require a strategy decision on the general solution approach. Then the innovation team will need to solve multiple previously unsolved issues in order to achieve the desired objective. Just a single unsolved roadblock issue is enough to prevent success. A successful plan must allocate adequate time and appropriate resources to solve each and every issue.

2. Iterate. Harrison developed five versions of his chronometer over a period of 35 years. Each version improved on the prior iteration by reducing weight and improving accuracy. Over this period, Harrison was able to shrink the device from a clock weighing 75 pounds in a box 4 feet cube (H-1) to a pocket watch weighing 3 pounds with a 5-inch diameter (H-5). Accuracy improved also – from the H-1’s ability to be accurate within a few seconds per day to the H-5’s accuracy within one-third of one second per day.

In today’s project teams, there is a need to prevent the “runaway project” that never finishes. A project-management strategy that demands intermediate deliverables helps to focus the team and ensure that progress is being made. It also allows management to evaluate progress toward the eventual goal to gain confidence that the project is still viable.

3. Generate competition. Parliament tapped into powerful human forces when it organized the search for a longitude solution as a public challenge. Harrison appeared to be highly motivated by the prize money available. He persisted across a very long time period until finally winning the grand prize money. The competition also attracted other brilliant people who pursued an astronomy-based solution. Although they did not win the grand prize, a few individuals received intermediate awards and advanced an entirely different line of technical knowledge that benefited society.

The sea freight industry should authorize one of its cross-industry groups like DCSA, Global Maritime Forum, World Shipping Council or FIATA to create one or more global challenges to accelerate and diversify innovation on its most intractable problems. New ideas will be generated and it is likely that difficult problems will be solved.

Harry Sangree

Harry Sangree is a longtime industry strategist and founder of SeaFreight Labs (, a leader in introducing crowd-solving to the seafreight industry.