Our wiz-bang gadgets are making the miraculous seem commonplace these days.
Which is one reason I wanted to call this to your attention: “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There”.
This new, permanent exhibition opened April 12 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
And what is the secret to finding exactly where you are on earth? Well, as Heather Goss put it, on Smithsonian’s Air & Space blog, The Daily Planet, “You’re going to need a clock”.
An exhibition overview by Edward Rothstein for the New York Times brought this to my attention. I love exhibits that try to convey the scope of critically important accomplishments like this. Because we tend to forget just how hard this particular problem was.
As Rothstein wrote:
The history of navigation is in fact a history of getting lost. Or worse. It is also, as the exhibition shows, a history of gadgets that struggle to take some measure of the world, organizing it, dividing it, turning each spot into a crossroads of invented measurements.
Note that phrase “invented measurements”, because that is how modern man gets this job done. My head explodes when considering these concepts, but you could say that’s the gist of it: time as an invented measurement, coupled with the creation of an invented grid – and that is how we map the world. (These things seem so “real” but to some extent they are artificial constructs. Birds do the same thing perfectly well without clocks, thanks anyway.)
Today, it’s a snap to have GPS at one’s fingertips, providing pin-point placement with zero effort. But think – marvel, if you will – at the heavy mental lifting that went into defining (then solving) this problem. Dreaming up time as a concept and then treating time as something to be measured. The amazing ingenuity it took to invent so many different devices to measure distance (and time) and then link them to establish location. Quoting Rothstein’s article again:
The subject of navigation itself intersects several academic disciplines. The exhibition is a collaboration between two branches of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. There are four curators, each involved in a different part of the story: Paul Ceruzzi, aerospace electronics; Roger Connor, aviation; Andrew Johnston, geography; and Carlene Stephens, timekeeping. It is a measure of the centrality of the subject — and the general ignorance about it — that an entire museum could have been devoted to it. Indeed, the show’s achievement is not that it makes the subject seem easy — for that, we can just play with Google Maps or Google Earth — but that it reveals that it is difficult beyond imagining.
As students of this topic already know, figuring out north and south on the globe was the easy part – because that could be determined by checking location against the sun and stars, like Polaris. The devil was in determining east and west (longitude). That really couldn’t be solved until better timepieces were invented. (Which did happen, across centuries.)
Here’s another blog about visiting Greenwich, England (with a photo of the prime meridian!) and the Longitude Act of 1714, establishing a prize of £20,000 (perhaps 3 million in today’s dollars) for the invention of a way to measure longitude at sea with some accuracy. Here’s more about the the inventor and device that eventually took the prize in 1773: John Harrison and his H-4 clock.
Rothstein says the most modern section of the exhibit is actually something of a let-down. He felt inventions like GPS (“when things become more complex while seeming more elementary in their use”) are not explained as well as sextants. (I wonder, was it too difficult to explain GPS? Or do we bother less to explain what is both new and familiar?)
In any event, GPS.gov gets the connection and is a sponsor of the exhibition.
Humans! A fractious and disorganized species, at times. But capable of great achievements, such as navigation.
If you find yourself in D.C. with any time to spare, this sounds like something worth seeing.
Do you know how to navigate? (For this question, pushing a GPS button doesn’t count!)
Was it hard to learn? What struck you about the subject while you learned the ins and outs?
What close calls did you have by NOT having that skill?