Astronomer's Point

On Saturday, February 5, 2005 our ship moored in Dusky Sound scarcely a football field away from the spot where Captain James Cook moored the HMS Resolution from March 27 to April 28, 1773. We were on our way to Astronomer's Point, the site of one of the technological triumphs of the 18th century. The rainfall in this part of New Zealand measures anywhere from 15 to 24 feet a year. This enormous amount of water runs off the land into the salt sea where it floats on top the way brandy floats on Benedictine. Because it lets in more sunlight, it serves as a freshwater lens creating a brand new underwater environment. Black coral that normally grows much deeper will now rise up to take advantage of the light bonanza. The movie Field of Dreams popularized the mantra Build a field and they will come. Mother Nature’s mantra is Make a niche and I will fill it.

We eased along the same narrow passage Cook used 132 years earlier when he kedged his way into this lovely inlet, undoubtedly to get into the lee of the island to our left and escape pummeling by the heavy winds that can strike Resolution Bay at any moment.

Once ashore we climbed up to a lookout point that offered a lovely view of the crinkled shoreline below. This is where James Cook tested the accuracy of K1, the first copy of H4, itself the fourth iteration of John Harrison’s remarkable chronometer that solved the thousands of years old longitude problem, how to measure accurately ones longitude while sailing the high seas. To test the accuracy of Harrison’s invention the astronomer needed a clearing to take measurements of the night sky. He would match his own results against those of the three chronometers built in 1769 especially for this trip by Larcum Kendall (hence the designations K1, K2 and K3). All three were copies of Harrison’s master timepiece. Harrison’s chronometer matched the astronomer's reckonings to such an extent that the match amounted to a technological miracle. K1 never lost more than eight seconds (or two nautical miles at the equator). Cook praised the chronometer calling it “...our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates.” At Astronomer’s Point one can still see several tree stumps poking up as a natural memorial to Harrison’s achievement.

The history of Harrison’s uphill battle to win the Board of Longitude’s £20,000 prize is infuriating. A committee that couldn’t believe anything could work so well constantly denied him the prize. Test after test was passed off as a fluke, an accident, a lucky strike. The matter was finally brought by a friend to the attention of King George III who, apprised of the snub by the Board of Longitude, was moved to say of John and his son William, “...these people have been cruelly wronged...and by God, Harrison, I will see you righted!” The Board of Longitude was bureaucracy at its worst, powerful people whose ignorance blinded them to brilliance.

In 1773, the year Cook landed at Astronomer’s Point, the Board of Longitude was end run by a British parliament that awarded £8750 to Harrison, acknowledging finally that he had, indeed, solved the longitude problem. Ironically, it isn’t clear that Harrison knew of the tremendous success of his chronometer at Cook’s hands on the HMS Resolution. Perhaps he did. Cook had returned to England a year before Harrison died on March 24, 1776. It was Harrison’s 83rd birthday. It seems fitting that his death should have been timed so precisely.

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