A Brief
History of
Longitude


How Longitude Capital
Got Its Name


Our firm name was inspired by the Longitude Prize, a competition established by the British Parliament in 1714 to solve “the longitude problem”. Throughout the ages, sailors effectively used celestial navigation to determine their latitude. Calculating longitude, however, was more difficult because the Earth’s rotation of 15 degrees per hour causes a one degree difference in longitude for every four minutes of time difference between a ship’s home port and its location.

Accurate determination of longitude by celestial navigation relied on knowing the precise time difference between one’s home port and where one was at sea. While not particularly problematic for short voyages, the importance of precise timekeeping over long journeys became very important by the 15th century as transatlantic travel to the “New World” grew more frequent. Timepieces of the day were imprecise and failed in the harsh conditions experienced at sea, resulting in the regular loss of ships, many lives and precious cargo. The ability to calculate longitude accurately emerged as a major economic opportunity for sea faring nations looking to expand their influence abroad.

Consequently, several European monarchies offered financial incentives to solve this problem as early as 1598, but it was only after a series of highly publicized Royal Navy shipwrecks in the early 1700s caused by miscalculation of longitude that the British Parliament created The Longitude Prize, an unprecedented reward of £20,000 (equivalent to several million dollars today) to the person who invented a technology that could accurately and consistently determine longitude.

John Harrison (1693-1776), a self-educated clockmaker in England, won The Longitude Prize after inventing and perfecting a marine chronometer nearly impervious to pitch and roll, temperature and humidity. Between 1730 and 1761, Harrison tested four timekeeping devices (H1, H2, H3 and H4) on various sea voyages. Ultimately, the H4 proved itself on two voyages to the Caribbean and Harrison was awarded the prize. Today, Harrison’s four experimental timepieces are on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

John Harrison’s talent and entrepreneurial persistence delivered a paradigm-changing solution to one of the greatest economic and technical problems of his day and earned him a great reward. The Longitude Prize is an apt metaphor for our own endeavors at Longitude Capital – we invest in outstanding entrepreneurs focused on using technology to solve problems of significant economic and social importance.