“When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales.” These words are from Mark Twain’s 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi, and at that time – a whimsical daydream. But according to author Dava Sobel in her book Longitude, “Anyone alive in the 18th century would have known that the longitude problem was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day – and had been for centuries.”
For all of mankind’s seafaring history, cartography and navigation involved a baffling and complex system – an orbiting and rotating planet. It was a global challenge for the most complex of systems, the neurons and synapses of the human mind.
The Space-Time Continuum
The imaginary fabric of Twain’s net was first presented graphically by the Greco-Roman mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy in 150 AD. And determining latitude was relative child’s play, the laws of nature had revealed the equator as the zero-degree parallel. Yet as Sobel describes, “the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time.” Ptolemy could put it wherever he liked, and he did, and in the following centuries it became a purely political decision.
It was mathematician and astronomer Galileo, whose land based method using Jupiter’s moons, finally gained acceptance in 1650. As Sobel writes “Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe. Palatial observatories were founded in Paris, London, and Berlin for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens.” But it was another observation of Galileo’s that changed the course of mankind, despite the political and scientific elites.
While a young medical student sitting in church, Galileo observed the motion of a swinging lamp. He timed its arcs with his own pulse, and discovered that its rate of speed was a function of the length its chain. According to Galileo’s protégé Vincenzo Viviani, “Galileo always intended to put this remarkable observation to work in a pendulum clock, but he never got around to building one.”
What he did, according to Sobel in her book Galileo’s Daughter, while a professor at Pisa in 1589, “he measured the swinging of pendulums; and he rolled bronze balls down inclined planes to derive the rate of acceleration in free fall.” This was a breakthrough discovery. As Galileo was stitching together the flexible fabric of space and time, he was also scratching the surface of the anti-Copernican Edict of 1616. For his efforts he was awarded a conviction by the Holy Offices of the Inquisition in 1633.
The World Wide Web
A century before the Copernican Edict there lived another renegade. His countrymen referred to him as a traitor, but today Lisbon proclaims: He is ours! In middle age this maverick renounced his native land. He then received a commission from King Carlos I of Spain to venture west. His Anglicized name is Ferdinand Magellan, and according to historian William Manchester in his book A World Lit Only by Fire, “he couldn’t even be certain of what he was looking for until he found it, and the fact that he had no clear view of his target makes the fact that he hit it squarely all the more remarkable.”
Like his contemporaries during the Age of Explorers, he was almost always lost. According to Magellan’s scribe Pigafetta, “The captain spends many hours studying the problem of the longitude but the pilots content themselves with the knowledge of the latitude.” A singularity among 16th century men, he rewarded those who performed well and was respected for his supreme competence.
According to Manchester, he was “meticulous, fiercely ambitious, stubborn, driven, secretive, and iron-willed. Magellan possessed an inner vision he shared with no one. He was a man of boundless curiosity, and found reality equally enthralling.” His sense of mission was adventure, but his political sponsors had a different sense of mission – property. He used them to eventually stitch together the world wide web, our flexible fabric of meridians and parallels that cover mountain tops and oceans floors.
Connecting the Dots
Ptolemy defined the problem of longitude, and in 1519 Magellan studied it as if his life depended on it, and it did. Galileo’s celestial solution was useless to navigators, but his idea of pendulums as time pieces was lightning in a bottle. The dilemma, “one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history,” instead led to “accurate determinations of the weight of the earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light.” As Sobel continues in Longitude, “what Newton had feared as impossible,” required not a celestial clock, but a mechanical one.
In 1714 the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act. It established prize money for a reliable and repeatable solution, and was worth millions of dollars in today’s money. It was finally awarded to a man “with no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, he nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication or cleaning, made from materials impervious to rust.”
In 1773, John Harrison finally collected his prize, despite “decades of political intrigue, the backbiting of academic elites, and scientific revolution.” Sobel concludes Longitude saying “With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded against all odds, in using the fourth dimension to link points on the three dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.”
The Flexible Fabric of Reality
Ptolemy, Magellan, Galileo, and Harrison shared qualities that make them shining hubs among the countless nodes of the creative human network. Among them are curiosity, reason, vision, ambition, and will. In that order. Hierarchies are only in the way. The rotation of the earth is a concrete. The dark matter of gravity is a concrete. They are everywhere. They are complex systems to be understood and appreciated. The flexible fabric of reality discovered by these renegades belongs to all of us. And like them, the flexible fabric of human action is everywhere, and it is called spontaneous order. It is the incomprehensible network of human activity we call economics.
It’s nodes are countless scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, inventors, artists, and consumers; all engaged in life affirming activity, trading value for value. And they stand ready to defend the only concrete it requires, economic freedom. As economic scientist Ludwig von Mises has discovered, “In a system where there is no market, where the government directs everything, all freedoms are illusory, even if they are made in to laws, and written up in constitutions.”