The Greenwich Royal Observatory is one of the world’s most important scientific sites. It is the home of G.M.T. – of Greenwich Mean Time and key to maritime Greenwich being declared a World Heritage Site in 1997.
The Observatory was founded by Charles II in order to “…find the so-much desired longitude of places .” At that time, it was thought that by studying the moon and the stars, a solution could be found to the age-old problem faced by seamen. Shipwrecks and resulting loss of life were common at the time.
The King appointed John Flamsteed as the first Royal Astronomer. He was the first resident of Flamsteed House, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral) in 1675.
John Harrison (1693 -1776) was a former carpenter who would eventually solve the puzzle of finding longitude, which many at the time thought to be unsolvable. In 1714, Parliament had established a panel of experts, the Board of Longitude, which offered a reward of £20,000 (equivalent to £ 2 Million today) to anyone who could solve the problem to their satisfaction.
Through much experimentation with the help of his brother and of his son, Harrison eventually triumphed. With one hour in time difference equalling 15 degrees in longitude, Harrison knew that the solution lay in an accurate timepiece set to Greenwich time. His H4 large pocket watch was both portable and amazingly accurate. After much bureaucratic delay and a personal appeal to George III, the reward was finally forthcoming to father and son, in 1773.
At an international conference held in 1884, it was decided that Greenwich Meridian would be the world standard for the setting of time. This made possible for the first time the international standardization of time, ie. the official centre of world time and space. The Prime Meridian line at the Observatory enables one to simultaneously straddle the Eastern and Western hemispheres!
This equates with 0 degrees Longitude.
Since 1833, the red ball atop Flamsteed House has risen just before 1 p.m. dropping at exactly 1 p.m. Greenwich time. Local ship captains and others could set their own clocks by this visual cue.
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