Would some power the gift to gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us
Once upon a time everyone believed the earth, flat or not, was the centre of the universe. The Sun and all the stars revolved around us. We were super important. Super super important. The most importantest thing there was.
Then Copernicus came along and using some fancy maths and observations figured out we weren’t in the centre of the Universe. The revelation was a revolution, a Copernican one and it kicked up quite a stink. Not everyone liked being told they weren’t all that important after all. A lot of people over the centuries have since discussed the impact that conceptual shift has had on the human race and how we consider our position in the grand scheme of things. Though, despite it being what scientists call ‘a really long time ago’, some people still can’t quite get their heads round it.
But to think we’ve freed our oh-so-enlightened selves from conceptual misperceptions would place us in the same position as those early naysayers. Almost by definition a conceptual map is almost impossible for us to acknowledge as being a map. We are just as guilty of mistaking them for the territory as people were in the 16th Century.
It’s no surprise I suppose. We like to trust our maps for fear that, if we don’t, we might get lost.
Our conception of this rock we’re on has always had a literal influence on how we perceive ourselves and our position in the world. Since we’ve had the tools to do so we’ve always tried to gain some grasp of that unknown beyond the mountain, or ocean by producing maps. Their accuracy has, save for some unusual, cartographical curiosities,
improved over the years ensuring we can find Easter Island and the local Pizza Hut without too much trouble. But things used to be a lot trickier on account of those early maps being, well, quite shit really. Until fairly recently whichever map a 17th Century Pirate might’ve been using they wouldn’t have even been able to tell how far east or west they were because no-one had figured out how to calculate longitude.
The search for how to calculate longitude was the hottest of hot topics in 17th Century Europe. While sailing it was fairly easy to calculate latitude, your position north or south, using heavenly bodies and a quadrant. You could set off for Barbados and, if you knew whereabouts it was north or south you knew you’d eventually hit it. This wasn’t all that accurate for sailing though. Sailors could guess how close they might be to Barbados but that was about it, and not knowing exactly their position meant they were much more likely to accidentally sail into a reef, or enemy waters or a kraken. This wasn’t lost on the tussling great powers of the time and was a pain in the arse for the growing merchant class so a race was on to discover how to figure out longitude.
As we all know when we go further east or west we enter different time zones. Figuring out the time of day in the location you’re in is not so difficult. You look at the skies and see where the sun or the stars are and you know the time. Not as precise as an atomic clock but precise enough for a highwayman or a monk. To figure out longitude however you need to not just know the time where you are but the time where you are relative to another location. The problem with this in the 17th Century was they didn’t have casio digital watches. The wind up, pendulum clocks they did have had a tendency to alter their accuracy over time, requiring winding up regularly and whatnot. If you set two wind up pendulum clocks at exactly the same time then took one on your Caribbean cruise and left the other in Amsterdam you couldn’t guarantee they would tell the same time, at the same time. One might start to get slower quicker than the other and once you were apart, without iPhones and satellites, you’d never know. Add to this that boats have a tendency to rock about which can do terrible things not only to those with delicate constitutions but also to the workings of pendulum clocks.
Here in Blighty to encourage the brightest and best toward solving the problem we passed the Longitude Act which offered financial rewards for anyone who could solve the problem. Up to 20 grand, which is nearly 3 million in today’s money (maybe less since Brexit). John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker eventually cracked the problem in 1761, with his invention of an accurate and stable marine chronometer. As a result Delboy and Rodders became millionaires after finding one in the last episode of Only Fools and Horses but before that Britannia did, for a while, rule the waves.
Greenwich Meantime is one of those things you never think much of. I mean why would you? Even when you’re jumping on a metal winged bus to travel 70,000 feet in the air to get somewhere quicker than humans were ever meant to get to, you don’t think about it. Even if you manually change your watch, you wouldn’t tend to think of the significance of the mean time running through London but it didn’t just happen by accident. Britain had been using Greenwich as the Prime Meridian longer than anyone else because Britain solved the problem first. Other countries did start to use different ones but at the International Meridian conference in 1884 Greenwich was voted to be the international Prime Meridian. The fact that, at the time, the British Empire was at its peak was, no doubt, a small contributory factor to the selection of the location. But what does it matter, after all, where the Prime Meridian is, as long as it’s somewhere and everyone agrees on that? Well, I dare say it matters a lot, but why is another question.
In 1894 a French anarchist, Martial Bourdain blew his dumb-ass self up with a bomb he was carrying through Greenwich Park in London. Presumably it was an accident. No-one knows for sure what he was planning to do with the bomb but the general consensus is that he was heading to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich which calculated and houses the clock which displays the Prime Meridian time. More difficult to answer is what on earth he was thinking in aiming to bomb that particular place. What was so symbolic about it? Joseph Conrad fictionalises this event in The Secret Agent and seems perplexed by the reasoning calling the selection of the target an “inanity of so fatuous a kind that is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.”
John Higgs however has posited that the Observatory as a target is not so irrational if you consider the conceptual importance of the site as the location of the Prime Meridian. His book Stranger Than We Can Imagine suggests it as a conceptual ‘omphalos’. A central focal point around which the world turns. Ancient cultures usually had such things, often represented by a stone artefact, a mountain or other place such as the temple at Delphi for the Greeks. The meridian was representative of the increasing standardisation and establishment control of everything in public life and anarchists don’t like that sort of thing. Higgs’ book describes the 20th Century as a period when this omphalos was removed, followed by a largely failed attempt to hitch ourselves to another – the individual.
The problem of the individual lacking an omphalos is the same as traveling without a map. Without a cultural omphalos it’s also easy for us to get lost – conceptually speaking. The importance of the origin of the longitudinal meridians running through England no doubt fed the nationalistic pride in our glorious empire and, though that has disintegrated and the significance of the Greenwhich Observatory clock has diminished, many of us still cling on to that patriotism – ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel‘ as Samuel Johnson once called it. You have to hold on to something I suppose.
Being able to lay this abstract grid over the globe is very useful for finding out where the hell you are when on a catamaran because it’s useful in cartography. There are different sorts of maps representing the globe – the polyconic,
but the one we’re all most familiar with is the Mercator projection, which is an unraveling of the globe as if it were a scroll.
The Mercatorial map is so pervasive that it’s easy for us to just think of it when we think of the Earth. But the problem with all of these different global maps, including the Mercator map, is they all create a distortion of one sort or another, and it’s interesting to consider what impact that might have on us as we mentally picture the world and our place in it.
The Mercator projection unavoidably distorts things in a number of ways. First of all, the closer to the poles the bigger the land mass appears to be. So Greenland and, to a lesser extent, the rest of North America seem to be massive compared to Africa which, in actual fact is much bigger. Also by the nature of what it is, the most Western point of the Americas seems to be thousands of miles away from the most Eastern point of Russia when in fact they’re only about 50 miles apart.
You don’t need an incredible knowledge of history to see a ‘coincidental’ correlation with the history of the last hundred or more years. The vast continent of Africa forever symbolically and economically diminished and a war that threatened to destroy us all between two countries that were ideological opposites as they were Mercatorial map opposites.
East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.