New angles on the Moon

On Monday, I was part of the Science Museum’s Dana Centre event ‘Time and the Moon’, hosted by the BBC’s science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh. We had a full capacity crowd, which was terrific – thanks to everyone who came along. Hope you enjoyed it.

I spoke about how the Moon was used to navigate at sea, following pioneering work at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. From the late-eighteenth century, scenes like this one were played out on the decks of ships the world over, although I suspect real life was somewhat less tidy than this neat Victorian picture…

'Taking a Lunar Distance', 1891 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This ‘lunar distance’ method of navigating involved measuring the Moon’s distance from certain stars, then carrying out some laborious arithmetic before getting a navigation fix. It took time and effort, but the ship’s crew depended on it for their lives.

The image is from an 1891 book in our library by Royal Observatory assistant, Edwin Dunkin, entitled ‘The Midnight Sky’. You can see more pictures from the book at our Ingenious website here.

'The Midnight Sky', 1891, by Edwin Dunkin (Science Museum / Science & Society)

If you’re interested in marine navigation before satnav, I can heartily recommend ‘The Quest for Longitude’, edited by William Andrewes. It’s an absorbing and richly-detailed read, and demonstrates just how ingenious navigators had to be in the age of sail and steam.

And if you’re free tomorrow evening (Thursday), there’s a stellar cast of speakers at our next free Dana Centre event, ‘Space… a real frontier?’ Book now!

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