Friday, October 21, 2011

The Scilly Naval Disaster

It is the fall of 1707.  Several European nations were halfway through the 13-year long War of the Spanish Succession.  In a power trip not unlike some present day NCAA schools, France and Spain were considering uniting into one super-conference to get the upper hand in Europe.  They figured if they hooked up they would have a better chance to take out their arch-rival Great Britain in the Fiesta Bowl of world domination.  Not wanting to be outcoached, Britain cock-blocked France and Spain by phoning up the Dutch, Portugal, and others, and started up the Euro Trash Conference. 

British forces were in the Mediterranean, attempting to smack down the French at their port city of Toulon.  A fleet of ships was sent by Britain to Toulon to help reinforce the troops.  They decided to put their own Urban Meyer in charge, sending Sir Cloudsley Shovell, the Commander in Chief of the British Fleets along to call the plays.  They did engage in some fighting, but ultimately the French threw a red flag and challenged a call.  It was reversed by the replay booth, so the Brits decided to just run out the clock and go in for halftime.  Ordered back to England, Sir Cloudsley and a fleet of 21 ships sailed past Gibralter, out of the Mediterranean, and headed home.

Sir Cloudsley Shovell

Sir Cloudsley was on the ship HMS Association.  At 165 feet in length, it boasted 90 cannon and carried 800 men.  They led the way out into the Atlantic Ocean and north towards England.  The convoy was battered continuously by bad storms and strong gales.  Eventually Sir Cloudsley peered out into the storm, switched on his right turn blinkers, and hung a Ralph into what he thought was the safety of the English Channel.  His men, thinking they were finally about to win the BCS, dumped Gatorade on Sir Cloudsley and did some embarrasing touchdown dances on the fo'c'sle.  There was one thing though- there was still time on the clock.

There was one little problem about sailing the Seven Seas in 1707.  You and your shipmates often didn't know exactly where you were.  The reason for this is that there had yet to be developed a perfect system of determining longitude.  Longitude is simply a way of noting how far east or west you are.  If you are out of sight of land on a ship you have no reference points to tell where you are exactly.  There are no clues to tell you precisely where you are on a map.  The way to solve that problem is that if you know the exact time of day locally, you can compare it to the exact time of day that it is in a known reference point, say London, and you can then calculate how far east or west of London you are.  You can then pinpoint your location on a map.  But if you are hundreds of miles from land, who are you going to ask what time it happens to be there? 

Sir Cloudsley and his 21 ships thought they were safely in the English Channel and almost home.  Sadly, due to the storms and other problems inherent with navigation at the time, they had miscalculated. They were actually still some distance west of the southwest tip of England.  It sucks to be them, because exactly 304 years ago today, on what truly was "a dark and stormy night," they sailed  unknowingly right toward the Scilly Isles.

They thought they were in the English Channel, but were actually at the Scilly Isles (in blue)

The Scilly Isles lie about 30 miles off the very tip of England.  There are 145 granite rock islands, of which 5 are inhabited.  Many of these islands are little more than house-sized rocks sticking out of the ocean.  Not big enough to live on, but plenty big to trash a ship slamming into one in the middle of the night during a storm.  And that is exactly what happened. 

The Scilly Isles

 Four of the ships hit rocks and sank, including the Association.  Estimates varied, but it is accepted that between 1,400 and 2,000 men lost their lives that night.  Sir Cloudsley's body washed ashore on one of the inhabited islands the next day, seven miles from where his ship went down.

Engraving of the disaster

Needless to say, this was big news back in London. The British government was getting pretty sick and tired of this bogus longitude problem and all the 15 yard roughing the passer penalties it was creating.  In 1714 they created the Board of Longitude.  The Board got together and wrote up one of those snappy mission statements saying something like "Working toward a market-driven, customer-oriented, fiscally responsible ability to calcuate longitude like a boss"  They established the Longitude Prize, a carrot to entice scientists off their asses, out of the pubs, and get to figuring out a way to calculate longitude consistantly and accurately.  The Board made it rain with some eye popping cash prizes- 10,000 pounds if you could calculate longitude within 60 nautical miles, 15,000 for within 40 nm, and 20,000 if you could dial it in to within 30 nm.  In 1714 dollars that's some serious wild weekend in Vegas spending money.  They also offered smaller prizes for people who made genuine contributions to solving the bigger problem.

It was known that the best way to calculate your longitude was like this:  If, before you leave on  your ship voyage, you have a clock that is perfectly set to a known standard time, and you take it with you, you can always look at it and know what your reference point time is.  Then, when the sun is directly overhead, you can use noon as your local time, and utilizing the reference clock you can calculate your longitude pretty accurately.  So the problem was not to be solved by coming up with a new way to calculate longitude- it required inventing a better clock. 

In the 1700s, clocks were totally mechanical devises. They were made up of springs and gears, with no batteries or quartz movements or anything like that.  The metals used weren't as rigid and reliable as they are now.  Even in the best of times your clock at home, assuming you were rich enough to own one, had to be reset often.  For a ship at sea, with the pitching and rolling and varying temperatures and humidity, clocks were notoriously bad at keeping accurate time.  It didn't do any good to set your clock before your voyage, it would be soon be inaccurate.  In order to calculate your distance within 60 nm you needed to have a clock that stayed very accurate for weeks or months at sea.  It took a master clock maker, John Harrison, to finally solve the problem. 

John Harrison

Mr. Harrison built his first grandfather-type clock when he was 20.  Over the years he came up with many intriguing improvements to clock design.  Starting in 1730, he began working on designing a clock to compete for the Longitude Prize.  Over the next 42 years he worked his way through the design and construction of five of what became known as maritime chronometers.  King George III personally tested the 5th chronometer from May to July of 1772 and determined the clock to be accurate to within 1/3 of one second per day.  These chronometers were incredibly expensive.  At first they were approximately 30 percent of the cost of a new ship!

Harrison's 5th and final chronometer 

The bad thing is that the Board of Longitude must've been a bit grumpy or something, because they kind of seriously dissed John Harrison.  They often kept his chronometers for years as they supposedly tested them, and rather than call a press conference and award him the big prize money they tended to cough and act like they had something in their eye, and then they would say they had to go take a phone call, but they'd be in touch.  Eventually even King George got a bit irritated by the Board.  They did eventually give Mr. Harrison some money, but they never actually awarded any of the grand prizes to him or anybody else.  The Board of Longitude must've had a good lobbyist, because it lasted for over 100 years until it was finally abolished by Parliament in 1828. 

The locations of all four shipwrecks of the Scilly Naval Disaster have long since been determined, and are popular dive locations.  Not much is left of the ships except the dozens of cannon and some huge ship anchors.  And the War of Spanish Succession?  Everyone eventually grew tired of it and took their ball and went home.  France and Spain threw in the towel on their conference realignment and all the soldiers scattered to trade their uniforms for tats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On This Date...

Sorry for the long layoff.  I misplaced my computer.

Several interesting music-oriented things happened on this date in history.  Let's check some of them out:

1.  Chuck Berry's birthday.  Chuck Berry was born today in 1926, so that makes him 85 years old for those of you looking around for your calculator.  He was born in St. Louis, MO.  A lot of historians put Chuck at ground zero for the birth of rock and roll.  His mixture of country music (as it sounded in the early 1950s) and T-Bone Walker-style blues guitar licks created the classic 1950s rock and roll sound.  His biggest hits came in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Sadly, he has been pretty much a nostalgia act since the 70s.  His last true studio album came out in 1979.  Chuck often toured by himself, and arranged to be paid in cash and for a local band in each town to back him in his concerts.  The primary benefit of this is that he got most of the money and didn't have to deal with a band touring with him.  The downside was varying quality to his concerts and that he eventually did a few months in prison for tax evasion.  He still occasionally plays live and still lives outside St. Louis.

Chuck Berry in 2007

2.  Gary Richrath's birthday.  Who, you ask?  Gary was the original and long time lead guitarist for the band REO Speedwagon.  In the early 1980s REO was one of the biggest bands out there.  By then, however, I had already quit listening to them.  Most of their huge 1980s hits were power ballads, a genre that didn't interest me.  If you back the clock up a few years, though, REO were rockers. Not heavy metal, but more of a fast boogie-woogie party rock and roll with a great guitar sound.  I first took notice in 1977 with the song Riding the Storm Out.  It was off their new live album "You Get What You Play For".  I bought that album and wore it out, mostly focusing on Gary Richrath's guitar playing.  Unfortunately they followed that up with the album with a cheap pun in the title- "You Can Tune a Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish" which ushered in the song "Time For Me To Fly".  This was a big power ballad hit, and unfortunately distorted everything they ever recorded from that point on.  They lost me.  They lost Gary Richrath, too, in 1989.  He quit the band because he wanted to get back to playing rock songs, while lead singer Kevin Cronin preferred the overwrought emotional stadium rock songs.  Gary was born on this date in 1949, and he's now 61 years old.

Gary on the "You Get What You Play For" album cover

3. Paul McCartney's first performance with the Quarrymen:  Before the Beatles, there was the Quarrymen.  This was a musical group made up of John Lennon and several other kids from the neighborhood.  They were called the  Quarrymen after Quarry Bank High School where Lennon attended school.  Paul first saw the Quarrymen perform at a churchyard picnic in July, 1957.  He later joined the group, and played his first show with them on October 18, 1957-exactly 54 years ago today.  By 1960 most of the Quarrymen had quit the group, George Harrison had joined, and the Quarrymen chose a new name- The Beatles.

John Lennon and the Quarrymen on the day Paul McCartney and Lennon first met

4. Video Killed the Radio Star-  Today in 1979, this song, by the Buggles, was number one in the U.K.  The Buggles were Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes  They were basically a studio-only band and did not perform concerts.  They recorded and released the single "Video Killed the Radio Star" right at the end of the 70s, with lyrics that looked back nostalgically at radio and the worry that radio as a star-making source was losing it's power and being taken over by television.  With a hit on their hands, Horn and Downes quickly wrote and put out a Buggles album in February, 1980 called "The Age of Plastic."  It had a couple of other minor singles but no additional hits.  The duo next spent a year with the band Yes before releasing the second Buggles album in 1981.  This album went nowhere, and the Buggles came to an end.  On August 1st, 1981, "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the very first video played on the brand new MTV (back when they played videos).

The Video Killed the Radio Star single

5. Julie London- On this day in 2000 Julie London died at age 74.  Most people know her as nurse Dixie McCall on the tv show Emergency! from the mid-1970s.  What many don't know is that in the 1950s she was a very popular singer.  She was working as an elevator operator when she was discovered, and ended up recording 32 albums in her career.  She was Billboard magazine's most popular female vocalist in 1955, '56, and '57.  She was married for a while to Jack Webb of Dragnet fame.  Later, after divorcing Webb she met and married Bobby Troup, a bandleader who wrote the popular song "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66."  In the 1970s Webb created the tv show Emergency! and cast both Julie London as Nurse Mccall and Bobby Troup as Dr. Joe Early.  They remained married until Troup's death in 1999.

Julie in her 1950s singing heyday.

With husband Bobby Troup in the Emergency! days

This concludes today's history lesson.  Now go and do something productive.