In the previous post, I outlined the basic concepts for obtaining latitude by sextant sightings at local solar noon, and illustrated how masters and astronomers on 19th century Arctic-exploring ships determined their northern position whether on the open ocean or trekking across glaciers on foot or by dog sledge. When navigating the open ocean, 19th century masters on Arctic-exploring ships also needed to know their longitude, which requires use of both a sextant and an accurate chronometer. This second of three posts discusses basic procedures used to determine longitude.
One fundamental of navigation is understanding time, distance, and speed. They are mathematically interrelated, since the faster one travels, usually more distance is covered or less time is needed to reach a specific destination. On the featureless, often fathomless ocean, none of these components by themselves provides precise location. However when correlated from a specific point, time can be used to help determine location. For this reason, an accurate and practical-sized chronometer became an essential nautical instrument on many 19th century seafaring ships.
Vertical lines of longitude go north and south from the geographic North Pole to the South Pole. By convention, they originate at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England as zero degrees longitude. Thus, grid squares, consisting of degrees, minutes, and seconds, were projected onto a three-dimensional sphere (the earth) and in practical format, were converted to flat two-dimensional maps or nautical charts. However, as these longitudinal lines converge on the geographic poles, their distance apart progressively narrows. This near-pole narrowing of longitude was a significant sighting and computational factor 19th century Arctic explorers. Thus understanding was by degrees, minutes, and seconds.
For a 19th century nautical chronometer to operate properly, time was set to correspond exactly with that of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, or what is known today as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. Ideally, the chronometer should lose no more than a minute throughout the entire ocean voyage. The sun at noon in Greenwich is 1200 hours GMT, the standard reference for nautical chronometers.
Since the sun advances westward during the day 15 degrees per hour, the ship’s astronomer made sextant sightings at or very close to solar or 12 noon local time. By using daily computation and correction tables, the astronomer placed the ship’s position on a “celestial line of position” or LOP that extended north to south along the route of travel, for example, from Cape Race, Newfoundland to Cape Farewell, Greenland. Typically several sightings were used to calculate and reconfirm longitude (and latitude) at sea.
In addition to inherent errors in early chronometers and sextants, other factors potentially contributed to errors in ascertaining longitude. Human errors included sextant sighting inexperience or haste and mistakes in math calculations. Extrinsic factors included cloudy days and nights, rough seas, and sun-blocking mountainous terrain. Nevertheless, 19th century explorers ventured far north into Arctic ice-cluttered waters and with reasonable accuracy (typically one degree), could determine their position in uncharted waters and across barren terrain.
Frances Hennessey writes informally on 19th century Arctic exploration, concentrating on Isaac I. Hayes, MD. Fran has a small collection of Hayes first editions, two of which are signed by the author. She also tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog: www.oceanic-visions.com
Scattered rocks amongst a weather-worn
Headstone marked August Sonntag’s humble
Gravesite. On a desolate moraine, Donald
MacMillan bore witness to the isolated tomb,
In stark solemnity, a single photograph taken
In broad Arctic sunlight.
Fifty years after Sonntag’s death, MacMillan
Recollected tragic events that demoralizing
Hayes to grieving silence. Icy water paralyzed
Sonntag’s gallant heart, extinguishing his
Celestial light, his love of stars and moon,
Practitioner of navigational science.
Dr. Hayes needed heartfelt days to speak
Openly of his friend’s untimely death.
Recorded in his diary, Hayes recounted his
Strange dream: crash of ice in darkness, Sonntag
Sailing away upon dark waters, flash of eternal
Light, divine despair in meaning and in depth.
From this unsettling vision, Dr. Hayes was
Fraught with anguish, continuous concern. As
Below-zero nights trudged past, forsaken hopes
Eclipsed to quiet lament. Beneath luminous robes
Of auroral fire, the crew, in silent watch, prayed
For a miracle, their astronomer’s safe return.
In early morn, two Inuit hunters at the ice-
Locked schooner appeared. Peter Jensen, the
Ship’s interpreter, was the first to learn Sonntag’s
Mortal fate. When his face lost expression, it
Confirmed what all inwardly had feared. Jensen
Uttered but three words, “Sonntag was dead!”
Hayes and his men made procession by torch-
Light across the rocky desert that sufficed for
Sonntag’s resting-place. Under a cathedral of
Gathered constellations, they relinquished their
Comrade’s body to Greenland’s frozen wilds,
His immortal soul to God’s enduring grace.
To this day, no flowers adorn the lonesome
Gravesite of August Sonntag penned in Hayes’
The Open Polar Sea. Sonntag’s memories are
Possessively held in fragile pages of this narrative
Of discovery. In warmer climes, readers still ponder
Sonntag’s death, a friend silenced in Arctic eternity.
Written on the occasion of Douglas Wamlsey speaking at the Old Dartmouth Lyceum Lecture
Series on October 24th, 2013.
Inspired by a photograph taken by Donald MacMillian, an early 20th century Arctic explorer,
this poem describes the death and gravesite of August Sonntag. The black-and-white photograph
was an illustration in Douglas Wamsley’s “Polar Hayes,” a biography of Isaac Israel Hayes, MD.
Sonntag was Hayes’ second-in-command and astronomer during his 1860-1861 Arctic expedition,
searching for the Open Polar Sea.
Thursdays, September 19th, October 3rd & 24th, November 14th
This year the Old Dartmouth Lyceum lecture series will focus around the exhibit Arctic Visions: “Away then Floats the Ice-Island”.
Tickets are now on sale. See below for more information about the lectures and registration information.
Frozen Zones: Bradford, Arctic Photography and nineteenth-century Visual Culture
Mr. Potter teaches English and Media Studies at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. His work encompasses hip hop culture, popular music, and the history of exploration of the Arctic in the nineteenth century. When the artist William Bradford chartered a voyage to the Arctic purely for the purposes of art – including photographers – he was revolutionizing both the scope and the immediacy of photography, bringing back a rich array of images, the first ever taken of Arctic by professional photographers. These photos he put to many uses –projected as lantern slide lectures, printed and used as view-books for painting commissions, and – most magnificently – as illustrations for the groundbreaking book The Arctic Regions.
Sea of Ice: The Art of Arctic Exploration
Mr. Avery is a senior research scholar and a former associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an adjunct professor in the art department of Hunter College, City University of New York. He will review the history of Arctic exploration in painting and illustration, with special reference to nineteenth-century artists and illustrators leading up to Frederic Church and New Bedford’s William Bradford. Dr. Avery will reveal known or probable sources in the history of western imagery applied to the visualization of the alien landscape that was and, to most, still is the Arctic regions.
William Bradford’s 1869 Expedition, in Context with Arctic Travels of the 19th Century
Mr. Wamsley, an independent scholar and attorney who has written extensively on the history of 19th century Arctic exploration. His most recent work is a biography, Polar Hayes, on the life and accomplishments of Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, a participant in Bradford’s 1869 Greenland voyage. In 1869, a sailing excursion along the northwest coast of Greenland was not a venture to be taken lightly. However, William Bradford’s voyage ably succeeded in navigating those ice-laden waters that year, while at the same time capturing vivid images of the “Frozen Zone”. This lecture recounts the history of that memorable expedition and its proper place in the broader context of 19th century arctic travels.
Inuit and Whaling in the Bradford Era
Mr. Harper is a historian, linguist and writer, who has lived in the Arctic (both Greenland and Canada) for the past 47 years. He writes a weekly history column under the name Taissumani for Nunatsiaq News, the newspaper of record for Nunavut, Canada, and is the author of Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. He will speak on the whaling industry and the profound effect on the culture of Inuit in both Canada and Greenland. He will examine this impact, its effect on Inuit life, and Inuit adaptation to the stresses and demands of change and recount episodes from the lives of particular Inuit who used the whaling industry to their own advantage.
Buy Tickets Here or register by phone at 508-997-0046 ext. 100
$15.00 per lecture (non-members, $20)
$50.00 for series (non-members, $75)
Receptions in the Jacobs Family Gallery at 6:00 pm.
Lectures in the Cook Memorial Theater at 7:00 pm.
Old Dartmouth Lyceum is sponsored by Nye Lubricants and Bruce and Karen Wilburn.
Tweet hashtag: #ODLyceum2013
Dr. Hayes in his first book, An Arctic Boat Journey, demonstrated his abilities at gaining both scientific and financial support for his second Arctic expedition, search for the legendary Open Polar Sea. Of note, Chapter 34 “Concluding Remarks” and the following “Appendix” illustrate Hayes’ ambitious plan to return to the shores of Arctic Greenland.
In Chapter 34, Hayes methodically sets forth his logistical issues and general vision for his second (1860) expedition well beyond “The North Water” to the time-shrouded Silurian cliffs of Ellesmere Island. Hayes, as well as the scientific community, believed that once so-called polar “barrier of ice” had been crossed, open water may exist.
Borne out of the First and Second Grinnell search and rescue expeditions with Elisha Kent Kane, MD, Hayes developed a unique vision if not a calling for the exploration of the eastern High Arctic, especially Smith Sound and Kennedy Channel, the isolated and oft times ice-cluttered passageway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Like many who ventured north in search of the lost Franklin Expedition, Hayes made advances and discoveries of the Arctic regions that may have been otherwise delayed for decades or at least until the advent of steam-powered, iron-clad wooden schooners. Franklin’s search for a navigable Northwest Passage may have influenced Hayes to conduct his own search for an open region of Arctic Ocean. Whether Hayes’ open ocean was a transient, summer polynya, his navigation vision nearly has been realized from present-day warming and subsequent opening of Arctic waters.
To rally scientific and financial support, Hayes relied on Kane’s observations made during the Second Grinnell Expedition as published in the “Proceedings” of the October 12, 1858 meeting of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of Boston:
The announcement of an open sea within the Arctic Ocean was made in those words by Dr. Kane after the return of his man [William] Morton from a sledge excursion in June, 1854. ‘It must have been an imposing sight, as he stood at this termination of his journey, looking out upon the great waste of waters before him. ‘Not a speck of ice,’ to use his own words, ‘could be seen.’ There, from a height of four hundred and eighty feet, which commanded a horizon of almost forty miles, his ears were gladdened by the novel music of dashing waters, and a surf, breaking in among the rocks at his feet, stayed his further progress.
In addition to numerous American benefactors, Hayes receives international support from M. De La Roquette, Vice-President of the Geographical Society of Paris. His letter, dated January 21, 1859, provides both support and a tentative date for Hayes’ Arctic expedition:
For the resolution adopted by the American Geographical and Statistical Society, I perceive that the expedition will probably leave in the spring of 1860, under the command of Dr. Hayes, its promoter, and that its expenses will be covered by means of a subscription. The attachment which I have always felt for Dr. Kane, and which he kindly shared, and the honor which your learned Society had done me by electing me an as their Honorary Member, leaves me ground to hope that they will allow me to place my name among the number of subscribers with a sum of five hundred francs, which I hold for their disposition.
Within the thirty pages of the “Appendix” of An Arctic Boat Journey, Hayes documented the scientific support for his next expedition. By design, his book was published during the early winter months of 1860. This tactical timing can be verified by Hayes’ marbled-covered presentation copy to his friend H. O. Houghton, dated, “Boston, Feb 27th, 1860.” Within five months, Hayes, the published Arctic book author, tripped anchor in Boston Harbor and lead his own expedition along the Greenland Coast.
Frances Hennessey writes informally on 19th century Arctic exploration, concentrating on Hayes. Fran has a small collection of Hayes first editions, two of which are signed by the author. She tweets @openpolarsea and has a poetry blog: www.oceanic-visions.com