“Time Changes Everything”
Recently my wife and I went out to dinner with some good friends of ours. Over a meal of some delicious Mexican food we somehow came to a discussion about if we had the ability to go back in time to school again, what would we change about it. Though not being so socially awkward a second time around would probably be at the top of my list, the next would probably be to willingly take math and science classes all over again. Throughout my entire academic life I struggled with math. It just never seemed to seep in, other than the rudimentary addition, subtraction, etc. The same went for much of my science education, depending on the focus. Basic chemistry and biology went okay for me I suppose, but anything else other than rote memorization of something was a problem (someday if you see me on the street or the pub, ask me to name the types of coal, I can still remember them from Earth Studies back in 1988 or so!). So just like with math, I had some sort of cloud over my head that prevented me from really excelling in anything under the banner of ‘science’. Much less any real sort of interest in it at all, so I went in the direction of history, art and literature instead.
At some point after leaving college however, the cloud lifted and I began expressing interest in things of a scientific nature. As I have written about in other blogs, going to museums is one of the best ways to stay connected to things you learned about in school. I also realized that once you moved beyond the academic confines of chemistry, biology and such there are vast fields and specialties within the banner of science that can be immensely satisfying to learn about. Astronomy, Ecology, Botany and Zoology just for starters. Then there are all those things we live with in our day to day lives that are governed by scientific theory and knowledge-automobiles, aviation, communication, computers, medicine and so many more fields. Though I steered clear of the heavy technical publications for all these fields, I dabbled in learning about them all in one way or another by reading and going to museums such as the American Museum Of Natural History here in New York, and other smaller scientific museums and exhibits. Like many, I also became enamored of the PBS program NOVA, which continues to present quality science based programs to this day. One night sometime in the 1990’s I watched an episode about a field of science I would admit to knowing absolutely nothing about.
The episode was about the English clock maker John Harrison (1693-1776) and his quest to build a marine time keeper (also known as a chronometer), for the accurate determination of longitude at sea. I had never heard of Harrison before the program. I had no idea what a chronometer was, why it was needed, or why calculating longitude was such a difficult scientific problem to figure out. The program did a wonderful job providing answers to all those questions, as did the book it was based on-Longitude, by Dava Sobel, as well as a subsequent mini-series also based on the book. I remember what fascinated me about the program and book was that time, as measured by the humble clock was something that presented any sort of a scientific challenge, even in the 1700’s. I had always assumed clocks simply improved over time due to improvements in machinery, rather than by necessary invention. The story of John Harrison showed not only invention, but also keen intellect and intuition, not to mention a deep understanding of the way science can be utilized for practical ways sometimes.
In 1707, a fleet of British ships was returning home from battle at Gibraltar. In those days even the most adept sailors had to rely on navigation via the ‘dead reckoning’ method, a curious blend of knowing what latitude you were at by way of the prevailing east-west currents, and combined with a few other tricks, generally estimating what the longitude position was. Those currents provided a sailor with a rough guess quite often, but without being able to measure longitude they could very quickly go wildly off course. Which is what happened in 1707. Mistaking their position to be someplace else, the entire fleet crashed on the rocks of the Scilly Islands off the coast of Cornwall. Over two thousand lives were lost. At that point, the British government decided the time had come for a practical solution to solving the question of longitude, and set up a commission and a prize of £20,000 as reward, a sum that would be in the millions today, so serious was the problem deemed to be.
“The dark clouds are gone, and there’s blue skies again”
On a map, the lines of longitude extend from the north to the south pole, separated from one another in 24 increments of 15 degrees. If a ship sailing west from England with a clock set to the home port had to wait one hour for a noon observation of the sun, it was 15 degrees west of longitude. If it had to wait two hours, it was now 30 degrees west and so on. Time is the crucial factor. As Dava Sobel wrote in her book-
“The measurement of longitude meridians is tempered by time. To learn ones longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of known longitude….Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once, so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks.”
The solution to the problem was to come up with a method that could be used practicably at sea. It was assumed that the solution to solving longitude would come from mapping the skies and using celestial navigation, guided by great astronomers and scientists, and not from mechanical devices like clocks. Though celestial navigation can be used to navigate, it was not always practical for a sailor. Poor weather coupled with a complex series of measurements were needed, and it was clearly not an ideal method as a result. The commission was open to all however, no matter how hair-brained or scientific based the scheme was, and so in due course, John Harrison, a carpenter by trade who was talented in clock making presented his idea for a marine timekeeper to the panel.
His first three designs were all large scale intricate affairs, that required a heavy wooden case for keeping them in, and were designed in such a way that the rolling motions of a ship as well as the extreme changes in temperature ships typically faced on a voyage did not affect the timekeeping. This was probably the most crucial factor. Windup clocks or wristwatches typically lose small increments of time each day. Combine those lost seconds over the weeks and months of a long sea voyage, and the time keeper would now lose minutes, which would result in incorrect measurements. In the creation of his sea clocks, Harrison found solutions to these problems, and though the clocks did not meet the full criteria of requirements of the Longitude Board, he persevered and was clearly on the right track.
After long years of work and two more sea clocks, now reduced in size to something much smaller and more portable (slightly larger than a pocket watch), he eventually wrested claim to the prize away from the astronomers after years of struggle. Though cumulatively over the years of work Harrison received nearly all of the prize money, he was never awarded with a grand announcement of recognition or fanfare for doing so. For the full story to all of this, from the science to the struggle Harrison endured, I urge you to read Longitude. It is a charming little book, easily read in one sitting. Also here is a link to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England where the Harrison clocks are on display so you may see what they look like-http://www.rmg.co.uk/explore/astronomy-and-time/time-facts/harrison
There was a time…
All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the song and artist I have selected for this installment, but by now you may have surmised a connection to “time” by way of all the clock photos I have used here. Until I saw the program and subsequently read the book, time, just like clocks themselves had no special or scientific meaning to me. When I began to think of ideas for this installment it was time, as measured scientifically by clocks, coupled with how we think about the passage of time generally that made me want to explore the idea. To me the correlation lies in phrases like “timeless” or “a long time ago.” Objects like an old grandfather clock standing in a dusty hallway or the famous big clock in the middle of Grand Central Terminal are often referred to in these sort of ways. Saying it in this manner makes us feel connected to the past somehow, and something as basic as a fine old clock conjures up long ago times.
I think as we progress further into a new scientific era with technology leading the charge, we still very much admire the innovations of the past. The dusty old grandfather clock may seem an unnecessarily large piece of furniture these days yet we still enjoy watching the pendulum swing back and forth and hearing that tick-tock and the sound of the hourly chime. The other way one can make that sort of connection is via music. Of course you can listen to old records from years ago and feel that same sort of connection, but every once in a while, a new band comes along with a depth of appreciation for the old songs and styles of the past yet offer a slight nod to the present as well in terms of approach. For about 20 years now, no band has done that better than Hot Club Of Cowtown.
Hot Club Of Cowtown have made a career out of merging several styles of music, as evidenced by their name. The Hot Club part refers to the Gypsy Jazz influenced style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, while the Cowtown refers to Western Swing music in the style of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys especially. They also do wonderful versions of timeless classics (see, there is that word again) like Someone To Watch Over Me, Pennies From Heaven, I’m In The Mood For Love, Crazy Rhythm and Chinatown. The band comprises Whit Smith on guitar and vocals, Elana James on fiddle and vocals, and Jake Erwin on bass and vocals. All three are tremendous players and singers individually, and very accomplished on their respective instruments. Live they are a lot of fun to see with Elana and Whit trading lead vocals and solos back and forth while Jake holds it all down electrifiying the audience with his custom slap bass solos. I have seen them several times and they always put on a great show, so be sure to check them out if they play near you.
Up until a few years ago their albums consisted of the combination of styles I mention above. A little Hot Club jazz, some self-penned songs along with healthy doses of old time country songs. But in 2011 they released an album called “What Makes Bob Holler,” which was an entire collection of songs from the repertoire of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. The band writes in the notes that “the idea was to capture the energy and musicianship as if the band was playing at a dance or in concert….the way Western Swing was meant to be played and heard.” The songs and instrumentals really shine, and it does not take long before you feel transported back in time (and again!) with thoughts of lonesome prairies and tumbleweeds and all the usual sorts of Western imagery. One song in particular stands out for me, and gave me the idea of linking these thoughts together. It is called Time Changes Everything and was written by Tommy Duncan, long time vocalist with the Texas Playboys. It is one of those sorts of songs that freezes you in your tracks when you first hear it. There is nothing gentle or sweet about it but rather brutal honesty. Each verse has a statement of pain-“the time has passed and I have forgotten you” or “I thought nothing could stop me from loving you”, but ends always on a hopeful note with “time changes everything.”
Of course the song has nothing to do with clocks and science or John Harrison. But it is those words-“time changes everything” that gave me an idea. Time does indeed change, and a few hundred years ago, that presented a particular scientific problem. It took years of time for John Harrison to work on his clocks and find a solution. The solution to calculating longitude came with a realization that time itself was the key. Time also changes music. Styles come and go and things fade out of fashion rapidly in the music world. Bands like Hot Club Of Cowtown keep us connected to the distant past though by preserving songs and tunes that still sound great today but might otherwise get lost in time without reviving them. Much like the clocks that John Harrison built over 200 years ago still function to this day with careful winding, old songs still sound relevant when revisited by bands like Hot Club Of Cowtown. Time may indeed change everything, but it can also preserve things too, such as old clocks and old songs. We just have to want to preserve them. I think John Harrison’s clocks and Hot Club Of Cowtown’s music are definitely worth preserving. They are both timeless as well.
Time Changes Everything-Written By Tommy Duncan
Longitude-Written by Dava Sobel. First Published by Walker Publishing Company, Inc. 1995
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