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About A Week: What Time Is It In Melbourne?

Peter Hinchliffe confesses to being a time addict.

Come on, admit it. You've just checked the time on a clock, or a wrist watch. Or maybe on your computer or cell phone.

The price we pay for living in developed countries in this high-pressure 21st century is becoming time slaves.

Rush to work, rush to gobble down a lunchtime sandwich, rush to join the herds heading home, rush through an evening meal... rush, rush, rush to join the morning rush hour.

I don't know how many times I look at my watch in the course of an average day. Thirty? Forty? I dare not count them. I don't want firm evidence of the extent of my slavery.

Oh for boyhood again, when there was no need to wear a watch. The chimes of the church clock in the Yorkshire village in which I happily roamed and played brought all the news we needed of time.

There goes the bell of St Michael and All Angels... nine, 10, 11, 12. Time to hurry home for a midday meal.

And there it goes again, striking five. Time for tea.

But then came school days in the neighbouring town, and the need to check bus times. I got my first watch. Slavery was imminent.

When I became a reporter on a daily newspaper I had to be time's most obedient servant. There I sat in a courtroom in Leeds, taking shorthand notes of cases being tried by the city's magistrates. 10:55 a.m... Must phone reports to the office for the evening paper's first edition.

It was a fellow Yorkshireman, born in a village a dozen miles from where I live, who, as you might say, helped to forge the shackles that bind us as time's slaves.

John Harrison was born in 1693 at Nostell Priory near Wakefield. When he was four the family moved to Barrow, a village on the south bank of the River Humber. He and his brother James became carpenters.

John was fascinated by clocks. With no formal instruction, by trial and error, he built one. Being a carpenter, he made the working parts almost entirely of a hard wood, lignum vitae, which exudes its own grease, ensuring smooth, reliable running.

When he was in his 20s he decided to compete for a 20,000 prize for building a trusty sea-going clock. That would be more than 6 million in today's money. Thoroughly accurate clocks were need for the measurement of longitude, and the guarantee of accurate navigation.

Latitude and longitude are those imaginary lines around the globe. The latitude lines go cross-wise, the longitude top to bottom of the map. Early navigators accurately gauged latitude by the length of the day, the height of the sun, or the position of known stars above the horizon. With these signposts Christopher Columbus was able to track a straight line across the Atlantic.

When measuring longitude at sea, a navigator needs to know the ship-board time along with the time at the home port, or another place of known longitude. This calls for extremely accurate clocks.

Early clocks, thrown off-balance by heaving decks and salt spray, were shockingly unreliable. There were catastrophes. In 1707, because of navigational error, four British warships under the command of Sir Clowdesley Shovell were wrecked off the Scilly Isles with the loss of 2,000 seamen.

The English Parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1714, offering the $40,000 prize for the solution to the accurate measurement of longitude.

John Harrison accepted the challenge. He spent the rest of his life searching for a conclusive answer. His main rival for the prize was Nevil Maskeylyne, the first Astronomer Royal, who believed the solution lay in ever-more-accurate astronomical observations.

John and his clocks won the day, but the victory involved decades of meticulous experimentation. His first sea clock, H1, was produced in 1730, a bulky affair, though accurate to the second. Clocks H2 and H3 followed, then in 1759 came his masterpiece, H4, a large watch.

Of H4 John wrote: "I think I may make bold to say that there is neither any other mechanical or mathematical thing in the world that is more beautiful or curious in texture than this my watch or time-keeper for the longitude, and I heartily thank Almighty God that I have lived so long as in some measure to complete it."

Thanks to John Harrison, Britain became master of the seas and an empire was founded. The prime meridian of the world, zero degrees longitude, was drawn through Greenwich in London. The Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich is the centre of time and space.

By an odd coincidence the prime meridian line runs just 12 miles to the east of John Harrison's village, Barrow.

John's clocks are now in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich. They are wound regularly and still faithfully tell the right time.

John was never awarded the 20,000 prize. However, a grateful government gave him a grant of 10,000, which made him in today's reckoning a millionaire.

Architects designing public buildings in Britain today rarely include a clock, and certainly not a chiming clock -- even though it is more necessary than ever for people to know the time.

Hundreds of thousands of Brits now work on computers -- and there's the time, relentlessly marching on in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Reliable digital watches can be bought in our local market for as little as $5.

A businessman has recently taken it upon himself to provide public time at a nearby garage.

The quarter-hours, half-hours and hours chime out in neighbourly electronic tones.

And I have just treated myself to the ultimate eco-friendly world-time watch. It is powered by light. At midnight it receives a radio signal from either Rugby in England or Manfligen in Germany, which ensures that it is accurate to the second. Click a couple of buttons, the hour and minute hand swirl around -- and you have the time in any major city around the world. You want to know what time it is in Melbourne, Australia. Just press this button, then that...

I would have loved to see John Harrison's face as he examined this watch.


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