The Royal Observatory is probably best known for being the home of the Prime Meridian, but I went there to check out an amazing Steampunk exhibit dedicated to “the longitude question.” Thousands of seamen lost their lives because they couldn’t be sure where they were when they were in the open ocean, so the British Parliament implemented a competition in 1714 and offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could figure out how to calculate longitude when out to sea. Little did the Longitude Board know that it would be 50 years before anyone could find the answer.
The exhibit, Longitude Punk’d, is set up as a series of submissions to this contest and is intermixed with the Observatory’s collection of real and sometimes bizarre submissions. There are many buildings in the Greenwich Observatory complex, and this exhibition takes advantage of the historic Flamsteed House that sits on the grounds. There is normally already a gallery dedicated to longitude in the house, but for now the Steampunks have taken over that gallery as well as several other rooms as well as the courtyard to show their amazing contraptions and costumes.
Throughout the house you can read “The Rime of the Ancient Commodore,” which is a whimsical epic poem about one of the artists’ alter ego and his unique quest for the answer to the longitude question. His theory? Animals know exactly where they are, so if you can learn to talk to animals, all you have to do is ask for directions 🙂 Make sure to take the time to watch the series of short films embedded between display cases to meet the artists and find out the ideas behind their amazing creations.
The exhibit costs 8.50, but you also get admission to the Cutty Sark and the complementary and more serious examination of longitude at the Maritime Museum called Ships, Clocks and Stars any time within a month of your first visit. It will run between now and January 2015, so don’t miss your chance to get punk’d!
But even if you aren’t in town in time for the exhibit, there is a ton to see at the observatory for fans of the Victorian era, and I am going to post soon about their permanent galleries as well so stay tuned.
One of the biggest leaps forward in human history was when we started to use the movements of the stars, sun and moon to tell time. And as far as we know, we are the only animals that do. You may find yourself noticing a slight bend in space and time as you approach the Observatory, or perhaps it was just the long trek up the steep hill that made the minutes seem like hours!
Eventually, humans invented machines to keep track of the units in which we divided the world and some would argue that these machines now rule our lives. But no matter how you feel about clocks and schedules, you can’t deny the ingenuity and skill that has gone into inventing, improving and crafting timepieces. And if you are a steampunk fan, you probably can’t get enough of the shiny gears and complex mechanisms that had their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Royal Observatory (also called the Greenwich Observatory) is the home of the Prime Meridian line, and the site for calculating Greenwich Mean Time since the 19th Century. This means that even more than anywhere else it has been imperative that they keep accurate time, and they celebrate this history in their exhibits. After I was done at the Longitude Punk’d galleries, I took a stroll through the rest of the Observatory and I found amazing machines for seeing the stars and terrific time-keepers. I had accidentally used up a lot of my battery during the first half of the day at Longitude Punk’d and the Cutty Sark, but even with a full battery I don’t know if I would have been able to fit all of the beautiful pocket watches, nautical devices and astrolabes onto my memory card anyway!
Here’s a sampling of what there is to see in the history galleries.
In addition to the Observatory, you can also visit the Astronomy Center for free. There are lots of exhibits there for amateur astronomers, as well as London’s only planetarium.
Have you ever visited the Royal Observatory or Astronomy Center? Did you have a favorite part?