Law and Longitude

The story of the eighteenth-century quest to “find the longitude” is an epic tale that blends science with law. The problem of determining longitude while at sea was so important that the British Parliament offered a large cash prize for a solution and created an administrative agency, the Board of Longitude, to determine the winner. The generally popular view is that the Board of Longitude cheated John Harrison, an inventor, out of the great longitude prize. This Article examines the longitude story from a legal perspective. The Article considers how a court might rule on the dispute between Harrison and the Board of Longitude. The Article suggests that the popular account of the dispute is unfair to the Board. The Board gave a reasonable interpretation to the statute creating the longitude prize and was not improperly biased against Harrison's method of solving the longitude problem. The Article concludes with some lessons the longitude story offers for modern intellectual property and administrative law.