A (not so) brief history of lunar distances: lunar longitude determination at sea before the chronometer

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Abstract

Longitude determination at sea gained increasing commercial importance in the late Middle Ages, spawned by a commensurate increase in long-distance merchant shipping activity. Prior to the successful
development of an accurate marine timepiece in the late-eighteenth century, marine navigators relied predominantly on the Moon for their time and longitude determinations. Lunar eclipses had been used for
relative position determinations since Antiquity, but their rare occurrences precludes their routine use as reliable way markers. Measuring lunar distances, using the projected positions on the sky of the Moon and bright reference objects—the Sun or one or more bright stars—became the method of choice. It gained in profile and importance through the British Board of Longitude’s endorsement in 1765 of the establishment of a Nautical Almanac. Numerous ‘projectors’ jumped onto the bandwagon, leading to a proliferation of lunar ephemeris tables. Chronometers became both more affordable and more commonplace by the mid-nineteenth century, signaling the beginning of the end for the lunar distance method as a means to determine one’s longitude at sea.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-522
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Astronomical History and Heritage
Volume23
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

Keywords

  • lunar eclipses
  • lunar distance method
  • longitude determination
  • almanacs
  • ephemeris tables

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