The story of longitude has captivated millions, but who measured latitude? Join Nicholas Crane at the King’s Lynn festival later this month to hear the story of the world’s first international scientific expedition, an extraordinary saga of surveying, mountaineering and murder set in equatorial South America.
We caught up with Nicholas to find out more about his upcoming talk.
Tell us a bit about your background – what sparked your passion for geography?
At state school in Norfolk, I was lucky to be taught O and A Level geography by Mr Roger Noble, who shared with his students the wonders and relevance of human and physical geography. Geography lessons dovetailed so neatly with the world I saw while exploring Norfolk and Norwich by bicycle and foot, and while climbing mountains in Scotland and Wales.
I’d wanted to read geography at Durham University but didn’t get the grades. I was rescued by Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, who ran a London University honours degree with an enlightened, modular syllabus. Hoskins was a set text, of course, and my political geography tutor was Dr Richard Muir, who went on to write many books on historical geography.
Besides Hoskins, the book that most affected my future interests was Only One Earth by Barbara Ward and René Dubos, which warned of the perils of fossil fuel emissions driving planetary warming to 2ºC. The book arose from the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and it’s a continuing source of anguish that so little has been achieved in the intervening 50 years.
My next geographical home was the Royal Geographical Society. I was elected a Fellow in 1984 and it has been my geographical hub ever since. All of the books I’ve written and TV documentaries I’ve presented have been geographical in some sense.
You have undertaken some spectacular adventures throughout your life, what inspired you to retrace the footsteps of the 1735 Latitude expedition and share the story of the world’s first international scientific expedition?
Like many avid readers, I was captivated by Dava Sobel’s book Longitude, the quest by a lone English clockmaker labouring in his workshop to construct an accurate sea-going chronometer that could be used to determine longitude and so make sailing the oceans less hazardous. The latitude story is equally compelling yet totally different: a multi-national, team effort involving extreme danger, several deaths and a landscape of volcanoes and rainforests. It’s an irresistible story.
Through your research for the book and your own travels to the locations, did you come across anything surprising or unexpected?
I hadn’t expected to find scientific instruments causing so much grief. They took from Europe a comprehensive selection of compasses, barometers, thermometers and cumbersome quadrants that were used for measuring the angles between signals set up on mountains. There were many breakages and technical modifications.
The most troublesome instrument by far was a gigantic device known as a zenith sector, which was used for fixing locations on the ground by taking astronomical observations. The zenith sector was so large that it had to be housed in observatories that the scientists converted from existing buildings by removing part of the roof. The observer had to lie on the ground beneath the eyepiece of an immensely long, delicate telescope fitted with cross hairs. Observations were disrupted by cloud cover, storms, earthquakes and by stars that appeared to ‘wander’.
Geography and adventure are clearly something you are very passionate about, is there a take home message that you would like audiences to come away with?
Geography is exciting!
The Geodesic Mission to the Equator became the model for a new form of expedition, motivated by the urge to explore. The Mission’s scientists and technicians showed how a disparate group of human beings from different countries and backgrounds could pool their collective resources and solve problems. They innovated. They combined ideas. They grasped that the dogged slog of incremental improvements would lead to a result. They proved future science.
Nicholas’ talk, Latitude: the astonishing adventure that saved the world, is part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme.
Book your seat now to hear more about this extraordinary tale - 26 July, King's Lynn Festival, Norfolk