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Breathing heaven near Zero

Latitude and Longitude
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Wed Apr 13th, 2016

Near the equator, one experiences the quickest sunrises and the quickest sunsets because the sun moves nearly perpendicular to the horizon for most of the year. The day is evenly divided between day and night, except that due to abrupt sunsets and sunrises there are about fourteen more minutes of night. For reasons of health, I am in Cuenca, Republic del Ecuador (which means Republic of the Equator), where there are inexpensive top-notch hospitals, doctors, dentists, and surgeons, as well as a highly developed digital infrastructure. Cuenca, at an altitude of 8,400 feet, enjoys the best drinkable water on the globe, better even than NYC water.

An expedition led by Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain (lasting from 1792 to 1799) attempted to accurately measure the distance between a belfry in Dunkerque and Montjuïc castle in Barcelona to estimate the length of the meridian arc through Dunkerque. The Equator is about 40,075 kilometers (24,901 mi) long. These measurements were conducted in both Cuenca and especially just north of Quito, the current capital of Ecuador. The decimal meter derives from these measurements and is universally accepted around the globe, although the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar have rejected the French scientific systemization in favor of retaining the inch, foot, and yard derived from London cloth merchants. (In Japan the inch is often employed for digital screens.) The yard is legally defined to be exactly 0.9144 meters.

Paris had first claimed the prime meridian, yet other cities like Barcelona and St. Petersburg also made that claim, yet any claim remained relatively speculative because one could not derive a system from it. I once presumed that the longitudinal meridian passed through England because of imperial power, yet that is not the case. While the latitudinal meridian was later established by the French, it was a self-educated Englishman, John Harrison, who solved the riddle of longitude. Little is known about the life of Harrison whose invention gave legitimacy to England’s claim to have the meridian run through Greenwich.

Navigators could follow latitude yet until the problem of longitude was solved with "dead reckoning" a ship’s captain could not calculate accurately how much distance was traveled in a day. Because of wave motion, a pendulum clock was useless on a ship: sailors often landed in embarrassing places, sank, or ran out of potable water and beer, the drink that Columbus employed to prevent cholera.

Mechanical clocks would not work because heat or cold would cause the metals involved to expand or contract, halting the mechanism. Harrison invented a multi-metal clock called the marine chronometer which permitted various metals to substitute at different temperatures, thus permitting the clock to keep ticking. For forty years Harrison was denied a prize (announced by King George III) he deserved, but due to the 1707 naval disaster at Scilly islands, twenty miles south of England where over two thousand victorious returning soldiers drowned. Harrison’s device was finally recognized by the English Parliament; Harrison was eventually awarded the prize (worth about $3 million dollars in contemporary money). Harrison died in London on his 83rd birthday.

The Cuenca market offers a labyrinth for the tourist to get lost in. Nearly everything imaginable is sold here: various meats and eggs, fish, vegetables and fruits you know and don’t know, clothing, appliances, plants, birds, live fowl, guinea pigs (the local delicacy), and every kind of flower. Sacks of various potatoes, nearly innumerable, are piled up ten feet high—a veritable cornucopia resembling and exceeding the old legendary Les Halles of Paris. Most hearty purchases retail for one American dollar, the currency of Ecuador. Although some restaurants buy in bulk at the end of the day, what happens to all this food is a riddle because much of it must spoil.