A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2018 Jul 13, 17:21 -0700
Did transistors change celestial navigation? Did solid state radios suddenly make it possible for "average" people to sail the oceans? This is an idea that came up a few weeks ago, and it's got a kernel of truth in it --radio significantly changed navigation-- but the key technological details about transistors and solid state in the 1950s causing the revolution are, I would say, completely wrong. This was an idea originally proposed by Bob Goethe, but I note that Ed Popko happily pulled it into his chronology of navigation, so there's definitely a problem here.
Bob Goethe, you wrote:
"When they did, my dad would remove the back of the TV, pull all of the tubes, put them in a paper bag, and then – with me in tow – would go down to the store to test/replace the tubes."
Part of the problem is that you're taking this old memory from your childhood and projecting it onto history generally. What you're describing here was the simple, practical "consumer" solution back then: just test 'em all! But it didn't take much radio training to learn to find the single bad tube and arguably it was fun and challenging. For example, you can find a bad tube by looking for a white or grey "getter". The getter is the silvery patch of metal, often barium, that is deposited inside the tube, usually at the top end, in one of the last stages of its manufacture. The getter maintains the vacuum inside the tube. It chemically fixes small amounts of gas. But if the seal of the tube is compromised, the getter fully oxidizes and looks rather chalky. This is a sure sign that the tube should be replaced. And this is just one trick of the trade.
Maintaining a tube radio is a lost craft, but it wasn't rocket science. And if you planned on sailing the oceans in the days before solid-state radios, you learned enough electronic tech to replace tubes yourself. And of course, there's always the old "try them all" approach. If you suspect a tube and see no visual signs to indicate a flaw, you can go through them one by one.
"My memory of a half-century ago is a little fuzzy, but I am pretty sure my mechanical, wind-up watches drifted by 15 to 40 seconds a day. "Rating" such a watch was a matter of sorting out hourly changes, rather than daily changes."
So what? I mean that! As long as the rate is constant, it is an excellent clock and can be used as a chronometer. Even if you test the time by a radio signal only every three or four days, a clock like that can still be all that's required for celestial navigation. It's not the error that matters. It's the regularity of the rate. If a clock reliably loses 30 seconds a day, that's a chronometer.
"Now, Lecky in his Wrinkles in Practical Navigation was an evangelist for great circle sailing, which leads me to believe that by 1900 most or all commercial cargo and naval vessels had marine chronometers aboard."
1900?! Hell, yeah. It was long before that. First, the connection between these issues is minor (great circle sailing and chronometers). Second, the supremacy of chronometers was nearly complete long, long before that date. Chronometers were the norm and nearly universal at the high-end in the British maritime world (Royal Navy etc.) by about 1815, and in most of the US ocean-sailing fleet by 1835. By then, nearly every vessel headed across an ocean carried at least one chronometer with lunars at that date relegated to an error-checking role. Even that role for lunars lasted only a few more years as backup chronometers (apparently) became cheaper. Lunars were essentially dead and buried by 1850 --after that lunars at sea were only an activity for enthusiasts and antiquarians (though there were some niche uses on land for a few more decades). By the way, Lecky published his "Wrinkles" in 1883, not 1900. By 1883, he was already happy to describe lunars being "as dead as Julius Caesar ... never to be resurrectionised" and with very rare occasions, that was the case. Chronometers were the norm on even poorly-equipped vessels by 1850 at the latest. And longitude was as easily assessed as latitude.
"Joshua Slocum, famously, did not [carry a chronometer on his circum-navigation]"
It is a colossal mistake to judge anything about the history of navigation from Joshua Slocum's unique, and indeed "quixotic", circumnavigation. He was one man leading an aberrant life. He left New England without a chronometer because the one that he owned needed repair, and he didn't want to spend money on it (the equivalent of a few hundred dollars today). That's what he claimed at least, but there's a deeper story.
Slocum had been a professional sailing captain, owner of several large sailing vessels, for decades, and he owned chronometers. But sail was dying, and few opportunities to command a true sailing vessel arose outside the rather dull and tawdry trade of the coasting schooners. Slocum was an anachronism, and an unemployed anachronism at that. In addition, and critical to understanding Slocum's attitudes, in the 1890s he remained despondent over the death of his wife, and if he lived today, he would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression. His decision to sail off alone, throwing all caution to the wind, even leaving without a chronometer, might be interpreted as suicidal. He was not normal, that's for sure. But as the voyage progressed, he came to love it. The sea was once again his home. And he sailed when he chose with little care for navigation or for voyaging efficiency. And when he returned home and wrote up his story, as a sequence of serial articles in a magazine, later published as a book, he became an eccentric hero of the end of the century, because he was perceived as a throwback, an indepedent man living a life by old-fashioned means --a successful anachronism. He was a living totem of the nineteenth century at the beginning of the twentieth. The fact that he had no chronometer tells us nothing at all about standard navigational practice in that period. I repeat: Nothing At All.
Bob, you added:
"And I am betting that as yachting broadened into the middle class, many small boat sailors 60 years after Slocum did not have a chronometer aboard either."
Wow. This is a problematic claim: difficult to define, difficult to defend with evidence, and probably not true in any useful sense. First, who do you count? When did yachting broaden out to the "middle class"? How do you define that class? Certainly if their "yachting" was within sight of the coast, or barely beyond its visible limit, then those boaters would not have needed chronometers. Second, how do we define a chronometer? Is it only a device formally marketed as a professional marine chronometer? Or could it be any clock sufficiently accurate to function as a chronometer for at least a week? Your specific number here, "60 years after Slocum", I'm sorry to say is preposterous on any score. Anyone who sailed blue water carried a chronometer (of some sort) and a radio, too. Only damn fools and antiquarians sailed without these essentials.
You wrote again about vacuum tubes:
"Based on what I saw of vacuum tube technology in our televisions, I am guessing that widespread use of tube-based marine radios would be confined to vessels large enough to carry some sort of tube-tester as well as an inventory of replacement tubes."
No tube-tester needed. See above. And that inventory of replacements is only a handful. Further, the radio was tremendously valuable at sea in myriad ways irrelevant to the minor technical details of celestial navigation. Mariners brought radios to sea because radios were a godsend. There was simply no doubt that anyone planning an ocean voyage would bring everything that would be needed to guarantee the radio's operation. It wasn't merely a tool for acquiring a time signal. The radio was life. The radio was money. And note Geoffrey Kolbe's photo of that truck outfitted for navigating the sand oceans in the early 20th century (exploring the Sahara). The radio was so essential, huge as it was in those early years, that it was bolted right to the frame of the car.
By the way, I notice a key phrase here: "I am guessing..." There's nothing wrong with thinking up ideas and entertaining them as hypotheses. But you can't keep everything you invent. Some thoughts you have about history will turn out to be wrong. Guesses are not history.
You had more worries about those darn tubes:
"In a seagoing vessel, there would not only be thermal fatigue in the filaments of the tubes, but mechanical fatigue from the banging around in the waves."
Well, yeah, that's very true. But ya know what? They thought of that! Radios destined to sit in a corner in a nice dry suburban home were built to one standard, and radios intended for use at sea were built to a different, hardened standard. It's the same with modern electronic tech today. This fantasy you seem to have developed that tube radios were impossible to use reliably at sea is over-ruled by the facts of history. They sailed with radios. Radios were essential tools.
Bob, of WWV, you wrote:
"My impression is that time signals had been broadcast from many countries for a number of decades. But in the USA, WWV was established in Colorado because its predecessor in Maryland could not reach all of continental United States. "
The problem is that you're seeing WWV as the beginning of the era of widely-available radio time when it would probably be better to see it as the pinnacle of that era, the ultimate refinement in the dissemination of time before global GPS signals. Accurate time was among the very first things instantly available at sea when the wireless telegraph started being installed on vessels in the first decade of the twentieth century.
You added (and there's that guessing again):
"So I am guessing that most time signals prior to the mid-60s were relatively limited in the area they covered. Small boat sailors going offshore would need to be capable of navigating without time signals, even if they did have a radio that could receive them."
You're not thinking it through far enough. In real history, mariners had other approaches to this problem. The simplest one was to get on the radio and make a general call: "Hey can anyone give me an exact GMT time check?" This is a direct extension of a practice that had been common for over a hundred years, "speaking other ships" for GMT. It was normal in 1830, e.g., when two vessels passed close enough to signal each other to trade news and also to check GMT. They called this "speaking another ship". You could write on a slate, "What is your longitude?" An observer on the other vessel with a telescope would read your message and then write on his slate: "From good sight at 3pm, adj'd by acct: 62°14'W" ("adjusted by account" meaning corrected for dead reckoning since the sight was taken). If your longitude was different, that implied an error in GMT --for one of you! When the wireless telegraph conquered the seas in the first decade of the twentieth century, you didn't have to hope for another ship in signaling range. You could cast a wide net for that information, or we might say "cast broadly" or "broadcast" that question. Anyone who could receive your signal and transmit with enough power anywhere on the globe could provide you with a time check. It was an amazing improvement that removed much of the burden from the sets of multiple chronometers often carried on vessels until that time. Care of chronometers and dependence on chronometers became far less arduous. With radio, GMT could be checked every day or two or three.
You suggested a specific case:
"...even a higher quality Longines that was propery set when you left Halifax, you could easily be 2 minutes out before you made it to Bermuda. Bermuda is low enough that a 2 minute error in your navigational timepiece could lead you to miss Bermuda, below your horizon, altogether."
But local port authorities at Bermuda as well as all ocean-going vessels at Bermuda have radio. So even if your chronometer was wrong by two minutes --an unusually large error!-- when you're 200 miles out, you get on the radio and ask, "Hey can anyone give me an accurate GMT check?" Marine radio operators were doing this even in the first decade of the twentieth century, before voice transmission, when everything was Morse code. Radio did indeed transform celestial navigation, making the care and feeding of the chronometer much less onerous, but it happened over fifty years before your suggested date, and it wasn't connected with transistors or WWV.
"I am guessing that many small boat sailors used Slocum’s method: Polaris and noon-sun sights for latitude, and dead reckoning for longitude. The goal would have been to get to get on the latitude of the destination and finish up the last couple of hundred miles by sailing down that line of latitude."
Continuing with my remarks above, there is no "Slocum's method". You're falling headfirst into a trap that has consumed many folks interested in the history of navigation. You're treating Slocum's "Sailing Alone Around the World" as a sort of lesson book in the nature of navigational methods in the 1890s. It is nothing of the sort. It is one eccentric individual's tale of his unique choices on a voyage like none other. In addition, you're projecting other stories that you have read about navigation onto the facts of his voyage.
"My supposition is that when finally small boat sailors DID find solid state shortwaves affordable, and/or purchased a quartz watch, and acquired a copy of Pub. 249, the St. Hilaire method did indeed finally become practical for the small boat sailor in a way that it never had been before."
I'll sum up by saying that this is simply not real history. That's not reality.
Also, I note that you mention the "St. Hilaire method" yet again, despite the fact that I had already pointed out to you that this is not relevant. It's not relevant. Do you understand that celestial navigation and the "St. Hilaire method" are not the same thing??
Conanicut Island USA