How marine chronometers solved the Longitude Problem and led to Ulysse Nardin’s Marine Torpilleur

New Watch! • 02 Jul 2017

How marine chronometers solved the Longitude Problem and led to Ulysse Nardin’s Marine Torpilleur

In the early period of the Age of Sail, determining one’s position at sea was difficult once a ship lost sight of land. Early transoceanic navigation relied on dead reckoning, which relied on calculations and estimates to “trace” the path a ship took from its last known position. Since this method cannot account for wind/current drifts and navigational inaccuracies, the cumulative errors from a long journey would throw a ship far off course – and sometimes into rocks. The infamous Scilly naval disaster of 1707, for instance, saw over 1,500 lives lost when a British fleet mistakenly sailed into the Isles of Scilly.

Russia deck marine chronometer gimbal
A marine chronometer on a Russian ship. Note the traditional box and gimbal mount.

Essentially, the problem was this: although latitude was relatively easy to determine, one could not ascertain his longitude accurately. Various methods were proposed to solve the “Longitude Problem”, and the world eventually settled on the usage of marine chronometers – highly accurate clocks (and later, watches) that were designed for use at sea. The importance of a marine chronometer’s accuracy cannot be overstated; a deviation of just one second per day, for example, will throw a ship up to 14 kilometres off course after a month. The standard was thus a mere fraction of a second per day. Until they were supplanted by new technologies like time signals, marine chronometers were essential navigation tools that determined a nation’s ability to project sea power. In time, marine chronometers were replaced with time signals, quartz technology, and eventually the modern GPS system. However, quartz versions of marine chronometers are still maintained on ships as backups, and knowledge of their use is still a requirement for some international mariner certifications.

old Ulysse Nardin marine chronometer
An old Ulysse Nardin marine chronometer

Ulysse Nardin’s place in this universe is a well-known one – the manufacture was a producer of marine chronometers, which were in service with some 50 navies around the world by the mid-1700s. As the format of the marine chronometer evolved with the times, from larger clocks that were mounted on gimbals to counteract a ship’s rocking motions to smaller pocket watches, so too did Ulysse Nardin’s creations. Today, the Marine Chronometer is part of the Marine collection, and pays tribute to the brand’s patrimony in this field as a wristwatch version of this now archaic tool.

new Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur
The new Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur

To reflect the changing zeitgeist, Ulysse Nardin has developed a further iteration to the Marine Chronometer. The new Marine Torpilleur (lit. “torpedo boat”) is a thinner, lighter update to its predecessor, just like the small and agile attack craft it was named after, and its reduced case dimensions make for a subtler presence on the wrist, with a corresponding reduction in the sporty/tool watch aesthetic. The dial, however, retains the archetypal marine chronometer’s clean design, and the watch houses the identical in-house UN-118 movement, which notably has a lubricant-free escapement of diamond-coated silicon. This calibre is COSC-certified, while the Marine Torpilleur also bears Ulysse Nardin’s own Performance Certificate, which tests the assembled watch’s precision to slightly tighter tolerances than COSC.

new Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur side view
The new Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur

(Words Jamie Tan)


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