Today (October 22) in London History – it made London the centre of the world

On October 22, 1884 Greenwich became the centre of the world. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s a wild card. It didn’t happen in London. But it happened to London. It made London the centre of the world.

It happened today – October 22nd.

October 22nd, 1884.

And centre of the world – ok, let’s adjust that a teensy bit – let’s say, centre of the world’s maps.

And if you’re going to get the thing into the sharpest possible focus, it wasn’t London, it was part of London. It was Greenwich.

And in happened in Washington DC.

At an international conference.

Here’s the exact wording:

“The conference proposes…the adoption of the meridian passing through the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial median for longitude.”

In other words, Greenwich was the chosen one, the place that defined longitude zero – the baseline for all those lines on the globe that join the North and South Poles.

And then the conference upped the ante. It passed another resolution. It made Greenwich Mean Time universal time. Which put Greenwich at the centre of the world’s time-keeping. 

And just like that – at a stroke – well, two strokes – space and time were conjoined, shown to be interrelated.

And yes you can make some mischief about these matters. It’s almost Orwellian, the little matter of space and time primacy. You know, all places are created equal but some are more equal than others. Which actually should be, one is more equal than others. And that one is Greenwich. It’s tempting to think that Greenwich got home because it was Greenwich. If it had been London, Paris or New York or ParisBerlin wouldn’t have worn it. As a matter of fact, there were pockets of resistance here and there. Most French charts showed longitude zero passing through Paris. And Spain had it going through Cadiz. It’s fun to think that maybe national pride wasn’t affronted quite so much because it was Greenwich. Had it been London – well, it’s easy to imagine the French drawing the line, so to speak, not countenancing that. 

And there’s yet another matter in play. The resolution was passed on October 22nd. Imagine if it had been passed on October 21st. How perfect would that have been? Well, not perfect if you were French. In fact, unbearable if you were French. Mon Dieu, insult to injury. Coming into focus? Yes, that’s right – October 21st is Trafalgar Day. But October 21st and October 22nd – well, they’re joined at the hip, aren’t they. Make it a two-day celebration. The celebration of celebrations. Britannia – its capital city – rules time and tide. Is enthroned there at the centre of everything. 

Well, it’s a nice thought. But in fact, it wasn’t Britain’s maritime prowess that got Greenwich crowned with longitude zero. Greenwich won through because of Britain’s scientific achievement. 

In particular, the unending efforts – the two centuries of work – the Greenwich Observatory had put in toward establishing longitude. 

Latitude had been easier. That one had been solved by the beginning of the 17th century. Mariners cottoned on that they could determine their latitude by measuring the distance of certain fixed stars and the moon from the horizon. But figuring out where your ship was in an east-west direction, that was both the holy grail and a much tougher nut to crack. Imagine what it must have been like – crossing the Atlantic or the even more boundless Pacific – and nothing but trackless water in every direction – and not knowing, have we come 2,000 miles? Or just 200? Where in God’s name are we? How far do we have to go?

Do we have enough water? That must have been the needle permanently in the red, nonstop high anxiety. So Greenwich – well, the Greenwich Observatory and its astronomers and scientists – can take a bow. They cracked it. It took years. Two huge clocks were built to measure accurately the rotation of the Earth. Astronomical observations were kept up year after year. Basically, they created tables of astronomical observations. Those observations were the spadework. Use them in conjunction with the clocks – put all those observations together with the timings and you get a Nautical Almanac. A work that gives the position of the sun, the moon and the major stars at different times for each day of the year in different parts of the world. That Almanac located longitude lines and, yes, it put longitude zero at Greenwich. How long was it in the making? Nearly a century. Ninety-three years to be exact. The Observatory was founded in 1674. 

The first Nautical Almanac was published in 1767. 255 years later it’s still published annually.

The Nautical Almanac was so good – they were the most comprehensive tables in existence – it was immediately taken up by mariners all over the world. And of course they became accustomed to the idea of a longitude zero passing through Greenwich. So what they did at that conference in Washington DC 17 years later, well, that just formalised what had already become custom and practice. 

And there you go, from the centre of the world, there’s the story of how this place – ok, Greenwich, became the centre of the world, at least on maps.

Aired out on its special day – the day the world said, “you’re it, Greenwich.”

And a Today in London recommendation. Achingly obvious, this one. A visit to that same Observatory – the Royal Observatory. After you’ve gone on our Greenwich walk, of course. Which takes place every Monday morning at 10.15 am. Particulars on – including a little film starring the distinguished Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre and film and television and West End actor Nick Day. Well, starring Greenwich as well. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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