The Lesson of the Chronometer

By Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
Research in the Rockies

June 12, 2010

Fredric K. Schroeder

Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder has long been a supporter of "Advocacy Research." The term has been used for decades to describe a field of sociology research that is carried out by people who are deeply concerned about certain social problems. Dr. Schroeder has used it to measure social problems related to blindness and low vision with a view to heightening public awareness, influencing policy proposals, and improving the quality of life of the blind in America. This presentation was given as one of the keynote addresses at the Research in the Rockies: Research Summit on Braille Reading and Writing held June 10 to June 12, 2010, in Denver, Colorado. The conference was cosponsored by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the National Center for Severe and Sensory Disabilities, and the Bresnahan-Halstead Center on Disabilities.


What does the British Longitude Act of 1714 have to do with the literacy of blind children? Ship's navigation requires a means of measuring latitude (the angular distance north or south of the equator, measured in degrees along a meridian, as on a map or globe) and longitude (the angular distance on the earth or on a globe or map, east or west of the prime meridian at Greenwich, England, to the point on the earth's surface for which the longitude is being ascertained, expressed either in degrees or in hours, minutes, and seconds). Determining latitude is relatively easy in that it can be calculated from the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun's declination for the day (the sun's variance from the celestial equator measured in degrees).

Determining longitude is considerably more difficult, requiring reliable timekeeping aboard ship. The unpredictable movements of a vessel together with rapid changes in humidity, weather, and salinity made pendulum clocks essentially useless aboard ships.

This meant that early mariners had to rely on dead reckoning, following a known latitude for an estimated distance and then turning north or south in hopes of finding their intended destination. This was chancy at best, particularly on long voyages. Consequently, the need to measure a ship's longitude accurately was essential to marine navigation. Finding a reliable method of determining longitude took centuries and involved some of history's greatest scientific minds, including Galileo Galilei, the father of modern observational astronomy.

In the early 1600s Galileo believed he had solved the longitude problem by charting the highly predictable eclipsing of Jupiter's moons. The limitation was that Jupiter and its moons could be seen only on clear nights and only for part of the year, and his method required a steady base for a telescope. After Galileo's death in 1640, his method was widely used for measuring longitude on land, where a telescope could be placed firmly, but the problem of determining longitude at sea persisted.

In response, the British parliament adopted the Longitude Act of 1714. A prize of £20,000 was offered for the discovery and demonstration of a practical method for determining the longitude of a ship at sea. "The Discovery of the Longitude is of such Consequence to Great Britain for the safety of the Navy and Merchant Ships as well as for the improvement of Trade that for want thereof many Ships have been retarded in their voyages, and many lost... [and there will be a Longitude Prize] for such person or persons as shall discover the Longitude."

To solve the longitude problem, a ship's captain needed a dependable way of knowing the precise time at his port of departure so it could be compared to the local time aboard ship. Each hour of separation equates to 15 degrees of longitude. While never explicitly stated, everyone assumed that the answer lay in the heavens. Learned men of the day, astronomers highly regarded by their contemporaries, labored ceaselessly to employ the stars in finding an answer, and of course, why not?

A century before, Galileo had employed Jupiter's moons. In 1675, Charles II appointed John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal to get the help of the heavens in finding longitude at sea by calculating the time from the movement of the stars. Shortly thereafter, Edmund Halley, the second Astronomer Royal, proposed using the movement of the moon and the obscuring of certain stars as a way of telling time at sea. It was taken for granted that, by building on more than a century's astronomic work, surely a solution would be found; and in 1714, with the adoption of the Longitude Act, the Reverend Neil Maskelyne, the fifth Astronomer Royal, stood ready to take up the challenge.

But, as it happened, the most practical solution came, not from the scientific community, but from a skilled craftsman. John Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter and later clockmaker, designed and built a non-pendulum clock or chronometer able to keep time reliably on a moving vessel. In 1773 the British Parliament rewarded Harrison for his marine chronometer. The innovation stimulated by the Longitude Act enabled British vessels to navigate the oceans of the world, first by using intricate calculations to measure lunar distance and later by use of a ship's chronometer, supporting the founding of an empire and a world power, literally changing the course of history.

So again, what does this have to do with blind children and their literacy? What is the lesson of the chronometer and the British Longitude Act? Is it that the science of the day failed? Of course not. Lunar distance was difficult to calculate, but it could be done, and for many years following the development of the chronometer it remained the most cost-effective means of determining longitude at sea. Was it that the humble craftsman with his commonsense approach to solving the problem cut the proverbial Gordian knot, showing that the complexity of the problem had been overstated, made unduly complicated by men with inflated egos--David bringing down Goliath? Of course not. While a romantic image, it is not what happened. The development of the chronometer was neither easy nor obvious but required technical skill and the ability to innovate, and that is where the lesson begins.

The history of the marine chronometer is the history of innovation, but innovation driven by the assumption that the solution to a hitherto unsolvable problem could be found. The British Parliament offered a prize--a substantial prize--to anyone who could find a way to determine a ship's longitude at sea. I am certain that some people believed no answer would or could be found, but the skeptics notwithstanding, the Longitude Act was adopted, the world took note, and the race was on to solve one of the most important problems of the day.

The story of the chronometer is a compelling illustration of the power of advocacy research--problem-solving innovation, targeted research--searching for an answer rather than wondering whether an answer exists. Of course advocacy research is not a methodology, but that does not mean it is little more than mere wishful thinking or self-delusion. If we wish to know the altitude of a particular structure, starting with an assertion that the structure is a given height and then directing our energy toward proving our assertion would be folly if not outright risible. Picking up a rock and asserting that it contains equal parts iron and copper simply because we want it to be so and then working to prove ourselves correct would be equally ridiculous.

Yet employing advocacy research in support of a goal or an ideal is powerful, and it is morally just and intellectually honest in that it recognizes that the current condition, the present circumstance need not remain static. As when the National Federation of the Blind directed resources to develop a portable, handheld reading machine, the knfb Reader Mobile--a reading machine integrated into an ordinary cellular phone--to help meet a practical need and to support the full integration of blind people. And it is why the Federation is now devoting resources toward creating a car that a blind person can drive--the Blind Driver Challenge--not a car that drives itself while the blind person sits passively, but a car that is controlled by the blind driver. Advocacy research recognizes the limiting impact of human beliefs and assumptions--individual and societal--and the powerful, often devastating impact of prejudice. We know that blind children lag behind their sighted peers. As adults they face the very real prospect of unemployment; or, if they are lucky--one of the three in ten who will find work--they face the prospect of underemployment; and if they are very lucky indeed, one of a small handful of blind people, they may obtain employment consistent with their intrinsic ability. Why is this so? Is it simply the immutable condition of the blind, unchanged and unchangeable? We have no way to know for sure, but we do know that it is wrong, and we know that there are barriers--barriers that can and must be removed--that limit the full integration of the blind into society. We know this as surely as we know it is wrong for women to earn less than men for comparable work. We know it is wrong as surely as we know it is wrong for poor children to lag behind their peers in math and reading. We know it is wrong as surely as we know it is wrong to constrict opportunities for a person simply on the basis of his or her ethnicity. We know it is wrong precisely in the way we know what is right; in the way we know that all human beings have the right to fairness and equal opportunity; in the way we know it is right to seek justice and decency, not as an act of kindness or an act of charity, but as a moral imperative. This means asserting a philosophy, a belief, a goal, a dream. As when the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial proclaimed, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

We too have a dream, a dream that one day blind children will have the same opportunity to learn and live as others; a dream that they will be presumed to be equal, not with a wink and a nod, but as an acknowledgement of fact. This means challenging society's low expectations, replacing society's assumption of the inferiority of blind children with a declaration of their fundamental equality.

The fact that blind children suffer a depressed level of academic achievement, particularly in the area of literacy, can be viewed in two ways: either as evidence of the inherent limitations imposed by blindness or as evidence of social injustice; and, if we suspect it is the latter, we must work collectively to effect change. Advocacy research, therefore, enables us to assert a new paradigm, a new standard, not merely accepting or confirming the current condition, but boldly asserting what we believe the condition, the level of achievement of blind children, should be.

We must start with a shared belief in the ability of blind children to achieve at a level comparable to that of their sighted peers. This means meaning it when we say that blind children can learn and achieve on an equal basis with others. We must truly mean it and not look for excuses, reasons for watering down our expectations, pointing to the presence of additional disabilities as confounding factors that make the possibility of equality an unrealistic, unsustainable hope. It means being bold and accountable in the way we frame the educational goals in the child's Individualized Education Program (IEP). And when I say bold and accountable, I mean just that. When I worked as a special education administrator, each child's annual goal read something to the effect that the child "will achieve at or above grade level in all academic subjects." No equivocation. No vague ethereal goal but a firm understandable goal, a goal that is both concrete and measurable.

To support a goal of equality, we must start by asking the basic question of how best to determine the appropriate reading medium for a blind child. This is an issue that has been controversial for as long as I have been working in the blindness field. In my view the reason this has been so contentious is that at its source is not the objective question of the precision of one or another assessment methodology, but a preference for print and a prejudice against Braille. What evidence do I have to support my assertion that a bias in favor of print exists?

In the mid 1970's, as a graduate student, I remember being told that approximately eight out of ten legally blind children had some usable sight. Today, according to American Printing House for the Blind data, of the children who are active readers, reading print or Braille, approximately three quarters use print as their primary reading medium (visual readers: 15,669 or 74%; Braille readers: 5,568 or 26%). This suggests to me that print continues to be the primary reading medium for blind children who have even a minimal amount of sight. In my view, the fact that the reading-media-assessment question has been so hotly debated and has consumed so much attention and energy is itself the best evidence of a print bias, a bias seemingly driven by an unspoken fear that teaching a child to read Braille may somehow harm the child. Why? We know that reading Braille requires no sight at all. We know that children taught to read Braille from an early age can use it efficiently, reading for hours without suffering headaches or eye strain. So what is the potential harm? On the other side of the equation, we know that many low-vision children fall farther and farther behind as the reading demands of middle school and high school increase. We know that many low-vision children will lose more of their sight over time. And we know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that there is no reliable way to know how a five-year-old or a ten-year-old will function as a print reader in adulthood or even what the reading demands of adulthood will be. So the print-Braille question comes down to this: we know that Braille is a literacy medium independent of sight and that print is a medium dependent on sight; and, if we truly believe in the ability of blind children to compete, would there not logically be a preference in favor of Braille over print rather than print over Braille? Some will argue that there should be no preference one way or the other, but to me that sidesteps the fact that the preference for print continues to dominate our thinking and practice and continues to disadvantage low-vision children who find out too late that they cannot rely on print to meet their reading needs.

If we begin with the expectation that blind children will compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers, then it makes sense to give them a way of reading and writing that is unrelated to vision. We thereby redirect our energy away from agonizing over print versus Braille to the more important question of how best to integrate the learning and use of Braille into a child's life. And that is where research--advocacy research--comes in.

Instructional Methods

  • We need to find the most effective ways of giving preschool blind children exposure to Braille that, to the greatest extent possible, mirrors the exposure sighted children have to print;
  • We need to find the best methods to help parents and other family members support the development of Braille literacy;
  • We need to find ways of enhancing the sharing of information between print and Braille readers;
  • We need to update and develop new curricula for teaching blind children how to read using Braille;
  • We need to teach blind children to write using Braille in ways that are efficient, portable, and reasonably quiet for classroom use; and
  • We need to learn effective methods for teaching blind children to work with graphs and charts and other nonlinear material.


  • We need to explore new technologies that will provide greater, timelier access to information;
  • We need to learn how to integrate the use of desktop and laptop computers with portable notetakers;
  • We need to develop ways of teaching blind children how to format print efficiently; and
  • We need to develop technology that will enable the production of three-dimensional objects on demand and at a reasonable cost.

Presentation of Information

  • We need to find the most effective and efficient ways of presenting graphical material using a combination of Braille, print, auditory presentation, and manipulatives.

Teacher Preparation

  • We need to find the most efficient and effective ways of teaching Braille to prospective teachers of blind children;
  • We need to use rigorous competency testing (National Certification in Literary Braille) to insure that teachers have true mastery of the Braille code;
  • We need to train teachers to be skilled in teaching math and science not just at the most elementary levels; and
  • We need to find effective ways of training teachers to use the newest technology and find ways to enable them to update their skills as technology changes.

The Braille Code

  • Heretical or not, we need to continue challenging the Braille code to keep pace with evolving reading demands, e.g., new print symbols, text-messaging vernacular that may conflict with Braille contractions or short-form words, etc.; and
  • We need to learn effective methods for blind children and adults to share math and other technical information on a real-time, interactive basis with sighted peers.

Of course this list is neither complete nor all encompassing, but it illustrates the power of advocacy research in advancing the integration of blind children into society on terms of equality. It shows the importance of not viewing today's limitations in pedagogy and technology as insurmountable or immutable but as challenges to our collective imagination and creativity--challenges we must face and overcome, and overcome them we will. Overcome them as John Harrison overcame the seemingly unsolvable riddle of determining longitude at sea. And we will overcome them in part by employing advocacy research, research rooted in an assumption that solutions exist and can be found, solutions to the problems that keep far too many blind children on the sidelines of life. So what does the British Longitude Act have to do with the literacy of blind children?

The British Longitude Act of 1714 established a vision, a goal, and turned the most creative minds of the period loose on finding a way of determining longitude at sea--neither bounded by preconception nor constrained by current understanding or technology--and we can and must do the same. And we will. We will meet and overcome today's challenges because it is the right thing to do and because blind children have the right to live in a world not limited by another's thinking, another's assumptions.

The history of the British Longitude Act poignantly demonstrates the power and efficacy of advocacy research, research grounded in a shared vision, a shared set of beliefs, a shared set of goals, and a shared commitment to creating equal opportunity for blind children. The lesson of the chronometer is the lesson of the power of innovation, imagination, indomitable will, and steadfast adherence to fairness, justice, and equality.

The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research is copyright (c) 2014 to the National Federation of the Blind.