Longitude Lane is a short, narrow alley in urban Charleston that has captured the imagination of countless tourists and residents alike. Measuring approximately 540 feet long and just over ten feet wide, Longitude Lane is parallel to and approximately 150 feet south of Tradd Street. Like Tradd Street, it intersects with East Bay Street at a right angle. It offers one of the most picturesque views in the city, giving pedestrians a glimpse back in time to what Charleston must have looked like before the modern age of transportation. For many generations, however, locals and tourists have been scratching their heads in wonder about the origin of the name. Numerous theories have appeared over the years, but none offers a satisfactory degree of authenticity, or even logic. Longitude Lane is oriented on the east-west axis, like a line of latitude, not a line of longitude. The precise geographic location of the lane doesn’t coincide with any significant longitudinal phenomenon. In short, Longitude Lane isn’t very longitudinal at all. So what’s the origin of its alliterative name?
In order to find the answer to obscure local puzzles, sometimes we have to look beyond our small Charleston-centered world and look for the bigger picture. I think that’s the method required to solve this question, and here’s my theory: The origin of the name of Charleston’s Longitude Lane has everything to do with the not-so-dramatic scientific events of early 1762 that proved the accuracy of John Harrison’s marine chronometer. In plainer words, Charleston’s Longitude Lane was so-named in May 1762 as a sort of local celebration of the man who solved the longitude question. To prove my point, let’s travel back to early-eighteenth-century England where this story begins.
In 1707 a small fleet of British warships was sailing from Gibraltar back to England, when they ran into foul weather in the English Channel. The navigators thought the fleet was off the north coast of France, but without the ability to accurately determine their longitude at sea, they were dead wrong. Using traditional methods of guessing their location, called “dead reckoning,” the fleet sailed right into a rocky shoal near the Isles of Scilly, off the southwest coast of Great Britain. More than 1,500 sailors drowned in that disaster, and it caused a scandal at home. Nearly seven years later, in 1714, the British parliament ratified a law known as “the Longitude Act,” which offered a reward of £20,000 sterling to anyone who could demonstrate a reliable and accurate method of determining longitude at sea. For the next fifty-odd years, the longitude prize was one of the most popular topics of conversation in the English-speaking world, especially among people in the maritime industry. The American colonies were extremely profitable to Great Britain, and so was India, but the long sea voyages between the mother country and the colonies were very risky ventures. The practice of dead-reckoning one’s location at sea was little more than educated guess work, and mistakes frequently cost entire cargoes of goods as well as human lives. The government prize was intended to spur scientific minds to solve this important conundrum, but the money went unclaimed year after year.
Enter John Harrison (1693–1776), a self-educated English clockmaker and carpenter. Like his father, John learned the carpenter’s trade as a boy, but became interested in clocks and what makes them tick. He built his first clock at age twenty, then spent the rest of his life fiddling with timepieces large and small. Like all scientifically-minded men in Europe at that time, Harrison believed the solution for determining longitude at sea depended on the ability to keep a very precise record of the passage of time. After nearly twenty years of making clocks, in 1730 he submitted his first timepiece for consideration by the commissioners of the longitude prize, the board of men who would award the government prize of £20,000. Harrison’s clock didn’t win, but he wasn’t deterred. After thirty more years of perfecting his clock-making abilities, in 1761 Harrison unveiled a new timepiece that showed real promise. The Longitude Board approved a plan to send Harrison’s marine chronometer, sometimes called “H4” by historians, on a sea trial from London to Madeira to Jamaica and back. If the timepiece could keep very accurate time over such a long period, then Harrison could collect the prize money.
In November 1761, John Harrison’s son, William, set out with H4 aboard the HMS Deptford, a fifty-gun ship of the British Navy. After calling at Madeira, off the coast of Portugal, they sailed for Jamaica. On arrival in Kingston, they found the watch to be only five seconds slow. The governor of Jamaica signed a statement attesting to this fact, and young William Harrison and H4 sailed for London aboard the HMS Merlin, a much smaller vessel. The Merlin and its scientific cargo arrived at London on 26 March 1762, and the results of the journey were laid before the Longitude Board. The commissioners were rightly impressed by the accuracy of Harrison’s H4, but they were also reluctant to part with the massive sum of £20,000. Rather than concede Harrison’s victory, the board hedged their bet by asking him to submit H4 to another sea trial. This decision created an immediate scandal in the scientific community because Harrison’s peers, and almost everyone in the maritime industry, was convinced by Harrison’s success. A few years later, after a second, long journey to Barbados and back, Harrison received only a modest reward of £8,000 in 1773, but everyone knew he had really solved the longitude puzzle in 1762.
If you’re interested in reading more about the longitude puzzle and John Harrison’s tenacious trials, head to the library and check out Dava Sobel’s book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (New York: Penguin, 1995).
So you might be asking, what does this story have to do with Charleston, and our Longitude Lane? To answer that question, let’s return to the early months of 1762. Charleston is a port town, and the livelihood of almost everyone in town in tied in some way to ship traffic in an out of the port, and across the ocean to the West Indian Islands and Europe. Kingston, Jamaica is more than 1,000 miles away, but nevertheless the frequency of ship travel between here and there keeps us in regular communication with folks in Jamaica. In 1762, the governor of Jamaica who attested to the accuracy of Harrison’s marine chronometer was none other than William Henry Lyttelton, who took that post after serving as governor of South Carolina for several years. Thus the merchants of Charleston who traded with merchants in the port of Kingston, Jamaica, would have heard about the accuracy of Harrison’s H4, and they might have discussed the matter with our old governor personally.
In short, I think it’s likely that the maritime merchants of Charleston learned about Harrison’s solution to the longitude puzzle before the news reached London in late March 1762. Or perhaps the news of Harrison’s battle with the Longitude Board in London in early April found its way to Charleston by mid-May. In either case, one fact remains constant: the earliest reference to Longitude Lane that I’ve been able to find in the newspapers of Charleston is on 22 May 1762, when George Bedon announced the sale of a some imported liquors “at his Store in Longitude Lane, opposite the late Mrs. Gibbes’s Wharf.” The fact that Bedon had to describe the location of this Longitude Lane to the public is an important clue to the novelty of the name.
The lane or alley George Bedon called Longitude Lane in May 1762 was not a new creation. Its presence is mentioned in various property deeds dating back to the 1720s, but in those records it’s consistently called simply a “neighborhood alley” left by the consent of neighboring property owners. It had no need of a name because it wasn’t really a public thoroughfare. I believe that George Bedon coined the name in 1762 as a sort of marketing ploy. In order to attract customers to his shop on East Bay Street, where he sold goods that one could easily purchase elsewhere in town, Bedon took a buzzword from the latest, biggest news story in the world and sought to capitalize on its novelty.
Over the years since 1762, Longitude Lane has changed a bit. It’s much straighter than it formerly was (see the 1778 plat above), and its width has changed with various uses over the years. From time to time, bollards have been placed in the middle of the lane to discourage vehicular traffic, and so it’s always been good place for a pedestrian-friendly stroll.
If you’ve never ambled down Longitude Lane, or it’s been a while since your last visit, I recommend you make an effort to visit and stroll under the mighty oaks that shade it. While you’re there, I hope you’ll take a moment to think about John Harrison and his compact marine chronometer that was the scientific wonder of the world in 1762, and inspired the name of this quiet, cobbled lane.