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NOAA Expedition Discovers 200-Year-Old Chronometer

By MarEx 2014-04-24 21:55:00

Using undersea robots, satellites and high-speed Internet to send live video from the seafloor to audiences ashore, a team of NOAA-led marine archeologists discovered a ship’s chronometer where time has stood still for about 200 years at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

This was the latest discovery made as part of the Gulf of Mexico expedition by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. From an Exploration Command Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, Frank Cantelas, a marine archaeologist with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, spotted a partly buried circular object on the live video. 

When the ROV’s cameras zeroed in, scientists were amazed to see the ancient timepiece. An expedition a year ago had missed the ship’s chronometer. “Do you see a dial, and a hand inside the circle as well,” Delgado asked the team that day. As the camera zoomed in, a scientist in Galveston added, “You can see Roman numerals.” The chronometer’s hand appeared to be pointing to 6:30.

A large anchor and capstan were previously discovered on the same shipwreck where explorers discovered the chronometer. 

In an Exploration Command Center at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, Jack Irion, a regional historic preservation officer with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the chronometer’s discovery was rare and significant. While other evidence from the wreck suggests the ship predates 1825, it was unusual for merchant ships to have such an expensive instrument. “For this to appear on a merchant ship in the Gulf of Mexico at this early date is extraordinary,” he said.  

A British carpenter perfected the design for the chronometer in 1761, a clock that could keep accurate time on a rolling ship at sea, so that sailors could determine their position by measuring the angle of the sun relative to high noon in Greenwich, England. The devices were so expensive initially that few ships carried them.  It wasn't until 1825 that British Royal Navy ships carried chronometers.  

”This chronometer is an object worthy of scientific recovery, preservation treatment to reverse the corrosive effects of two centuries in the sea, detailed study and eventually, display in a museum,” said Delgado.

Some scientists conjectured that if sailors survived a crisis at sea, they would have taken the valuable chronometer with them, leading scientists to theorize there may have been no survivors.

NOAA explores the largely unknown ocean to obtain baseline information that is vital to informing decisions by ocean resource managers and policy makers. This includes investigating shipwrecks to determine if they may be significant national maritime heritage sites. Such sites require not only study, but protection in partnership with industry and other federal partners.