In 1714, Parliament offered a bounty of £20,000 to the first person who devised a reliable way to determine one's longitude while at sea - an 18th century X-Prize. Latitude had been licked hundreds of years before with astrolabes and quadrants, but longitude stubbornly remained knowable only through dead reckoning or by swallowing your pride, heaving anchor, and asking the locals where the devil you were.1
The story of the race to come up with a method and claim the prize is a gripping one, filled with memorable personalities. The British - whose fondness for recalling the days of their naval domination of the world is rivaled only by America's propensity for re-telling World War II - have produced countless scholarly works on the matter. In the late 90s, the story was the subject of popular science writer Dava Sobel's award-winning first book, Longitude, which was then the basis for a popular film.
There are some personalities in the accounts of the chase for the "Public Award" that jump off the page: Nevil Maskelyne the Royal Astronomer, John Harrison (who ultimately won the prize), and Harrison's competitor Jeremy Thacker.
But here's the thing: Jeremy Thacker never existed. Worse still: Jeremy Thacker was the invention of someone who was having a little fun with Parliament.
The biographer and editor Pat Rogers writes in the Times of London that "Thacker never
existed and his proposal now emerges as a hoax." The pamphlet that "Thacker" wrote proposing his own method for determining longitude (and cutting down those of his rivals) is full of in-jokes and satire making light of the contest and all of the psuedo-academics falling all over themselves to win it. These are jokes that we of the 20th and 21st centuries don't get anymore, as we're too far removed from the context. Imagine a future civilization reading the Onion as a straight news source, and you've got a fair idea of what occurred here.
Rogers calls Thacker a "hoax", but most of his contemporary readers would have seen his pamphlet for the satire it was. It's us, living in Thacker's distant future who got hoaxed. Despite the fact that "(e)verything about the pamphlet should have raised a warning flag", writes Rogers, "without a single exception historians of science have taken Thacker at his
word, and graded his work as a brave near miss among an array of doomed
Web culture has given us a term that is still more accurate: Thacker is a troll. So take heart, Rick Astley. You might secure an unironic place in history yet.
1. The oft-cited story in the linked article (while hilarious) is most likely apocryphal. There are mentions of the name "Yucatan" in Spanish sources that pre-date the Hernandez de Cordoba expedition.
If Sarah Palin thinks that Andrew Sullivan and Ben Smith or any other of the web's essential political commentators are "bloggers in their parents' basement", as she told Greta van Susteren on Monday, then it's time to presume that she can be safely crossed off of any list of serious 2012 presidential candidates. The challenge before the RNC is that they have to recognize this as well.
The Obama campaign proved decisively something that Howard Dean and Ron Paul's campaigns had gone a long way towards suggesting: the internet is an indispensable part of any campaign ground game from this election forward.
In some ways, following Palin into 2012 is the path of least resistance for the Republican party at this point. Palin will have universal name recognition, and it is undeniable that she is an electrifying figure for a significant proportion of conservatives. But she is not the candidate of the future. Behind Obama, Democrats have shown that they have a deep understanding of the power of the web as a fundraising and communications tool. A presidential candidate four years hence - when more newspapers have become online-only concerns and internet access will be that much closer to ubiquity - cannot fail to understand the importance of the web.
I run UK & EMEA digital strategy for Cohn & Wolfe during the day, and I make iPhone games with Hard Six Games in my spare time. Nothing you read here is the perspective of Cohn & Wolfe or any of its clients. You can email me at fdrizo at gmail dot com.