What drones and GPS owe to a 1744 wreck

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  • Tim Harford*
  • BBC World Service, série ‘50 Things That Made the Modern Economy’

Photo caption,

In shipwrecks, not just lives and gold were lost

On October 5, 1744, a storm was forming in the English Channel. On the way home after chasing French ships off the coast of Portugal, a fleet of British warships found themselves in trouble.

The main vessel, the ship HMS Victory, sank 80 kilometers south of the city of Plymouth, England, taking 1,100 men with it and – legend has it – a lot of Portuguese gold. The wreckage remained intact, 100 meters deep, until it was located by a marine rescue company in 2009.

In addition to the supposed gold, there was something on board the vessel arguably more economically valuable: that first known attempt to develop a concept that is used today to guide everything from submarines to satellites, from probes on Mars to the cell phone was also lost that day in your pocket.

When the HMS Victory sank, it took John Serson’s “spinning speculum”, a precursor to the modern gyroscope.

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