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Yarmouth Vanguard, May 1, 1990

This was Jean Richer, a French astronomer, born in 1630. He was to get his training in astronomy at the famous “Academie Royale des Sciences” (The Royal Academy of Science) that Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister and right-hand man of Louis XIV, had founded in 1666, and established in Paris.

Jean Richer was to be involved in finding the different co-ordinates of the earth, that is the latitudes and the longitudes. The latitudes were easy to find, that is the distance form a certain point on earth to the Equator, which is measured in degrees, going form 0 to 90. That was done by observing the North Star. If you were to be at the North Pole, the North Star would be upright perpendicularly overhead. At the Equator, the North Star is seen at the horizon. At the Equator, we say that the latitude of zero degree; at the Pole, it is at 90 degrees. In Yarmouth, the North Star is seen about half way between the zenith and the horizon, which means that Yarmouth is about halfway between the Equator and the North Pole or close to 45 degrees of latitude.

Up to the 17th century, it was another story with regard to the longitude, that is the distance form east to west or from west to east from a certain point to another. It can be measured in miles, if we go into a straight line. At the time of Richer, it was known that it could be measured in degrees also, according to the time that it takes for the sun to cover the distance form one point to another. If it takes one hour for the sun to pass from straight overhead in London to a point striaght overhead in the Atlantic Ocean, it will mean that the distance is of one hour, which is given in degrees, the amount here being 15 degrees. Unfortunately at the time, the clocks were not accurate enough to measure exactly the difference of time. They became accurate enough to be used only when the Dutchman Christian Huygens (1620-1695) invented in 1657 the pendulum clock. Jean Richer was to be the first one to make use of this new invention to calculate the longitude, especially in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and in Acadia.

After ordering two clocks from Holland, Minister Colbert sent Richer to Acadia with the clocks to find different longitudes on the Atlantic and on the coasts of Acadia. This was in May, 1670. He was accompanying Hector de Grandfontaine who was going to Acadia to be its Governor, as Acadia, after having been in the hands of the English, had just been returned to France by the Treaty of Breda.

Before leaving La Rochelle, in France, Richer set one of the clocks at 12 o’clock sharp, at the precise moment when the sun was at its peak. After sailing west for some time and being at a certain point in the Ocean, he was to set the other clock at 12 o’clock sharp, at the precise moment when the sun was to be at its peak. If there were to be exactly one hour difference between the two clocks, that would mean that he was at 15 degrees longitude west of la Rochelle where the first clock was set; if he was to be at just half an hour difference it would mean that the distance was just 7 degrees and a half from La Rochelle, that which usually is given as being 7 degrees and 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, after leaving La Rochelle on the “Saint-Sebastien” they ran into an awful storm, and both clocks were damaged to a point that they could not be of any use. Nevertheless, even though Richer’s main purpose of taking the trip was spoiled, he was to make good use of his time by doing other astronomical observations.

They arrived in Boston around the first week of July, where Richer took the latitude, the difference of water levels between high tide and low tide and made other observations. He did the same at Pentagoet now Ponobscot, Maine, not far from Castine, at about 25 miles as the crow flies, north-west of Bar Harbour. Grandfontaine was to reside here, at Pentagoet, and make it the Capital of Acadia, because it was in the territory of what was known then as Acadia, even though it is not is Nova Scotia. Authors remark that it is astonishing with what accuracy Richer was able to take the latitude of Pentagoet with the instruments that he had then, finding its exact degree and minutes, being a little off only with regard to the seconds.

It was during the voyage that Grandfontaine recieved from the hands of the former English Governor Thomas Temple the forts of St. John River, of Port Royal and of Port La Tour.

Richer returned to France somewhat disappointed, but not entirely empty handed. The clocks being repaired, he was able to conduct his experiments on longitudes in another French territory again on the other side of the Atlantic, this time in French Guiana, South America. He left the very next year, 1671.

But lo and behold the more he approached the Equator and the more his clocks were losing time; they had been very accurate until then. That meant that the pendulum was going slower; it was less attracted by the earth than it was at a higher latitude. The only explanation that he could figure was that at the Equator he was farther from the center of the earth; there was less attraction than there was at the Pole. It could only mean one thing, that the Pole was closer to the center of the earth than the Equator. In other words, he discovered that the earth is flat at its Poles.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding especially this last discovery, Jean Richer is little known. As an author (J.W. Olmstead, Un. of California) says, it is due to the fact that there has been “a serious underestimation of the importance of the early work of the ‘Academie Royale des Sciences’ and an overestimation of that of its rival, the Royal Society of London (1662)”.

Be what it may, we, of south-western Nova Scotia, can boast that this great astronomer and discoverer came to see us and visited our coasts over 300 years ago. He died in Paris in 1696.


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