Time and Navigation

If you want to know where you are, you need an accurate clock.

This surprising connection between time and place has been crucial for centuries. About 250 years ago, sailors first used accurate clocks to navigate the oceans. Today we locate ourselves on the globe with synchronized clocks in orbiting satellites. Among the many challenges facing navigation from then to now, one stands out: keeping accurate time.

This exhibition explores how revolutions in timekeeping over three centuries have influenced how we find our way.


Dividing Engine

Ramsden Dividing Engine
Dividing engine, made by Jesse Ramsden, London, 1775. This machine permitted the automatic and highly accurate division of a circle into degrees and fractions of degrees of arc. Invented by Englishman Jesse Ramsden in the 1770s, the machine ultimately led to mass production of precision octants and sextants and gave British manufacturers dominance in the field of marine instruments for decades.

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Lockheed Vega 5C Winnie Mae - Time and Navigation

Winnie Mae
Wiley Post's Winnie Mae circled the globe two times, shattering previous records. The first time was in 1931 with Weems associate Harold Gatty as lead navigator. The second was a solo flight in 1933 assisted by "Mechanical Mike," one of the world's first practical autopilots.

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Mariner 10

Mariner 10
This is a Flight Qualified Spare of the Mariner 10, a spacecraft that used a gravitational assist from Venus and then passed by Mercury three times in 1974 and 1975.

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Volkswagen Touareg Stanley
Stanley, an autonomous vehicle that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, is pictured here in the new Time and Navigation exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

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Ship’s Inertial Navigation System (SINS)

Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS)
This is one of three inertial guidance units used to steer submarines such as the USS Alabama.

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