The famed English writer Samuel Johnson wrote of London that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Between its museums, palaces, restaurants, pubs, markets, theaters, and tourist traps, it’s possible to spend a lifetime in London and never see everything that makes it such a remarkable and wonderful place. This week let’s look at some of London’s greatest and most interesting historical sites.
|The Rosetta Stone|
British Museum: The British Museum has the humble goal of setting out to catalogue the whole of human history, art, and culture. The museum houses some eight million artifacts within its 990,000 square feet of exhibition space. At any one time only approximately 50,000 artifacts are on display. The Museum contains some of the archeological treasures of the Ancient World including the Rosetta Stone—the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics—a large collection of Egyptian mummies, and parts of Greece’s famed Parthenon. These artifacts are not without controversy, however, as many of them came to London as part of England’s imperial conquests. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English lords, archeologists, and other men of means travelled to Egypt, Greece, Africa, and elsewhere where they acquired ancient relics and shipped them back to London for safe keeping. As much as the Museum chronicles world history, it also reflects the history of Imperial Great Britain and its domination and subjugation of other peoples.
|The White Tower|
Tower of London: The White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower of London, was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1078. Over the centuries, the monarchs of England added additional buildings, two rings of defensive walls, and a moat. Since the 11th century, the Tower has served as a royal palace, a royal prison, an armory, the home of the Royal Mint, and housed the exotic animals of the royal family’s menagerie. The Tower housed the animals, including elephants, giraffes, lions, and even a polar bear until the 1830s when the Duke of Wellington ordered the animals removed to the newly constructed London Zoo. Wellington had grown weary of the long history of the animals killing visitors who strayed too close to their habitats. Presently, the Tower is a historic site and also houses the crown jewels of the English royal family (if you’re interested in seeing the ungodly wealth of people who won the genetic lottery). Situated along the riverbank of the Thames, the Tower has lovely views of Tower Bridge and South London.
|Tower Bridge from the Tower of London|
Tower Bridge: Constructed between 1886 and 1894, Tower Bridge sought to solve London’s perpetual need for easy commercial access across the Thames River. The bridge consists of two towers connected by two horizontal walkways. Within the base of each tower lies the machinery necessary to raise the middle part of the bridge to allow boat traffic to pass through. Today, the Bridge is a functioning motorway and waterway and is also a tourist attraction. For a small entrance fee guests can take an elevator up to the North Tower where they walk across the walkway between the two towers. Along the way they can look at both sides of the river and a section of glass floor looking down upon the traffic and river below. The Tower exhibition also includes the old Victorian engine rooms and their massive steam engines that once raised and lowered the bridge.
|The Red Ball falls every day at 1 to synchronize clocks across London|
Royal Observatory: The Royal Observatory in Greenwich sits upon a hill overlooking the Thames. Opened in 1675, the Observatory has played a central role in the history of navigation, astronomy, and is home to the Prime Meridian that divides the earth into eastern and western hemispheres. An accurate measurement of longitude (your location east-west on the Earth’s surface) was key to the development of global oceanic travel. Sailors had long been able to track their latitude (their location north-south), but had no such way to measure their distance east or west. Being off by even a few miles longitudinally could mean the difference between shipwrecking on dangerous shoals or relative safety. With the passage of the Longitude Act of 1714, the British parliament offered a series of rewards to anyone who could develop a practical way of determining longitude at sea. John Harrison, an English clockmaker, invented the maritime chronometer which allowed for accurate measurements of time at sea. To calculate longitude, sailors need to be able to compare the local time to that at a fixed location (the Royal Observatory). Since the Earth rotates at a regular rate, navigators could determine their longitude by comparing the differences between the time where they were and the fixed location in Greenwich. This development made travel by sea much, much safer as navigators could now easily plot their way around dangerous waters and obstacles. And in the 19th century, when European nation-states decided to regulate measurements of longitude, they selected Greenwich because of its role in developing safe measurements of longitude.