Marking the Meridian

A random one-time reader landed on Twelve Mile Circle recently. That unknown visitor sought information about the Prime Meridian, and I’ll get to the specific request in a moment. I knew I’d discussed this meridian before. However, in searching my archives and after examining the Complete Index I discovered that I’d never actually marked the place where it all started in Greenwich, England (map).

The Royal Observatory; Greenwich, England, UK

Prime meridian at Greenwich
Prime meridian at Greenwich. Photo by Duncan Stephen on Flickr (cc)

More than nine years writing 12MC and no photo? Really? We’ll fix that right now.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about it because I think most of us already know the story. Greenwich appeared in a number of 12MC articles, for example from an American perspective. The agreed-upon line went through the Royal Observatory for a number of historical reasons. I’ll borrow some text directly from its website.

In 1884 the Prime Meridian was defined by the position of the large ‘Transit Circle’ telescope in the Observatory’s Meridian Observatory. The transit circle was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, in 1850. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the Transit Circle precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. As the Earth’s crust is moving very slightly all the time the exact position of the Prime Meridian is now moving very slightly too, but the original reference for the prime meridian of the world remains the Airy Transit Circle in the Royal Observatory, even if the exact location of the line may move to either side of Airy’s meridian.

Modern calculations placed the meridian about 100 metres east of the line where all the tourists commonly gather. The Daily Telegraph noted that a rubbish bin marked the actual line, not the fancy marker.

Meridiano de Greenwich; Candasnos, Spain

Meridiano de Greenwich
Meridiano de Greenwich; Candasnos, Spain
via Google Street View, July 2016

A wonderful arch crossed motorway Autopista del Nordeste (AP-2) at kilometre 82 outside of Candasnos, Spain (map). This was the object my random visitor hoped to find on the 12MC website. It very much marked the Prime Meridian and the search engine link landed on my Prime Meridian Through Spain. However I didn’t include anything about the arch on 12MC because I didn’t know it existed. Whoever it was left disappointed, probably never to return.

That troubling outcome, of course, led me to search for the arch and I found it without too much trouble. Unfortunately I never uncovered any information about its construction, who commissioned it, when it happened, or any other details. Precious little information even existed about the town of Candasnos itself. I consulted the Spanish version of Wikipedia to see what I could learn. It told me that the economy depended on agriculture and people exiting the Autopista for services as they drove along through the countryside.

That little exercise turned out to be a bit of a bust. I came across an interesting website however, devoted entirely to Prime Meridian markers. I could appreciate something like that, and I did, a kindred spirit who enjoyed a very specific geographic peculiarity. Why not use that as a source for finding a couple more fascinating Prime Meridian markers? That sounded like a great idea. Let’s do it.

Rue du Méridien; Neuvillalais, Pays de la Loire, France

Eglise de Neuvillalais on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

The meridian went through France so that seemed like a good place to hunt for more markers. I found a particularly nice one in the village of Neuvillalais (map) in the Pays de la Loire region. According to French Wikipedia, the name traced back to Latin, nova villa, meaning new town. Its residents did not have a demonym until 2016 when the municipal council declared they were all "les Neuvillalois." That shouldn’t have fascinated me, yet somehow it did.

They named the primary road through town Rue du Méridien. Only one business existed within the village boundaries, a bar-restaurant-grocery store called Le Méridien. A line made of cobblestones marked the Prime Meridian as it traversed a roadway intersection near the center of town. A giant globe marked its passage where it crossed the front yard of a church. More recent photos suggested that the globe might have disappeared sometime in the last couple of years. What a pity.

Meridian Rock; Tema, Ghana

I always try to feature content from Africa because I don’t think the continent gets enough attention. However, many times I find it difficult to find any good material on the Intertubes. I struck pay dirt down in Ghana though. The line passed all the way through there, a fact I once recognized in Prime Meridian Capital Cities.

The notion seemed daunting when I heard about Meridian Rock (map) in the city of Tema, just east of Accra. Literally, it was a rock, and it sat just offshore of a local beach. Like I could find Street View coverage or a Creative Commons photo of a rock in the water? That’s why I practically did a cartwheel when I found a YouTube video of this obscure object. The same gentleman also posted a video of another meridian marker in Tema, on the grounds of the "Presbyterian Church of Ghana on the Greenwich Meridian." That was the actual name of the church. Awesome.

In 2014, the Ghana Tourism Authority launched an effort to mark the meridian in various parts of the country. They hoped to turn them into "a hot tourism spot."

…we are looking at erecting signages to indicate the imaginary line… we are also looking at developing special places within the settlements where people can visit, and we are also looking at erecting a ‘Wall of Fame,’ where people can say that ‘I have crossed the Greenwich Meridian’ in, say Salaga, for instance, so that he can pay something small and have his name inscribed on the wall.

I don’t know where the project stands today. I don’t think I’d go to Ghana solely to visit the line although I’d certainly seek it out if I happened to be there for some other purpose. Maybe the GTA could sponsor me?

Prime Meridian Through Spain

I noticed a query dropped upon the Twelve Mile Circle from one of the search engines. It was a fairly straight-forward request for information, as far as those things go. My anonymous visitor wanted to know about the "Madrid prime meridian line" Do we sense a problem?

View Prime Meridian – in a larger map

The knee-jerk reaction would be to consider this a geographic failing of someone unaware of such matters. Obviously we have either an inadequate educational system or an individual of limited mental recall. After all, the Prime Meridian does not go through Madrid. Although it cuts through Spain, it does not get any closer than about 325 kilometres (200 miles) from Madrid. The person must have lost sight of the geographic proximity of Madrid, or worse, couldn’t distinguishing Madrid from larger Spain.

My mind went there briefly. I was ready to dismiss this inquiry as coming from someone for whom 12MC would never serve a legitimate purpose. I realized the fallacy of that judgment a split-second later of course. Twelve Mile Circle is designed for someone exactly like the person who wonders about Madrid and the Prime Meridian.

There are a lot of interesting features about the Prime Meridian as it slices through Spain. Personally I like the little corner of Valencia that stands on the eastern side of the line (map). I think, if I were to move to Spain, I’d consider Xàbia/Jávea in Valencia’s Alicante province specifically for that reason. Also I’d try to hunt down some people who have homes split by the Prime Meridian (for example) and ask them if they realize an imaginary line runs through their residences. I bet they do.

Let’s put thoughts of the Prime Meridian aside, or at least the one that runs through Greenwich, England. We’ve seen this story before, haven’t we? A similar situation came up when I wrote about the American Meridian that was based on that Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, and was used by the United States before Greenwich became an international standard. I live in the (American Meridian) western hemisphere and work in the eastern hemisphere, and isn’t that all grand?

It’s the same thing here. The placement of the Prime Meridian is arbitrary. It could have been located anywhere, and that’s what many nations did prior to adopting the Greenwich line.

View Larger Map

The Spanish government ran it through the Real Observatorio de Madrid — the Royal Observatory of Madrid — in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The observatory was already in place, having been constructed in 1790. It’s a stunning example of Spanish neoclassical architecture atop a hill and today it houses an astronomically-oriented museum. Spain’s Ministry of Development provides additional information should one wish to visit or learn more (translated to English).

Thus my random visitor searching for the "Madrid prime meridian line" was actually quite astute, with a solid understanding of geography and history.

View Madrid Meridian in a larger map

Let’s move the Prime Meridian a little further to the west, to a line of longitude equaling 03° 41’14.546″ per the July 2000 edition of Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing Journal to recreate Spain’s former Prime Meridian. Indeed, it runs directly through Madrid. Notice also that it splits Spain much more evenly than the Greenwich Meridian. Other towns on or near the meridian include Santander, Burgos, Jaén and Granada.

View Madrid Meridian in a larger map

Look as some of the umbrellas on this beach in Almuñécar in Andalusia. No doubt there are people relaxing on both sides of the line. Somehow I doubt any of them realize the geographic significance of their fortunate placement. For us geo-geeks however, it seems like it might be a great opportunity for a Spanish Meridian Beach Party!

Cheers, random visitor.

Canada’s Dominion Land Survey Meridian

One of my favorite activities and side-benefits on the Twelve Mile Circle involves thoughtful correspondence. That happens when readers contact me offline, directly through the email link. We have opportunities to share experiences, discuss geo-oddities in a little more detail and develop story lines that sometimes result in full-blown articles. Casual readers may not realize the amount of activity taking place behind the curtain. Generally I’m involved in several slow-motion conversations out-of-sight at any given moment, to the benefit of topic variety and the overall quality of the blog.

I’m a little behind due to my recent vacation so fear not if we’ve corresponded recently, I’ll catch up eventually.

Case in point, reader Brent and I had dueling meridian experiences in near-real-time as I traveled through Utah recently. I recorded my first visit to the Great Salt Lake Meridian and Base on the same day he stopped at the Principal Meridian for Canada’s Dominion Land Survey.

View Larger Map

My meridian experience was in a highly urban area, the Temple Square at the heart of Salt Lake City. His, by contrast, involved a rural stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba (namesake of Winnie-the-Pooh). That rural description may change in the future, however. The outskirts of Winnipeg seem to be marching in that direction. The marker may find itself in the parking lot of a generic suburban shopping center someday but for now it retains its bucolic setting. Brent was kind enough to share photographs of the marker and with his permission I’ve reproduced one here.

Canada's Dominion Land Survey Prime Meridian Marker

The marker was dedicated in 1930 with the following inscription (and repeated in French):

The first marker of the Dominion Lands Survey was placed 10 July, 1871, on the Principal Meridian, about a half a mile south of this site. The system, then inaugurated by Lieutenant-Colonel J.S. Dennis, Surveyor-General, extends across the prairies and to the Pacific coast, embracing more than 200 million acres of surveyed lands in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and parts of British Columbia.

That succinctly describes the Dominion Land Survey and the importance of its Prime Meridian which was established along 97° 27′ 28.4″ — an interestingly random longitude in my mind. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and subsequent meridians were pegged to 102°, 106° 110° west of Greenwich and so forth, so it would seem to have made better sense for the Survey to begin at 98° instead. I’m sure there is a story behind the actual choice although I haven’t had time to dig into it further. Perhaps it’s as simple as they wanted to cover a greater area in the Survey.

What an amazing meridian. The Dominion Land Survey was patterned on the Public Land Survey system used in the United States, but on a greater, gargantuan scale. It is quite simply "the world’s largest survey grid laid down in a single integrated system," according to the Library and Archives of Canada. Brent’s adventure trumps my puny Utah meridan in terms of scale and significance.

If you check the actual longitude of the marker you may notice that it’s a bit off. Wikipedia explains that particular situation:

The only truly accurate benchmarks at that time were near the prime meridian in Europe. Benchmarks in other parts of the world had to be calculated or estimated by the positions of the sun and stars. Consequently, although they were remarkably accurate for the time, today they are known to be several hundred metres in error. Before the survey was even completed it was established that for the purposes of laws based on the survey, the results of the physical survey would take precedence over the theoretically correct position of the meridians. This precludes, for example any basis for a boundary dispute between Alberta and Saskatchewan on account of surveying errors.

That’s a smart approach.

Well done Brent, and thank you for sharing your journey.