A race against time

Eighteenth-century people liked a good wager, and bets often involved races. This led to some interesting problems in a few cases, related to the difficulty of regulating time. A race between horses, or men, from a starting point to a finishing line could be easily judged, except in very close cases. Similarly, a race against time, such as running or walking a certain distance and ending at the starting point could be easily adjudicated. A trickier problem was a race against time over a distance with different starting and finishing points. The problem became one of calibrating or synchronizing clocks. This was a significant 18th-century concern—the most important aspect being the search for an accurate method of determining longitude, a problem which turned out to be one of time, rather than place.

An example of dealing with this problem comes from a wager on racing a horse from Hyde Park Corner in London to Windsor within an hour and five minutes for a bet of 200 guineas. The race had been talked about for weeks and a lot of money in side-bets was riding on the horse. Here is how the outcome was reported in the Ipswich Journal of February 6, 1731. Even the newspaper reports the details of timing the race.

Last Sunday Morning about Eleven o’Clock the Lord James Cavendish started from Hyde-Park Corner, on a Horse a little above a Galloway (not Mr. Humberston’s) and rode to the Lodge in Windsor-Forest, which is above Twenty-one Miles and a half, for a Wager of 200 Guineas, laid with Sir Robert Fagg, that he did not perform the same within an Hour and five Minutes. His Lordship was started by Henry Herbert of Oakley-Park, Esq; It was agreed that three Stop Watches should be set together, and in case a Dispute should happen between two of them, the Wager should be decided by the Third, which was done accordingly, but by the Motion of riding they varied so much, that by one he won by three Minutes, by another by 45 Seconds, and the Third by 16 Seconds. It is reckon’d 5000 l. was depending on this Match.

Yesterday between Three and Four in the Afternoon his Lordship return’d from thence to St. James’s in good Health; His Lordship hath ordered a handsome Sum to be distributed amongst the Receivers at the several Turnpikes through which he passed, the Gates being all left open on that Occasion for many Hours, and all Passengers rode through Toll free.

2 thoughts on “A race against time

  1. cmmelv

    That’s really interesting. I never really thought about it before, but I guess timing would be a real problem.


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