Baltimore's streets are cockeyed.
Scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting were told yesterday that the city's street grid is skewed about 3 degrees counterclockwise from "true" north, south, east and west.
The tilt began with the oldest thoroughfares, Baltimore, Charles and Calvert streets, and it was carried on by generations of surveyors as they laid out neighborhoods from Edmondson Village to Highlandtown.
The finger of blame points to Philip Jones Jr., the town's original surveyor, who apparently used only his magnetic compass when he set the grid in 1730. He failed to correct the readings to eliminate known differences between magnetic north and true north.
The scientific community got the news from amateur astronomer Herman M. Heyn, and his research drew, well, no television anchormen and no debate at all. That's not surprising at a scientific meeting where scientists made international news with announcement that thousands of house-sized snowballs are falling toward Earth every day.
His own little discovery is "kind of hokey," Heyn said. "It's not going to change anybody's life." But he's proud of it, saying, "It's the first real science I've ever done."
It was one of those rare occasions when a nonscientist has had the courage to submit an original piece of research to a respected scientific meeting -- and win acceptance.
Heyn, 66, is best known to Fells Point and Harborplace visitors as the "Street-Corner Astronomer" who has given many of them their first telescopic look at a planet, the moon or an eclipse.
Trained at Coppin State College to be a high school science teacher, he spent his working life as a laboratory technician, an office manager and a salesman. Now retired, he supplements his income with his street-corner astronomy and, most recently, with sales of his photographs of comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp.
Ron Zwickl, a physicist and chairman of the American Geophysical Union meeting, said it was unusual for a nonscientist to submit a paper to the union for review. But "an amateur, if he's doing something germane and it makes sense, can get it accepted."
Heyn's work -- including maps, drawings and diagrams -- was delivered as a "poster presentation," a format in which scores of scientists mount their findings on posters in a large room and discuss them with anyone who happens by.
'Interesting, good work'
"There's been a constant stream of people coming by," Heyn said. "I haven't found anybody who said they had done similar research. People said it was interesting, good work."
Heyn said he noticed as a child in Baltimore that the city's streets did not quite line up with the maps' north-south lines of longitude, which lead to the North Pole, or true north.
Later, when he began his street-corner astronomy at the foot of ** Broadway in Fells Point, he needed to align his telescope with true north so that its tracking mechanism could compensate for the spin of the Earth and hold the planets in view.
But Broadway, he found, points 3 degrees west of true north. He learned to find true north by turning his telescope 3 degrees east of Broadway's center line.
The discrepancy nagged at his sense of tidiness, he said. Three years ago, he began to investigate how the city's streets came to be skewed. His work took him deep into the city's history.
"Baltimore Town" was laid out in January 1730 at the request of the Baltimore County commissioners. They wanted the surveyor to stake out 60 lots on 60 acres on the north side of "Cole's Harbour," which is today's Inner Harbor.
County records show that Jones drove his first locust-wood stake just north of today's Pratt Street and east of Charles Street. From there, he measured out the arrowhead-shaped town. Its boundary stretched east around the harbor shore (which then reached to Water Street) to just east of what is now Holliday Street.
From there, it ran north roughly to Lexington Street and west as far as Hopkins Place.
But it was Jones' primary north-south line, an eastern boundary that parallels Holliday, that began the westward tilt, Heyn said.
Navigators since Christopher Columbus have learned that their magnetic needles don't point to the North Pole. Instead, they point to the north magnetic pole, the spot where the Earth's magnetic field lines, like the lines of iron filings around a bar magnet, intersect with the Earth's surface.
That spot is in northern Canada. From Baltimore, it's about 11 degrees west of true north. The offset, or magnetic declination, changes with location.
To add to the confusion, the magnetic pole itself moves as the churning liquid metals at the planet's core, which create the magnetic field, slowly move.
Geographers have kept tabs on the magnetic pole's movements for centuries. In 1640, as measured from Maryland, it was 5 degrees west of true north. By 1800, it was 0.6 degrees west.
Heyn's research led him to an 1897 book by Louis Agricola Bauer (a co-founder of the geophysical union) that listed the magnetic declination for Baltimore in 1730.
Sure enough, it was 3.9 degrees west of true north. Heyn believes that explains Baltimore's lopsided street grid, because Baltimore's first north-south streets range from 2.9 degrees to 3.5 degrees west of true north.
"It's so close, I think it's more than a coincidence," he said. Philip Jones simply looked at his compass and aligned his survey with magnetic north, or as close as he could to it, given the imprecision of his instrument.
For a century or more after that, rather than correct Jones' alignment and put a crick in Baltimore's streets, his successors simply extended the lines and built Baltimore's expanding neighborhoods along the same grid.
The tilt can still be seen on maps, reaching as far east as Highlandtown, as far west as Edmondson Village and as far north as the Johns Hopkins University.
Pub Date: 5/31/97