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I could not be measured -
       there wasn't the time
Yet my knowledge was treasured
       to help reach friendly climes
My ignorance - feared,
       for it might lead to sinking
Now I'm handily found -
       it's a matter of lateral thinking

Who or what am I? And what are the historical period and/or events being referenced?

Edit: Congratulations to Laconic Druid for posting a correct answer. Here are some notes with additional details to complement his/her solution:

(obviously, these notes contain major spoilers)

This riddle is about the story of longitude, a fascinating chapter in the history of sea navigation, science and technology. The historical background is that ships have always needed to know their location (latitude and longitude) to navigate successfully and safely. Measuring latitude is easy by simple reference to celestial bodies, but to measure longitude one needs to also know the time at a specific reference point on Earth, say at the port from which you departed. As silly as it sounds these days, measuring time accurately aboard a ship proved to be a major technological challenge that hindered the goal of measuring longitude, even long after accurate land-based pendulum clocks were developed. This and related navigational difficulties caused major sea disasters such as the Scilly naval disaster of 1707 (1500 fatalities and 4 ships lost). The problem was so vexing that large monetary rewards were declared by the British government and the King of Spain to the first person to design a reliable system of measuring longitude.

The longitude problem was eventually solved in the second half of the 18th century by John Harrison, a clockmaker who (after dedicating much of his life to solving the longitude problem) developed the marine chronometer, a compact but very accurate clock.

Finally, here is a line-by-line explanation of the riddle:

"I could not be measured - there wasn't the time"
Longitude could not be measured, for lack of an accurate time-measuring device.

"Yet my knowledge was treasured to help reach friendly climes"
Knowledge of longitude was highly valued (treasured) to help ensure the safe arrival of a ship at its destination.

"My ignorance - feared, for it might lead to sinking"
Not being able to tell where you are while at sea (through ignorance of your longitude) was feared, and could lead to disaster.

"Now I'm handily found"
These days, if you want to know your longitude, just pull out your smartphone and your GPS/compass/navigation app will tell it to you. Very handy (and makes it easy to forget that we are relying on centuries of scientific and technological innovation, and many billions of dollars worth of infrastructure - the 31 Global Positioning System satellites - to tell us this mundane piece of information that was once considered so valuable and elusive).

"it's a matter of lateral thinking"
Aside from the Puzzling-related notion of lateral thinking ostensibly required to solve the riddle, note that longitude represents one's position on the surface of the Earth along the lateral (east-west) axis or direction. Hence this is (I claim) a true lateral thinking riddle.

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    $\begingroup$ Since I had to look it up, Clime: "a region considered with reference to its climate." $\endgroup$ – Jordan.J.D May 9 '16 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Jordan.J.D It can also be used to mean just "a place", especially in poetry. $\endgroup$ – f'' May 9 '16 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ this isn't actually lateral thinking is it $\endgroup$ – question_asker May 10 '16 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ @question_asker yes it is, with the correct (and quite reasonable and literal) interpretation of what those words mean. $\endgroup$ – user17947 May 10 '16 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @BigBlackBox It's not offensive, it just doesn't belong. It's misleading and only amounts to a (sort of) joke. Just so you don't think I'm being capricious, take a look at this meta question and the responses to it. $\endgroup$ – question_asker May 10 '16 at 23:31
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I believe the answer is:

Longitude

I could not be measured - there wasn't the time

The measurement of longitude is very important for navigating; particularly ocean navigation. For centuries, however, this was very difficult to calculate until the invention of the marine chronometer by John Harrison.{Sidenote, there is a great book, "Longitude", which covers the history of the race to calculate this accurately}

Yet my knowledge was treasured
to help reach friendly climes

Not 100% clear on this, but I assumed it meant that knowledge of lattitude helped sailors (or pirates) track down where they buried their treasure, and helped them accurately find other countries around the globe. Arriving in the wrong place could have nasty consequences if the locals were enemies.

My ignorance - feared, for it might lead to sinking

Not having accurate location could result in running aground in shallow waters or hitting a reef or a sandbank. Such damage could lead to the ship sinking.

Now I'm handily found - it's a matter of lateral thinking

Handily found could refer to the fact that modern chronometers can be handheld if they are mechanical or, of course, be GPS devices such as smart phones. It's lateral thinking, because one uses latitude and longitude to pinpoint position.

Who or what am I? And what are the historical period and/or events being referenced?

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this is the answer - nice job! Before I accept it, can you expand your explanation a bit to cover all the clues and show convincingly why this is the unique correct answer rather than any of the other navigation-related proposals that were tossed around? $\endgroup$ – user17947 May 10 '16 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ I think I butchered my edits somewhat (not used to writing spoilers), but expanded my answer. $\endgroup$ – Laconic Droid May 10 '16 at 19:06
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A random guess:

one of: stars / navigation by stars / north star/ southern cross

because:

I could not be measured- there wasn't the time

It takes a long time to chart the position of stars and know how the stars move during the year, or exactly what star positions correspond to what coordinates / bearings

Yet my knowledge was treasured to help reach friendly climes

Navigating by the stars was the primary way of getting around on the oceans for e.g. the Magellan expedition to the Americas, the Cook expedition to Australia etc.

My ignorance - feared, for it might lead to sinking

Obviously if you didn't navigate properly at night or during fog you could hit rocks

Now I'm handily found -it's a matter of lateral thinking

The altitude of the star can be measured using the hand stretched out in front of the eyes, with shoulders squared. Different configurations of the hand (e.g., a fist, a span, two fingers, three fingers, etc.) can be calibrated to distances (degrees) in the sky. If the navigator knows the altitude of the meridian crossing of a star at a particular latitude, and he can tell when the star is crossing the meridian, he can estimate his latitude by measuring the altitude with his hand.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice try, but, in a word: nope. P.S. Note the "word" tag. $\endgroup$ – user17947 May 9 '16 at 20:07
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My guess is

Global wind patterns and time frame is when we used sail ships

I could not be measured - there wasn't the time

I am guessing it would have been really difficult and time consuming to track all the wind patterns.

Yet my knowledge was treasured to help reach friendly climes

The captain is required to know wind patterns to reach desired destinations while sailing.

My ignorance - feared, for it might lead to sinking

Lack of knowledge about wind patterns could land you in trouble , sinking here I guess refers to a ship sinking

Now I'm handily found -

Global wind patterns are well established present day.

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My guess:

Universe

I could not be measured -
there wasn't the time

We don't know the size of the universe. We can only see as far as the light that reaches us, but scientists believe it's larger than $2*13.7 * 10^9$ light-years across

Yet my knowledge was treasured
to help reach friendly climes

Sailors use the stars in the universe to navigate

My ignorance - feared,
for it might lead to sinking

same as above, ignoring some stars may lead to ships sinking.

Now I'm handily found -
it's a matter of lateral thinking

you cannot grasp the full universe, you can only estimate its size based on ....I have no idea what the estimation is based on.

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My guess:

Bermuda triangle

I could not be measured - there wasn't the time

compass dont work there, dunno about clocks also...

Yet my knowledge was treasured to help reach friendly climes

Due to its geographical location, it is near sunny and warm climes

My ignorance - feared, for it might lead to sinking

We ignore what's going on there, and it certainly leads to sinking and boats dissapearing.

Now I'm handily found - it's a matter of lateral thinking

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My thoughts/guess:

Map (specifically sea charts)

Reasoning:

I could not be measured -
there wasn't the time

Maps were rarely exact/measured when they were first being created, since they didn't have the time or resources to properly measure distances

Yet my knowledge was treasured
to help reach friendly climes

Sea charts/maps are invaluable when navigating the sea i.e. traveling to other places via the sea

My ignorance - feared,
for it might lead to sinking

Not having a map or not being able to read a map could prove catastrophic (ship sinking) when traveling via the sea

Now I'm handily found -
it's a matter of lateral thinking

Maps are extremely common now, in digital and physical form. I think lateral thinking might relate to the fact that maps have latitude longitude, but that's a bit of a stretch

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  • $\begingroup$ Good suggestion, but not the correct answer. $\endgroup$ – user17947 May 9 '16 at 20:30
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I think it has something to do with :

tide/tidal force

because :

It wasn't measured for a long time, it can be useful for navigating but also dangerous. And now we can easily predict tides, after all it's just a matter of moon attraction :p

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