Whose time is it anyway?

John Harrison
A grandfather clock


Remember an invention that changed the world as we know it? It involves disaster at sea and incredible feats of exploration. It all started with one man in north Lincolnshire but eventually drew in the Royal Navy, the greatest minds on the planet at that time and the King of England himself. And at the centre of it all, was a simple clock that changed the world.

If you use satnav and online navigations to go from point A to B, you already are using the core principle that this clock used. This clock was made by one of my all-time inspirations, John Harrison. John and James Harrison developed the precision pendulum clock in 1727. The development of this clock took place in a small village called Barrow upon Humber. Harrison made just three of these clocks, and they were incredibly accurate for that time. It loses only a second in a month. (Unprecedented accuracy!) I think he must have had dreams about how to improve things every night he went to sleep. The most exciting thing about this clock is that the working and moving parts are all majorly made of wood. This feature is something that I didn't expect from one of the most accurate clocks.

Trouble in the sea


John Harrison became obsessed with incredibly accurate clocks but not on land, but for the sea. He lived close to the mighty River Humber where he must've heard of the stories the sailors brought back. The 1700s was the time when the British were pushing out to discover the world out across the ocean. The problem was, they had a real technical problem with navigation. The Royal Navy used the sextant to know the time and a sense of their location. But to be honest, it is not a very great tool. It only tells how north you are from the equator (latitude) and not where you are from east to west (longitude.) This was a severe problem.

The Navy used dead reckoning to locate themselves in the east and west direction. The dead reckoning was nothing but a harness with markings on it with a deadweight attached at the end. The markings were at a distance of 1 knot from each other. They throw the deadweight in the sea and then time it for 28 seconds. This method helped in knowing the speed of the vessel and therefore, the location after a set time from a reference.

The Scilly mistake


This method was based on an estimate and was not very accurate. This is because the tide and waves make the water restless, and this method gets tougher and tougher as I think about it. And not to mention, the lives of thousands of sailors depended on getting it right. Errors like this add up in the course of a journey. And this addition can lead to a ship or a fleet to be way off course. This problem eventually came to the attention of the public after a terrible disaster. It was the night of the 22nd of October 1707. A fleet of five ships was coming back from Gibraltar under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovell. Unfortunately, they made a navigational error and crashed into the Isles of Scilly, naming the disaster "Scilly naval disaster of 1707."1

John Harrison
The fleet of the Scilly naval disaster of 1707.


Four ships went down with the Admiral's flagship: the HMS Association. A total of 2000 men drowned. The Admiral himself was thrown out to the beach half alive. But he was murdered on the islands for the ring on his finger. This incident was a national disaster, and people realised that something has to be done. In 1714, the government launched the "Longitude Act." This act had a prize of up to £20,000 (several million in today's money,) for anyone who can come up with a way to locate a ship in the sea. John Harrison thought he could do it... with a clock!

We Will! We Will Clock You!


Imagine you're a sailor back in Harrison's day. Now you are travelling from England to America (East to West.) After a particular time, you'll be somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. You want to know what time it is where you are. Now, you're a bright little sailor, so you observe the sun and notice when it is at the highest point in the sky and say that it is noon. If you have a clock with you and it is set to English time, you can tell how many hours behind you are from England. Now using this, you can pinpoint the exact location where you are on the planet just using a clock set to English time. But there was a problem, to exactly know where you are, you must have a clock which is fifty times more accurate than the other timers.

John Harrison
Woodcut of a cross-section of English longcase (grandfather) clock movement from the mid-1800s


To solve this longitude problem, John Harrison developed the precision pendulum clock. The design of this clock was unique but very complicated. Considering that the contemporary clock like the one made by George Graham would have kept time to within a handful of seconds a week, Harrison was claiming a second a month. That is saying something! To make this possible, John Harrison knew he had to solve one big problem. This issue was the Achilles heel for all the clocks and is called lubrication. Considering that the watches at that time were majorly made using wood, lubrication becomes even a big issue. So Harrison came up with revolutionary mechanisms to solve this issue. Many of these mechanisms are still used in modern time clocks.

John Harrison
The grasshopper escapement


Harrison got a chance to demonstrate all of this in 1720 when he was assigned to make a new turret clock at Brocklesby Park, North Lincolnshire.2 Almost all of the clock was made of wood. The extraordinary thing is that this clock is practically running for 300 years. But it was also a conventional clock, and like most of the watches at that time, it didn't work very well. He used to keep coming back to fix it. He used to oil the clock, but in the bitter Lincolnshire climate, the oil used to thicken and the mechanisms used to jam. So he threw away most of the design and redid it from scratch. The most phenomenal of these designs was the grasshopper escapement as it can be seen in the gif above. Instead of the teeth rubbing against the prongs, it releases it cleanly. But where things did have to rub, he came up with a unique wood to do the work. This wood was a dark wood from Africa called lignum vitae. This wood is very oily, and it has the property of self-lubrication. Imagine no lubrication for 300 years! All of this made the timer super accurate.

Poetic ending?


To solve the longitude problem, Harrison got obsessed with accuracy. He had solved the lubrication problem, but he wanted accuracy even with changes in temperature. Harrison made his house an oven to test his mechanisms. Meaning, he had hot rooms and cold rooms to check the clocks. To make the timer ready for marine applications, (to cope with the rocking of ships,) he got rid of the pendulum and came up with two arms attached with a big spring. The board agreed for a trial. Harrison and the clock were sent to a return trip to Lisbon. He got seasick, but the clock was erratic. Now don't get me wrong, it easily beat the navigators on the ship, but the clock was not yet accurate. Good but not yet conclusive.3

John Harrison
Harrison's first sea clock (H1)

Harrison moved to London in the pursuit to solve the longitude problem. He developed two other clocks to make the navigation easy but unfortunately he couldn't get it right. So Harrison kept playing around with it for nineteen years. He then moved on to hand watches. Hand watches were not supposed to be accurate, but Harrison, now a professional clockmaker, made them super reliable. And in this process, he eventually solved the longitude problem by a watch he called H4. H4 was the result of Harrison's life work and a brilliant timekeeper, but the board of longitude said that it did not meet the conditions for the prize. They insisted that copies of this watch should be made and tested so that there would be timekeepers for the entire Navy. Not a poetic ending so far.

John Harrison
Harrison's "sea watch" No.1 (H4), with winding crank

In 1772 a copy of H4 was given to Captain James Cook who took it on his second and third great voyages. Cook was won over calling the watch our never-failing friend.4 But the board wouldn't agree that the trial was over. Luckily, King George III was a great fan of these marine timekeepers. He even had them tested in his observatory. He heard that Harrison and the board of longitude had fallen out. In the end, he intervened and said that enough was enough; Harrison should get the money. (Finally!) The board eventually did pay him the sum, but it was when he was 80 years old, and he died three years later.


Now your turn.


John Harrison solved the longitude problem over 200 years ago, but his idea of using time to find where you are lives on. We have been using my satellite navigation system to find our way around, and there's a direct link between John Harrison and sat-nav. It also uses incredibly precise clocks to pinpoint your position on earth. The only difference is that the clocks used right now are atomic which use the outer electron of the caesium-133 atom to do the timekeeping.5 Imagine if a man had not been obsessed with accuracy and using clocks to navigate, there would be no satellite navigation. A man started his quest to build the most accurate clock in the world because it would help to save lives at sea today clocks are still saving lives at sea. In a way, we all should also be obsessed with what we do and try to leave a dent on the universe.


This time, I'm going to do what's called, the "soft sell". I'm just going to give an option to you. You can either take it or leave it. I like exploring the world and observing goofy stuff like this. If you would want to consider subscribing to The Invisible Genius, it's a declaration for your love of curiosity and awesome things. That's pretty much what it is at this point. So, if you'd like to subscribe to The Invisible Genius, you can do that, if not, no big deal.


And you could even follow the blog on social media links down below if you're not ashamed of it. (Don't be, follow away!) So, that's an option for you all. Thank you to everyone, who sends me topics that I can read about and study. I really enjoy them. I hope you enjoy it too. Have a good one. See you next Saturday!


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Reference links

  1. The British Longitude Act Reconsidered » American Scientist
  2. The Inventor of the Marine Chronometer: John Harrison of Foulby (1693-1776).
  3. Wayman, Michael L. (2000). The Ferrous Metallurgy of Early Clocks and Watches. British Museum.
  4. Captain James Cook, Richard Hough, Holder and Stroughton 1994.pp 192–193
  5. McCarthy, Dennis; Seidelmann, P. Kenneth (2009). TIME from Earth Rotation to Atomic Physics. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. ch. 10 & 11.

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