The Clock That Modified the World: How John Harrison’s Transportable Clock Revolutionized Sea Navigation within the 18th Century


Within the early eighteenth century, a pocket watch may preserve fairly correct time, give or take a minute per day. This may occasionally not sound too dangerous, given how we now regard even probably the most superior expertise of that period. Nevertheless it actually wasn’t adequate for marine navigation: every day, a ship may tolerate its clocks gaining or shedding solely a few seconds. With out correct dependable details about the time, sailors on the open sea had no method of realizing fairly the place they had been. Extra particularly, the solar informed them how far north or south they had been, their latitude, however they didn’t know the way far east or west they had been, their longitude.

Theoretically talking, the “longitude drawback” was simply solvable. You might calculate it, writes Gear Patrol’s Ed Estlow, “by sighting the solar at excessive midday the place you had been, and if you had a adequate clock for the time again dwelling, you might examine the 2 and, with some easy arithmetic, decide your place.” However engineering such a good-enough clock in actuality took about half a century. “In 1714, the British authorities supplied the massive prize of £20,000 (roughly £2 million at present) to anybody who may resolve the longitude drawback as soon as and for all.” However the cash wasn’t totally claimed till 1773, by a Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison.

Harrison’s title looms giant within the annals of chronometry, and never with out purpose. His work of inventing an correct ship clock concerned the creation of 5 totally different fashions, identified by historians as H1 via H5. H1 was a transportable model of the type of sizable picket clock with which he’d already made his title. It was solely in with H4, in 1765, that he realized small is gorgeous, or slightly correct, not less than if geared up with outsized inside stability wheels to carry up extra reliably towards the fixed motion of a ship at sea. This design labored with out a hitch, besides, the Board of Longitude solely noticed match to award him half the cash supplied.

Neither Harrison’s fixing of the longitude drawback nor his receipt of a disappointingly halved prize appear to have stopped his obsession with constructing ever-better timekeeping units. This comes as no shock given the qualities of thoughts that emerge in “The Clock That Modified the World,” the episode of BBC’s A Historical past of the World on the high of the put up. Whereas engaged on H5, Harrison “sought the assist of King George III” (he of the well-known insanity). “The King, a pure thinker in his personal proper, examined H5 himself and promised Harrison his assist.” That assist lastly obtained the aged Harrison his promised quantity after which some, however one senses that — like all pursuit worthy of 1’s lifelong dedication — it was by no means actually in regards to the cash.

Associated content material:

New Archive Reveals How Scientists Lastly Solved the Vexing “Longitude Downside” Throughout the 1700s

How Clocks Modified Humanity Endlessly, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

The Planetarium Desk Clock: Magnificent 1775 Timepiece Tracks the Passing of Time & the Journey of the Planets

How Did Cartographers Create World Maps earlier than Airplanes and Satellites? An Introduction

Based mostly in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and tradition. His initiatives embrace the Substack publication Books on Cities, the guide The Stateless Metropolis: a Stroll via Twenty first-Century Los Angeles and the video sequence The Metropolis in Cinema. Comply with him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Fb, or on Instagram.



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