- Sep 04
The Clockmaker Who Outsmarted Time, Part I
On the night of October 22, 1707, four British war ships commanded by Admiral Clowdisley Shovell, were dragged by strong ocean currents onto the rocks of the Scilly Islands, just 24 miles off the southern coast of England. All 1,200 men drowned, their bodies collecting in piles along 10 miles of beach.
The nation’s grief was followed by outrage. How could this have happened?
Shovell had spent 40 years at sea and was a competent navigator, so confident of himself, in fact, that the morning before the wreck, he ordered a sailor hung from the ship’s yardarm on charges of keeping a secret journal of the ship’s position during the voyage.
Such journals by non-officers were forbidden in the British navy. Loss of confidence in a ship’s position at sea―often triggered by no food, no drinking water and no land in sight―was the most common cause of mutiny.
Shovell’s calculations placed his squadron off the coast of Brittany, France, just two days from London. Navigators from the other three ships agreed―the corpse hanging from the yardarm and twisting in the wind possibly influencing their concurrence.
All should have listened to the sailor before his death. His reckonings placed the ship more than 100 miles to the west and dangerously close to the fearsome currents and rocks of the Scilly Islands, which were invisible in the dense autumn fog.
The Longitude Problem
From the time of the ancient Phoenicians, there was never a way to reliably establish a ship’s position in an east-west direction (longitude) on the open sea.
To determine position in a north-south (latitude) direction, all you need is a sextant to measure the elevation of the sun, moon or stars.
Determining longitude requires an onboard clock that keeps the time of the home port, which then becomes the reference throughout the voyage.
Today, even a simple wristwatch could be used for this purpose, but prior to the mid-18th century, no pendulum clock could accurately keep time on a ship due to the pitching and rolling of the waves and changes in temperature and barometric pressure on long voyages to the tropics. Even the planetary forces of gravity and magnetism, once thought to be constants, vary across the globe.
The combination of all these factors caused maritime clocks to speed up, slow down and sometimes stop altogether.
Over the course of a three-month voyage, gaining or losing seconds per day on the ship's clock could condemn the crew to missing their destination completely or spending weeks at sea searching while exhausting precious drinking water and food.
The Longitude Act
Reeling from the catastrophic loss of ships and lives in the Scilly Islands in 1707, the English Parliament ultimately enacted the Longitude Act of 1714.
It established a Board of Longitude, composed of 24 commissioners. It was intentionally top heavy with astronomers because Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the most brilliant mind of his time, predicted that the solution to the Longitude Problem, as it was known, would most likely come from the movements of celestial bodies.
The Board was responsible for disbursing a prize of £20,000 (roughly $4,500,000 today) to anyone from any country in the world who could deliver a useful and practical solution for calculating longitude at sea.
For 23 years, the Board never met because the solutions presented were so greed-driven, far-fetched and impractical―everything from yelping dogs to signal flares to cannon fire―that the screening board of five commissioners never found one worthy for consideration.
That changed in 1737.
Enter John Harrison
Born in 1693, John Harrison was a master carpenter and craftsman of the first order. His fascination with clocks and his self-education in mathematics, astronomy, physics, metallurgy and mechanics led him in 1720 to create a grandfather clock accurate to one second per month.
Such precision was unthinkable in the day.
Harrison had an idea for a maritime clock that could be used aboard ship to accurately keep time regardless of weather, temperature or rough seas.
He secured an interview with England’s Astronomer Royal, Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame), member of the Royal Society.
Halley saw promise in Harrison’s ideas and drawings, but wisely deflected Harrison’s request for an introduction to the Board of Longitude.
The Board would have devoured him.
In the stratified world of English society dominated by powerful elites, birth, title and education mattered. Harrison simply had no standing in their eyes. He was a commoner and looked every bit the part.
Halley suggested that Harrison first explain his marine clock idea to George Graham, the premier clockmaker in England, to gain his support.
The next day, Harrison met Graham about to open his London clock shop.
Graham took one look at Harrison, gestured down the alley and informed him that all deliveries were to be made at rear of the building.
When Harrison explained that he had a letter of introduction from Edmond Halley, a surprised Graham invited him in.
Their conversation about Harrison’s marine clock lasted all day with Harrison staying for dinner.
When he left that night, he had in his pocket an unsolicited, interest-free loan of £250 from Graham to be paid back “someday.”
Halley and Graham would become powerful mentors and guides for Harrison, who would greatly need their help managing members of the Board of Longitude.
Harrison’s Marine Clocks
In 1735, Harrison finished his first marine clock, which became known as H1. It was tested on a voyage to Lisbon in 1736.
The clock itself weighed 86 lbs. When placed inside its protective wooden case―with dimensions similar to those of a modern refrigerator―it took four stout men to carry it onboard and hang it from beams in the captain’s quarters.
Harrison’s calculations of longitude were accurate and literally saved the ship from foundering as it approached the southern coast of England following the errant navigational reckonings of the ship's master.
In 1737, Harrison presented H1 to the Board of Longitude, the first meeting ever in its 23-year existence. Harrison requested and received an advance of £500 to cover his expenses to build a better clock by correcting known issues with H1.
H2 was completed in 1741. The clock never made it to sea for testing for fear that it would fall into enemy hands during the War of the Austrian Succession.
For the next 16 years, Harrison immersed himself in the design and fabrication of H3, adding dozens of new improvements. That clock never made it to sea either because of the Seven Years War.
In 1760, Harrison, to the surprise of all on the Board, introduced H4, the 3-lb. marine clock that would fit into the coat pocket of a naval officer and turn the race for the £20,000 prize into a full sprint with its only other contender, the lunar-distance method of calculating time, which was supported by all the astronomers on the Board of Longitude.
The Battle Begins
In 1765, John Harrison was 72 years old. The life expectancy of a male in Great Britain at that time was just 35 years. By that standard, Harrison was an old man, but his greatest challenge, the one that would consume his final years, was just beginning.
That same year, Nevil Maskelyne, Harrison’s contemptible rival for the prize, ascended to the position of Astronomer Royal. There, ignoring his own glaring conflict of interest, he would use his considerable influence and unconscionable pettiness to thwart Harrison’s claim to the £20,000.
Did Maskelyne succeed?
You’ll discover the exciting details in the conclusion of the story here.
Maybe John Harrison Should’ve Gotten Certified
Some members of the Board of Longitude considered John Harrison an upstart for daring to solve the greatest scientific problem of the age without a formal education.
To others, he was a threat, a commoner hoping to upstage the educated elite with a solution they had long ago abandoned.
Harrison had no bona fides, the latin term for documentary evidence proving legitimacy…credentials in other words.
How much easier would Harrison’s path have been if he had had a university degree or maybe a certification had the concept existed then, or failing that, at least an apprenticeship to respected master?
None of those options were available to him, which makes his story all the more compelling as the classic underdog.
Harrison’s greatest asset was his brilliant mind, which rarely failed to impress.
Edmond Halley, the Astronomer Royal, and George Graham, clockmaker to the King of England, both became Harrison's advocates and champions.
Harrison may not have realized it at the time, but he was effectively building his own bona fides by borrowing those of Halley and Graham through the timeless power of a personal referrals and introductions.
The success of the LinkedIn platform rests on this very behavior.
Today, certification sponsors can promote their certificants by harnessing the power of social media to alert friends, colleagues and connections, and thereby boost their visibility, credibility and bona fides in ways Harrison could only dream of.
View our recorded webinar with Accredible called Badges 101. It’s the perfect introduction to the benefits and power of digital badging and certificates. Here's the link to the webinar.