- Sep 27
The Clockmaker Who Outsmarted Time - Part II
In a previous post, we told the story of John Harrison, the 18th century British clockmaker who toiled for 40 years to solve the most vexing scientific problem of the age, the calculation of longitude at sea.
Left unsolved, the seafaring nations of Europe lost scores of ships and thousands of sailors every year to starvation, thirst, sickness and shipwrecks, often a direct result of not being able to determine their position east-to-west (longitude) on the globe.
You can read the first part of Harrison’s story here.
There are four elements of the story worthy of note as we recommence...
- In 1765, John Harrison, 72 years old, watched his rival, Nevil Maskelyne, ascend to the position of Astronomer Royal and there wield considerable influence promoting his own solution to the Longitude Problem, as it was known in the day.
- Maskelyne controlled the Board of Longitude, top heavy with astronomers who all favored the lunar-distancing method of determining longitude. They had little faith in or regard for Harrison's "mechanical" solution for a marine clock that would achieve the same result.
- The Board was responsible for setting the requirements for disbursing a prize of £20,000 (about $4.5 million today) to anyone who could provide a useful and practicable method for determining longitude at sea.
- One of the requirements for winning the prize was a test voyage to the West Indies where landfall (nearness to the destination) had to be within one-half degree of longitude, about 35 miles.
The Story Continues
In 1761, during the West Indies voyage to test H4, Harrison’s fourth timekeeper, the clock lost only five seconds in 81 days at sea and made landfall within 15 miles of Kingston, Jamaica. The Board of Longitude rejected the result, calling it a chance occurrence, and required another test voyage.
In 1764, on the next test voyage to Barbados, H4 proved longitude within 10 miles, three times more accurate that the requirement of the Longitude Act.
Harrison demanded his prize.
The Board would only agree to release £10,000 while requiring Harrison to simultaneously surrender to the Board all his marine clocks, H1 through H4, representing 35 years of work.
To earn the remaining £10,000, the Board handed down a new condition: Harrison would be required to create two new clocks identical to H4 but without using the actual H4 as a guide.
In 1770, the Board repealed the original Longitude Act replacing it with a new act and a host of conditions that would effectively deny Harrison the remaining £10,000 in his lifetime.
A New Strategy
In 1772, despite advanced age and failing eyesight, Harrison finished H5, the first of two watches required to be identical to the original H4. H5 had taken three years to make and two more years to test and adjust.
At 79 years old, Harrison doubted that he would live long enough to complete the second watch, H6.
He had run out of champions. His longtime allies, Edmond Halley and George Graham, were long gone.
Backed into a corner and facing the end of his own life, Harrison asked his 45-year-old son, William, to entreat the King of England, the one man whose bona fides (authority and credentials) would never be questioned.
William’s letter to King George III detailed the 40-year history of hardships with the Board of Longitude. The king then interviewed William at length at Windsor castle.
Shocked and angered by the intransigence of the Board and the harassment of Harrison Sr., the king said aloud, “By God, Harrison, I will see you righted.”
George III prevailed upon the prime minister, Lord North, and Parliament to hear Harrison’s case, asking them to deliver “bare justice” to Harrison for serving king and country in his decades-long quest to solve the Longitude Problem.
At the end of June 1773, over the protests of Maskelyne and the Board of Longitude, Parliament paid Harrison £8,750 bringing his total award over 40 years to £22,500.
In 1775, British Captain James Cook, famous for circumnavigating the world on three epic ocean voyages, reported to the Board of Longitude that after 4,600 miles at sea, the calculations from Harrison’s clock sighted landfall within three miles of St. Helena, a speck of a volcanic island in the 22-million-square-mile expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean.
John Harrison died on his 83rd birthday, March 24, 1776.
In the years following his death, other horologists (clockmakers) continued his spirit of innovation making his marine clock―hence forward known as a chronometer―smaller, lighter, more accurate and more affordable.
In 1737, there was only one known chronometer at sea, Harrison’s H1 clock on the test voyage to Lisbon. By 1815, more than 5,000 were in use by navies and merchant vessels around the world.
The Certification Connection
Members of the Board of Longitude often referred to Harrison as a mechanic, a derisive term connoting physical labor, leather aprons, workbenches. hand tools and repetitive tasks, a far cry from—and a good deal below—the brilliant minds on the Board aiming to solve longitude by unlocking the mysteries of the heavens, as they saw their mission.
Harrison was able to battle such prejudice by leveraging the authority of others including, Halley, Graham and, ultimately, King George III himself.
Harrison would have preferred the role of a lone genius, but it was only through the intervention of advocates that he finally won the financial prize he had sought for 43 years.
Famous billionaire Richard Branson believes that no one gets anywhere in life alone. He credits the eventful advances in his own life to the assistance, intercession, referrals and introductions from others who vouched for him.
Professional development, which can include certification, higher education or training, is almost always empowered by the help and goodwill of mentors and colleagues with credibility to share.
Certification sponsors can tap the experience and insights of their own longtime certificants for the benefit of those who are newly certified or those thinking about certification. Career advice from seasoned practitioners is akin to mentoring and makes great and valuable evergreen content for webinars, blogs and email newsletters
Just in case you haven’t done so already, think about downloading our PDF, How to Market Your Certification Program. It offers real-world, hands-on guidance on a multitude of certification-marketing tactics including webinars and content creation. Download it here.
Harrison had only a few champions in his own life, but they were enough to secure for him a highly desired prize and an unexpected place in history.
Note! For the definitive, unputdownable story of John Harrison, please see author Dava Sobel's international best-selling book, Longitude. She is a former science reporter for the New York Times.