Part 4: Early English Clockmaker John Harrison

John Harrison

The English clockmaker, and extraordinary mechanical genius, John Harrison was born in Yorkshire in 1693. John Harrison spent his early life in the North Lincolnshire village of Barrow upon Humber. Largely self-taught, by the age of twenty, he made a stable clock out of mostly wood using only carpenter tools. Built of lignum vitae it needs no oil and is still running 270 years later with astonishing accuracy.

Harrison solved the 'longitude problem' by producing a timepiece that would remain accurate at sea, which helped prevent ships being lost at sea. The Sea Clock would keep the time at the home port for comparison with local time, as determined by the sun, thus allowing the calculation of longitude. Harrison battled throughout his life against influential astronomers who scoffed at a mechanical solution over celestial observations.

Despite great opposition and gross unfairness, towards the end of his life Harrison was awarded the prestigious and valuable 'longitude prize'. He only received the award because the King intervened in an effort to rectify the injustice suffered at the hands of the Board of Longitude.

John Harrison had the mental toughness to jettison his life's work on sea clocks, in favor of starting over, and solving the 'longitude problem' using a watch, which was still in its infancy. The whole story is told with excellent illustrations in the book 'The Illustrated Longitude' written by David Sobel and William J. H. Andrews, Fourth Estate, London.

Also see more on his Longitudinal solution in our clock articles.