John Harrison: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 325th birthday of horologist John Harrison.

English clockmaker, inventor and horologist John Harrison is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 325th birthday.

“It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and without a doubt, British horologist John Harrison brought that age-old proverb to life,” Google says in its Doodle description. “Harrison was a self-educated clockmaker and carpenter who came to the rescue of countless sailors by creating the first marine chronometer to calculate longitude at sea. Our colorful Doodle shows the inventor hard at work, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Today, time is on his side.”

Here’s what you need to know:


1. Harrison Was Born in Yorkshire & Legend Has It That His Love of Clocks Began When He Played & Studied a Watch While Bedridden With Smallpox as a Child

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John Harrison in 1768.

John Harrison was born April 3, 1693, in Foulby, near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was the oldest of five children. His father was a carpenter and Harrison would later learn that trade from him, according to Gettysburg University.

According to legend, Harrison was bedridden with smallpox as a young child. He was given a watch by his parents and that began his fascination with clocks.

“An attack of smallpox at the age of six may have been decisive in shaping his life. While convalescing, he became fascinated by a watch his parents, seeking to amuse him, had laid on his pillow,” historian John Wilford wrote for Survey History. “He never forgot that watch.”


2. He Was a Self-Taught Clockmaker & Built His First Longcase Clock With His Brother When He Was Only 20

The Clock That Changed the World (BBC History of the World)Of international scientific importance, the Harrison Clock is only one of only three precision pendulum clocks made by John Harrison and instrumental in solving the Longitude problem. The clock was made in 1727 with an amazing fully working wooden mechanism. Plans are in place to display it as part of an interpretive display at Leeds City Museum. With thanks to the BBC2012-08-22T10:13:14.000Z

Harrison learned the carpentry trade from his father, but was a mostly self-taught clockmaker, according to The Guardian.

He was only 20 when he built his first longcase clock.

“Although a carpenter by trade, Harrison’s father occasionally repaired clocks, and young John assisted his father in his work as soon as he was old enough. As he grew older, Harrison combined his interest in woodworking and timepieces to begin building clocks and completed his first longcase clock, more commonly called a grandfather clock, in 1713 at the age of 20,” according to ASME.org.

He worked often with his younger brother, James, according to Gettysburg University:

During the latter part of his early career, he worked with his younger brother James. Their first major project was a revolutionary turret clock for the stables at Brocklesby Park, seat of the Pelham family. The clock was revolutionary because it required no lubrication. 18th century clock oils were uniformly poor and one of the major causes of failure in clocks of the period. Rather than concentrating on improvements to the oil, Harrison designed a clock which didn’t need it. It was radical thinking of this sort that would be important later on, when he tackled the problem of designing a marine timekeeper.

During the mid-1720s, John and James designed a series of remarkable precision longcase clocks, to see how far they could push the capabilities of the design. By inventing a pendulum rod made of alternate wires of brass and steel, Harrison eliminated the problem of the pendulum’s effective length increasing in warmer weather, slowing the clock. As a result, Harrison’s regulators from this period achieved an accuracy of one second in a month, a performance far exceeding the best London clocks of the day.


3. He Invented a Marine Chronometer That Solved the Problem of Calculating Longitude at Sea, an Instrument That Britain Offered a £20,000 Prize for After 1,550 Sailors Died & 4 Warships Wrecked in 1707

In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, an effort to solve the problem sailors faced in calculating longitude at sea. The act came seven years after 1,550 sailors died when four British warships wrecked in the Scilly naval disaster of 1707. The Longitude Act offered a £20,000 for a solution.

According to Royal Museums Greenwich, “Harrison came to London in about 1727–28, looking for support and the rewards promised by the 1714 Longitude Act.”

He then created several timepieces over many years before eventually creating a solution that revolutionized navigation and made long sea voyages safer.

“Harrison’s extraordinary invention brought him much acclaim. Thanks to him, seamen could determine not only gauge latitude but longitude, making their excursions far safer,” Google says in its Doodle description.

Harrison created a marine timekeeper, now called the H1, with the help of his brother, and in May 1736, it was tested at sea.

“In May 1736, Harrison and H1 were taken aboard HM ship Centurion, about to set sail for Lisbon,” according to Royal Museums Greenwich. “The voyage out started poorly for both Harrison and his clock. But he had his machine going more reliably by the time they reached Lisbon, where it was transferred to the Orford for the return, with much better results. As they neared England, Harrison announced – correctly – that a headland the officers had thought was the Start was in fact the Lizard: they were sixty miles off course and in danger.”

In 1737, Harrison was awarded funding to allow him to improve the clock.

He finished a second marine timepiece, the H2, two years later, but it was never tested. He then spent 19 years working on the H3, “It was running and being tested within five years but it became clear that the clock would struggle to keep time to the accuracy desired, forcing him to make changes and adjustments,” according to RMG.

He would go on to create two more marine timepieces, the H4 and H5, and those proved to be extremely accurate.

“Finally, after 40 years of work, he produced H4, a timepiece that resembled a large pocket watch. This clock not only met the requirements for Parliament’s top prize in a trial but greatly exceeded them,” according to ASME.org. “However, for various reasons including that members wanted to win the prize themselves, the Royal Society, which administered the prize money, awarded only a portion of the money and asked for more tests. When the clock did even better, they doled out another portion of the money. But it took the intervention of King George III to get Harrison his full reward and recognition, some 12 years after the horologist had fulfilled the original conditions. Harrison was then 80 years old.”

Harrison never received the original prize, but was rewarded handsomely for his efforts and was given several grants to continue his research, along with other monetary benefits.

“Harrison was eventually awarded a considerable sum of money for his efforts and he died a rich man,” according to The Guardian.


4. A Clock He Designed Was Deemed the ‘Most Accurate Mechanical Clock With a Pendulum Swinging in Free Air’ by the Guinness Book of World Records

Amazingly accurate clock finally recognised after 300 years – Guinness World RecordsA pendulum clock based on an 18th century theory dismissed at the time, has been recognised by Guinness World Records for its accuracy. Subscribe for more: http://bit.ly/subscribetoGWR Proving perhaps to have been too visionary for its times, “Clock B” has been awarded with a world record for most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air, vindicating the vision of its original designer John Harrison Work on Clock B was started in 1975 by Martin Burgess, based on a design by 18th Century clockmaker Harrison, who is also famously renowned as the finder of longitude at sea. Welcome to the official Guinness World Records YouTube channel! If you're looking for videos featuring the world's tallest, shortest, fastest, longest, oldest and most incredible things on the planet, you're in the right place. LIKE us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GuinnessWorldRecords FOLLOW us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gwr Find out more: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/ Add us to your G+ circles: http://www.google.com/+guinnessworldrecords #GWR #GuinnessWorldRecords #worldrecord2015-05-01T10:41:42.000Z

In 2015, a clock designed by Harrison was deemed the, “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air,” by the Guinness Book of World Records, according to The Guardian. The timepiece, known as Clock B, was tested over 100 days.

The award from the Guinness Book of World Records was vindication for Harrison, who was said to have “an incoherence and absurdity that was little short of the symptoms of insanity,” when he created the clock, according to The Guardian. He had declared he would design a pendulum clock that “was accurate to within a second over a 100-day period.” He was ridiculed and told that would be impossible.

“It is a quite extraordinary achievement and a complete vindication of Harrison, who suffered ridicule over his claim to be able to achieve such accuracy,” Rory McEvoy, curator of horology at the Royal Museums Greenwich, told The Guardian. “This is a wonderful device.”

He added, “What is particularly exciting about this trial is the fact that it presents history in a physical and not a verbal or theoretical manner. It brings real immediacy to a historical issue: in this case the measurement of time.”


5. Harrison, Who Died in 1776 on His 83rd Birthday, Finished 39th in the BBC’s Poll of the 100 Greatest Briton in History

169-John Harrison and the Problem of LongitudeShips need a reliable way to know their exact location at sea — and for centuries, the lack of a dependable method caused shipwrecks and economic havoc for every seafaring nation. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll meet John Harrison, the self-taught English clockmaker who dedicated his life to crafting a reliable solution to this crucial problem. We'll also admire a dentist and puzzle over a magic bus stop. Intro: Working in an Antarctic tent in 1908, Douglas Mawson found himself persistently interrupted by Edgeworth David. In 1905, Sir Gilbert Parker claimed to have seen the astral body of Sir Crane Rasch in the House of Commons. Sources for our feature on John Harrison: Dava Sobel and William H. Andrews, The Illustrated Longitude, 1995. William J.H. Andrewes, ed., The Quest for Longitude, 1996. Katy Barrett, "'Explaining' Themselves: The Barrington Papers, the Board of Longitude, and the Fate of John Harrison," Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 65:2 (June 20, 2011), 145-162. William E. Carter and Merri S. Carter, "The Age of Sail: A Time When the Fortunes of Nations and Lives of Seamen Literally Turned With the Winds Their Ships Encountered at Sea," Journal of Navigation 63:4 (October 2010), 717-731. J.A. Bennett, "Science Lost and Longitude Found: The Tercentenary of John Harrison," Journal for the History of Astronomy 24:4 (1993), 281-287. Arnold Wolfendale, "Shipwrecks, Clocks and Westminster Abbey: The Story of John Harrison," Historian 97 (Spring 2008), 14-17. William E. Carter and Merri Sue Carter, "The British Longitude Act Reconsidered," American Scientist 100:2 (March/April 2012), 102-105. Robin W. Spencer, "Open Innovation in the Eighteenth Century: The Longitude Problem," Research Technology Management 55:4 (July/August 2012), 39-43. "Longitude Found: John Harrison," Royal Museums Greenwich (accessed Aug. 27, 2017). "John Harrison," American Society of Mechanical Engineers (accessed Aug. 27, 2017). J.C. Taylor and A.W. Wolfendale, "John Harrison: Clockmaker and Copley Medalist," Notes and Records, Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, Jan. 22, 2007. An Act for the Encouragement of John Harrison, to Publish and Make Known His Invention of a Machine or Watch, for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea, 1763. John Harrison, An Account of the Proceedings, in Order to the Discovery of the Longitude, 1763. John Harrison, A Narrative of the Proceedings Relative to the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea, 1765. Nevil Maskelyne, An Account of the Going of Mr. John Harrison's Watch, at the Royal Observatory, 1767. John Harrison, Remarks on a Pamphlet Lately Published by the Rev. Mr. Maskelyne, 1767. An Act for Granting to His Majesty a Certain Sum of Money Out of the Sinking Fund, 1773. John Harrison, A Description Concerning Such Mechanism as Will Afford a Nice, or True Mensuration of Time, 1775. Steve Connor, "John Harrison's 'Longitude' Clock Sets New Record — 300 Years On," Independent, April 18, 2015. Robin McKie, "Clockmaker John Harrison Vindicated 250 Years After 'Absurd' Claims," Guardian, April 18, 2015. Listener mail: Charlie Hintz, "DNA Ends 120 Year Mystery of H.H. Holmes' Death," Cult of Weird, Aug. 31, 2017. "Descendant of H.H. Holmes Reveals What He Found at Serial Killer's Gravesite in Delaware County," NBC10, July 18, 2017. Brian X. McCrone and George Spencer, "Was It Really 'America's First Serial Killer' H.H. Holmes Buried in a Delaware County Grave?", NBC10, Aug. 31, 2017. Daniel Hahn, The Tower Menagerie, 2004. James Owen, "Medieval Lion Skulls Reveal Secrets of Tower of London 'Zoo,'" National Geographic News, Nov. 3, 2005. Richard Davey, Tower of London, 1910. Bill Bailey reads from the Indonesian-to-English phrasebook Practical Dialogues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZZv6D4hpK8 A few photos of Practical Dialogues. This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Oskar Sigvardsson, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle). You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!2017-09-11T06:07:48.000Z

Harrison died in London on April 3, 1776, on his 83rd birthday. He was married twice and had three children. One of his sons, William Harrison, helped him with his work on the chronometer, and took it on a test voyage to Jamaica. Harrison, who lived in Red Lion Square in London, is buried at St. John’s Church in Hampstead.

He received awards during his life and has been celebrated after his death. In 1749, Harrison was awarded the Copley Medal, the scientific award given by the Royal Society for “outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science.”

In 2002, Harrison finished 39th in a BBC poll of British heroes.

Harrison’s H1, H2, H3 and H4 timepieces were rediscovered after World War I and can now be seen at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. His H5 can be seen at the Science Museum in London.