Style / March 2016

Oceans of Time

English clockmaker John Harrison’s marine chronometers forever changed maritime navigation, enabled the British Empire’s exponential expansion, and laid the blueprint for today’s finest timekeeping instruments.

Imagine this. There it is at first, a mere speck on the horizon - so far away yet so close - the enchanted Polynesian isle of bare- breasted women of such heartbreaking beauty to cause even Botticelli's Venus to curse fate and hide her head in shame. Aboard the ship, the men celebrate, their spirits uplifted after months at sea and no womenfolk of any kind - save Roger, the disturbingly fetching cabin boy. Then, you realise something is horribly wrong. The coastline you approach precariously quickly is not Polynesia, but Somalia. And from it, wave after wave of pirate fast boats are being launched - aboard them, desperate men that smell of goat, who are intent on leaving you floating in the Gulf of Aden, minus your Rolex and your head.

This colourful but ridiculous scenario serves to reinforce the debt modern seafarers owe to an English clockmaker of incomparable skill named John Harrison.

The Slim Line Between Polynesian Fillies and Entrepreneurial Somali Seamen

During the golden age of sea exploration, sailors were rough-hewn, questionable of hygiene, but as brazenly courageous as they were drunk and unwashed. But even they had their limits. The mariners of the world knew demons lived in the sea, and he who contested them would surely die. Of all of these, the worst was the demon known as Despair. And the primary source of desperation arose from the inability to accurately determine one's position at sea.

While man had within him an innate thirst to discover the universe - to step outside of the Platonic cave and, for the first time, marvel at what laid beyond - he lacked the tools to allow him a safe journey into the unknown. At the time, the progress of global commerce and the advancement of culture had slowed down somewhat. Separating man from his Manifest Destiny was an impenetrable world of endless blue - one filled with madness, where only the most reckless would venture, only to eventually lose themselves to the great primordial emptiness that surged beneath them.

That is not to say that the late-17th-century man had not achieved some success with navigating the sea. Sailors understood that while the sea was in constant motion, the celestial canopy above was constant. As such, they turned their eyes skywards to determine their position on the water. One of the earliest known instruments used in seafaring navigation was the kamal, used by Arabic sailors to determine their position in relation to the sun or the North Star.

Through the use of these instruments, sailors became experts at determining latitude. But they were limited to journeys that travelled north and south. To venture east or west was a path littered with precarious shoals and endless days at sea with no direction home. The ability to calculate longitude, therefore, became a global obsession.

The frustration was that, theoretically, man knew how to determine longitude; he just lacked the tool to achieve this end. What he needed was a clock that could be set to the time at a reference point. Then, by calculating the time between this destination, which could be his point of departure or the Prime Meridian, and local time on the ship, he could calculate the precise number of degrees he was from his reference point. This task was actually surprisingly simple.

Our planet revolves 360 degrees every 24 hours, or one-quarter degree every minute. Degrees were easily converted into miles. As such, it was possible to calculate how far east or west a ship was from a predetermined reference point by comparing a shipboard clock set to keep time with a known reference point. For example, if you set this clock to noon at your point of departure, and you check the time when it is noon wherever you are at sea - simply determined by when the sun is at its azimuth - you can practically read your position from your port of departure off the clock dial. For instance, if the clock reads midnight when it is noon aboard the ship, you are 180 degrees or halfway around the planet from where you left.

But the fly in the ointment was that the clock keeping the time of the reference point had to be incredibly precise. Because any variation in correct timing could throw calculations off by hundreds of miles, which could easily mean the difference between making it safely to the enchanted isle of libidinous Polynesian fillies and running afoul of entrepreneurial Somali seamen.

The problem was that in the 17th century, even the most accurate clocks could barely keep chart of when it was time to rise from bed or lift the first cocktail of day, let alone boast the level of precision needed to accomplish navigating the oceans. Add to that the rolling, humid, windswept deck of a ship, and the hurdles seemed insurmountable. So unlikely was the idea of anyone creating such a timepiece that the dour pessimist Sir Isaac Newton was prompted to say, 'By reason of the motion of a ship, the variation of heat and cold, wet and dry, and the difference of gravity in different latitudes, such a watch hath never been made.'

At the dawn of the 18th century, the race for the conquest of the seas was on, and with it came the search for the world's most accurate marine chronometer. In a battle for technological supremacy - perhaps rivalled in human history only by the arms buildup between the US and USSR in the Cold War - nations around the world vied to create the ultimate precision watch.

It was known throughout the chambers of governments that the nation which could create a high-precision chronometer for ships would have dominion over the seas. For this reason, in 1714, the British Parliament created the Board of Longitude and offered a challenge to the clockmakers of the world: create a timepiece that could unfailingly guide a ship across a vast journey with a deviation of no more than half of one degree, and the prize would be the incredible sum of £20,000 (which in that era, was enough to keep you drunk and in the company of comely tavern wenches for the rest of your days).

As with all great stories, an unlikely hero rose to meet this challenge. The story of John Harrison and the birth of the marine chronometer boasts all the drama, conflict and triumph over insurmountable odds, and betrayal and resolution that would make a perfect Steven Spielberg epic. Harrison's creation of timekeeping's first marine chronometer contributed significantly to the modern era of global exploration and, just as importantly, forged the understanding that a mechanical timepiece's quality is inextricably linked to its accuracy.

The Man Who Changed The World

The son of an English carpenter, John Harrison was sickly as a child. To occupy him as he recovered from smallpox, his father placed a pocket watch by his bed. It was at this early moment that Harrison felt his calling. As he peered into the microcosmic world of this ticking time engine, he began to grasp time and the way a mechanical watch divided it, in the intuitive language of a natural watchmaker. From that day forth, timekeeping became his prevailing obsession.

Amongst his innovations were bimetallic pendulums that counteracted the destructive expansion and contraction of metal in this regulating organ, and the grasshopper escapement.

In 1728, at the age of 35, Harrison achieved an audience with George Graham, one of the world's most famous clock makers. Graham was so impressed with Harrison's blueprints for his marine clock that he lent him money to finance the project. Harrison's first crack at the marine chronometer, the H1, was an ungainly instrument with twin metallic balances connected by wildly twisting wires that looked as if they had sprung from the pages of a madman's diary. ts performance at sea in 1736 showed great promise, but the route travelled had been the well-known north-south trade route to Lisbon. This did little to instill confidence that Harrison's H1 could calculate position accurately on the east-west axis. Having acquired valuable real-world experience from the Lisbon trip, Harrison set to work on H2. Alas, when it was finished England had gone to war with Spain, and fearing that this valuable tool would fall into the clutches of the 'villains' of the Spanish Armada, his request for a sea trial was denied.

Instead of giving up, Harrison then spent the next 17 years building his opus, H3. This clock was the highest evolution of his basic movement architecture, based on a pair of counter-oscillating weighted beams connected by springs, whose motion was not influenced by gravity or the motion of a ship. However, after this masterpiece was completed, Harrison mysteriously withdrew it from open trial. Instead, he discarded the 17 years of unremitting toil to move in another direction. At this point, it is important to connect Harrison's success with the invention of another brilliant scientist named Christiaan Huygens.

Huygens was a Dutch mathematician, astronomer and physicist. In 1675, Huygens invented the fine regulating organism consisting of the balance wheel and spring. This represented a revolution in timekeeping accuracy. Prior to this, clocks primarily used pendulums; but as anyone who's ever owned a grandfather clock knows, the pendulum is easily disturbed by external influences, including vibrations from footsteps around it.

In the 17th century, when the focus was on the miniaturisation and transportability of time-telling devices, the balance wheel and spring, which boasted far greater autonomy from external influences, heralded a new era for mobile chronometry. Aboard ships, the crucial issue was to find a regulating device that remained unaffected by the motions of a ship at sea. Harrison's use of the balance wheel and spring was able to solve this problem.

Harrison's H4, a marine chronometer resembling a large pocket watch, represented '50 years of self-denial and ceaseless concentration'. The watch featured a movement optimised in every detail for precision. Most importantly, it bore the essential blueprint for modern wristwatches.

The movement featured a full-plate design, which meant that the gear train that fed power from the spring barrel to the escapement was mounted on a single plate. This allowed greater rigidity when the movement was impacted, and highly precise tolerances in the way the gear train was positioned.

Harrison's plate was set with jewels, into which the primary rotating parts were mounted. Jewels radically reduced friction, which is commonly considered the greatest foe of accuracy. Harrison's movement featured a large-sized balance wheel and a constant- force mechanism.

Harrison's H4 achieved an unparalleled level of accuracy in navigation. Nine days into the sea trial of the watch, an argument erupted on board the H.M.S. Deptford bound for Jamaica. Navigational readings based on dead reckoning and readings based on Harrison's H4 had deviated dramatically. The captain of the Deptford held a course based on the chronometer, and the next morning, this incredible timepiece was vindicated as it successfully steered the ship into Jamaica's harbour. On the five-month return trip from Jamaica, Harrison's chronometer lost only two minutes. The incredible precision of Harrison's H4 represented a quantum leap forward in marine navigation and ushered in the era of the marine chronometer. Just as significantly, it helped to outline the basic blueprint of timekeeping instruments for the centuries that followed.

A final note to Harrison's story was that even after selflessly dedicating his life to advancing timekeeping, his government essentially tried to deny him of the full Longitude cash award. It was only through the personal intercession of King George III that he was finally given his due. To accomplish this, Harrison had to build one last watch, H5, a chronometer for King George that easily passed the most rigorous testing at Kew Observatory.

Today, Harrison's marine chronometers are still on view at the National Maritime Museum at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Remnants of the empire this innovation allowed Britain to build (sole possession of the marine chronometer having provided England with many pivotal years of superiority at sea, in both military operations and exploration) are visible across the globe.

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Wei Koh

The Rake's Founder & Editorial Director.