There has been much talk of finding a 'modern-day John Harrison' in the discussions around the Longitude Prize 2014. With Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude opening soon, it seems like a good time to consider what history tells us this might mean.
For those writing about the new prize, the Harrisonian model is of an outsider coming from nowhere (or perhaps their shed) to solve a great problem. I've been looking into John Harrison and the historical context of his work for various events recently, and thought it would be interesting to highlight some things the Longitude Committee might like to consider in the coming years.
First things first. Although there was nothing new in principle about the timekeeper method that Harrison was working on, it wouldn't be entirely wrong to think of him as an outsider. It's not clear exactly how he learned to make clocks and watches, but it does not seem to have been through formal apprenticeship, although it must surely have involved contact with clock-makers in Hull or somewhere else near his home.
The lack of formal, and therefore standardized, training seems to be significant, since a number of Harrison’s ideas – his preference for large arcs of swing (whether for pendulums or balances), his temperature compensation mechanism, and his sophisticated use of woods in clock movements – differed from standard assumptions about how a precision timekeeper 'should' be made.
Since he took an unorthodox line, mechanically speaking, and lived some distance from opinion-formers in London, I’m particularly struck by the fact that Harrison did manage to make an impact on the scientific community of Georgian England. If we look at how this was possible, I think we can ask some questions of relevance to today’s situation.
Access to expertise and support
Having turned his attention to precision timekeeping in the mid-1720s, John Harrison built three impressively accurate long-case clocks by 1727. Hoping to apply his successes to the problem of finding longitude at sea and with a view to the rewards offered under the 1714 Longitude Act, he travelled the 180 miles from Barrow-on-Humber to London to seek support.
What’s remarkable is that he was rapidly able to get a meeting with Edmond Halley, Astronomer Royal and Commissioner of Longitude (and well-known longitude authority generally). Halley saw that he was not able to judge Harrison's horological schemes and so passed him on to another expert, George Graham, a trusted clock- and instrument-maker who could judge Harrison's ideas more easily. This was a crucial meeting, since Graham would become a key ally and supporter.
Once Harrison had produced H1 (with some help), Graham was instrumental in getting the scientific community behind it. H1 was shown in Graham's workshop near the Royal Society (then in Crane Court), and in 1735 Graham was a signatory (with Halley and others) of a certificate from the Royal Society that testified to the great promise it showed. Thereafter, Graham was a supportive voice, helping John Harrison negotiate with the Commissioners of Longitude at various meetings until Graham’s death in 1751. Access to London's skilled artisans was also important in this period as Harrison developed and made his new designs.
It’s also noteworthy that, thanks in part to Graham's support, relations between the Commissioners and John Harrison were positive and supportive for 25 years. Even his son William conceded (in a letter to Stephen Demainbray) that ‘Till about the year 1761, we had no difficulties to encounter besides those which nature threw in our way; for until the Invention was brought to maturity, we were happy in the uniform countenance and protection of the Board of Longitude.’ What strikes me is the length of time this support went on as Harrison tried to get his timekeepers to work to his satisfaction so that they could be tested formally.
Beyond 1761, relations between the Harrisons and the Commissioners were far more difficult. In William Harrison’s words, ‘no sooner was it evident that we had succeeded, than by a strange fatality that Board turned against us, and has ever since acted, as if it had been instituted for the express purpose of preventing our Invention from being made useful to mankind.’
William Harrison was no impartial witness, but his words (in the same letter to Demainbray) do convey the frustrations of what became very difficult dealings in resolving the success of H4 and how it might become a navigational instrument available to all. This was a very different climate – a new set of Commissioners discussing a changed agenda as H4 went through the Barbados trial and tests at the Royal Observatory, and the Board of Longitude began to worry about questions of replication. In this altered climate, the Harrisons and their supporters (including James Short and others) moved to publication and lobbying as part of a public appeal for what they saw as due reward under the 1714 Act.
Their strategies finally paid off in a parliamentary Act (13 Geo. 3 cap. 77) that awarded John Harrison £8750 (£1250 short of what John and William believed they were owed). But it took the Harrisons and their supporters years of publication and work behind the political scenes to make this happen.
With this abbreviated version of John Harrison's story in mind, it would be interesting to think about some of the questions one could ask today. How easily could an ‘outsider’ gain such direct access to scientific experts and opinion-formers? Can one imagine someone like this having 25 years of support before the anticipated solution was ready for testing? And how might the move to public appeal through publication and lobbying work in the 21st century? Maybe we'll find out over the next few years.
Find out how NESTA's hunt for the 'new John Harrison' is going on Thursday 25 September in Longitude: Back and Forth Across the Years, in association with the Royal Society.