The (20th-century) travels of Mr. Harrison's watch


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We’re well into 2014 already, which is, of course, our big year: the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act. As well as continuing to produce outputs from the academic project, we are looking to the opening of the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition and a major conference in the anniversary month, July.

The show will, so to speak, continue to roll on after 2014, however, not least because there will be a touring version of the exhibition heading to the US in 2015. Many unique items from Greenwich and other UK lenders will be travelling, including John Harrison’s H4.

H4 has, of course, travelled before (unlike H2 and H3), in the process of being trialled in the 1760s. Back in 1963, made its way over the Atlantic once more, travelling to the US on the 200th anniversary of its voyage to Barbados.

In that year, H4 was put on display at the US Naval Observatory, in Washington DC. This, founded in 1844, was apt as the equivalent institution to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, primarily supporting astronomy for navigation and time-determination. 1963 was the only time – until now – that H4 had been put on display outside the UK.

Fortunately for us, the USNO has kept some images of the display and made them accessible online, along with some other fascinating images of displays and tours that took place in the 1960s and 1980s, and images from the library, object collections and history of the institution itself.

The timekeeper was, rather splendidly, displayed ‘unpacked’, so that you could see case, dial and movement in the round, with the help of mirrors.



Just as in 1763, the timekeeper did not travel alone. The photographs also record the presence of William P. Roseman, Head of the Chronometer Workshop at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (then located at Herstmonceux in Sussex). He is shown here on the right, with William Markowitz, Director of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Time Service Division on the left.


I’m not sure, though, who the chaps in this image were, privileged to get a very close look at this famous object. Note the naval uniforms in the seats behind.

The displays included a little supporting material for Harrison’s story. The other sea clocks, unsurprisingly did not travel, and American visitors in 1963 had to put up with a series of images with text.


H1-3 are still too complex, vulnerable and precious to travel in 2015 but, fortunately, there are now high quality replicas of these clocks. They reveal, in their detail, Harrison’s extraordinary work and innovation and – in reproduction wooden frames demonstrating how they would originally have been mounted – their sheer scale.

As navigational instruments, Harrison's clocks were nowhere near as well-travelled as the marine timekeepers and chronometers that came after them. As an icon, however, H4 will long continue to make occasional forays into the wider world.

All images from the US Naval Observatory Library.