Essential Information

Royal Observatory

28 Apr 2015

As Ships, Clocks & Stars makes its way round the world, there's still time to look at the stories behind some of the objects in the exhibition. If you go see it now at the Folger Shakespeare Library, one of the objects you may come across is chronometer number 512, by Thomas Earnshaw.  

Marine chronometer no. 512, by Thomas Earnshaw, about 1800 (National Maritime Museum ZAA0006)


It's been put in the exhibition as a good example of the work of Thomas Earnshaw, who was making pretty much standardised chronometers by the turn of the century, so that other examples from the same period look almost identical to 512. Indeed, Earnshaw's would become the basic design that many other chronometer makers followed.

But there's more to be said. Although many of the chronometers in the National Maritime Museum collections were used in the Royal Navy, Earnshaw 512 is a bit more unusual because we know it was owned by the East India Company (EIC) and that its (mis)management had an impact on how the EIC and its officers looked after its chronometers. In 1821, Earnshaw 512 was issued to the EIC ship Thomas Grenville under Captain Manning. It didn't perform well during the voyage, however, although Manning doesn't seem to have been overly worried and said nothing until his return in 1823, when it was sent back to Earnshaw, who wrote that it 'cannot be depended upon'.

This revelation from Earnshaw didn't please the EIC's Committee of Shipping, who reprimanded Manning for failing to report the problem sooner. The Committee, it seems, took the running and repair of these expensive instruments more seriously than at least one of their captains, and declared themselves 'highly displeased at his having so long neglected to bring the subject of the chronometers to the notice of the Committee'.

The incident resulted in a new EIC regulation, that 'Commanders of the Company’s own ships be desired immediately at the conclusion of each voyage to report particularly on the performance of their respective chronometers'. The Committee's minutes even show that the regulation was followed in later years. So it looks like a poorly performing timekeeper had a positive impact on the management of chronometers more generally. There's more on this and other aspects of the EIC's use of chronometers in Phillip Arnott, ‘Chronometers on East India Company Ships 1800 to 1833’, Antiquarian Horology, 30 no. 4  (2007).