Whistlin’ Dixey: Two-Draw Georgian-era Guillotine Pocket Telescope

Yarr-harr!! Avast, landlubbers! Belay thy squabblin’ and take heed:

This telescope was one of about half a dozen things I bought at the local flea-market this weekend. And ain’t she gorgeous!?

She is a Georgian, or very-early-Victorian two-draw pocket guillotine spyglass or telescope, with brass fittings and a wooden barrel. ‘Two-draw’ comes from the two, brass draw-tubes that comprise the telescope’s focusing mechanism. The ‘guillotine’ refers to the built-in lens-shutter that protects the glass from grit, rain and damage. It is a beautiful example of an early telescope, made in London by one of the best manufacturers of the age.

How do you KNOW it’s Georgian?

Good question, 99!

I know it’s Georgian, because of the way it’s constructed.

Most telescopes these days are solid metal. This one has a wooden barrel – a feature common to antique telescopes made during the 1700s and 1800s. By the later 1800s, telescope barrels were made more, and more out of brass (which was more expensive), rather than wood (which was plentiful, and cheap!), than wood. By the last decades of the 1800s, leading into the early 1900s, wooden barrels had almost entirely disappeared, replaced by brass barrels (sometimes clad in leather, to provide grip).

Secondly, I know that it is exceptionally old because of the built-in, sliding lens-shutters.

This French naval telescope, from the 1840s or 50s, has a removable, spun brass lens-cap, common to telescopes made from the second half of the 1800s, to the modern day…

Most telescopes you buy today – and most antique telescopes – have removable, round lens-caps. Some of the older ones also have swing-open, kidney-shaped lens-shutters over the eyepieces, to keep out dust. But only the really old telescopes have what some people have called ‘guillotine’ shutters. That means that the lens-shutters are built into the body of the telescope itself, and when the telescope is in operation, they simply slide up, out of the way, and then snap back down again (like a guillotine, hence the name), when the telescope isn’t being used.

I don’t know why that particular aspect of telescope design died out…I think it’s a pretty cool feature, actually. But that’s how it is. At least it’s a useful dating tool.

…however, this other telescope has a different type of sliding, ‘guillotine’-style lens shutter, which is only found on much older models.

The third reason I know that it’s Georgian is because of what’s engraved on the draw-tubes, the maker’s mark of “DIXEY / LONDON”, a company that was established in Georgian times, and which is still going today (more about them in a minute).

The fourth reason I give for saying that this telescope is Georgian is how the lenses are fitted into the telescope.

Most lenses these days are either screwed in, with washers to hold them tight, or are glued in with clear adhesive (as was the case, starting from the Victorian era). However this telescope’s lenses are neither. They’re turned in.

By that, I mean that someone fitted the lenses into the telescope, an then secured them in place by spinning a brass rim directly against the glass. This would’ve been an easier construction technique than having to cut threads and grooves to make the lenses drop and pop and screw in with washers, but it also meant that if the lenses BREAK…you can’t replace them. A bit of a problem…

Fortunately, the lenses on this telescope are in great condition, so I’m not worrying!

So how do I know it’s Georgian? That’s it! How it’s made, what it’s made from, and what features were included in the telescope during construction.

These are the sorts of things you need to learn, if you’re going to date antiques, even if it’s only a general ballpark number.

‘C.W. Dixey & Son – LONDON’

Telescopes were extremely common during the Georgian and Victorian eras. At a time when all international travel was done by sailing ship, or steam-powered ocean-liner, it was vital for members of the crew to own telescopes of quality. And at any rate, passengers who frequented the seas with any regularity, would likely have one as well, if only for sightseeing. Telescopes, although larger and bulkier, had a much further range than most binoculars of the day, and had much greater magnification.

The first draw-tube, with the maker’s mark of C.W. Dixey & Son.

Before the days of accurate maritime navigation (in the late 1700s), sailors found their way by ‘line-of-sight’ navigation – telescopes were used to sight landmarks such as buildings, cliffs, land-formations and rocky outcrops. Telescopes were therefore vital for safe navigation, when sailors ‘hugged the coasts’ of continents, to prevent their ships from being wrecked on reefs and rocks.

Engraved on this telescope are the words “DIXEY” and “LONDON”.

‘Dixey’ refers to C.W. Dixey & Son, an 18th century family firm of opticians, established in London in 1777. Although they don’t make telescopes anymore, the company still exists, as a manufacturer of eyeglasses. Among others, C.W. Dixey & Son made optical gear for the Qianlong Emperor of China (a telescope), Winston Churchill (a pair of spectacles), famous author Ian Fleming, Napoleon Bonaparte, and several British monarchs. It’s rather thrilling to own a telescope made by such a famous manufacturer!

Restoring the Telescope

The telescope required very little work to make it function properly, which is surprising, given its age. A good general polishing, blowing out dust, cleaning the lenses, and wiping down the draw-tubes with oil to remove interior grime, was all that was required to fix it and make it function like new! The sight down the barrel is clean and crisp, and the lens-shutters open and close smoothly and firmly, and the draw-tubes open and close without problems.

Cleaning off all the grime on the telescope of course wasn’t really possible – it would’ve required far more disassembly than I wanted to endeavour, but the end-result is pleasing enough. Now, it works, and it looks nice, and that’s really all you could hope for!

The finished telescope with its brass all polished and clean!

 

All Aboard the S.S. Pap Boat! 222-year-old Georgian Silver Feeding Vessel…

“All Aboard the…what?”

Pap boat.

This thing:

In use largely in the late 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s, pap boats were small, shallow, boat-shaped feeding vessels used to deliver pap to the mouths of babes and sucklings. They died out in the mid-1800s when feeding-bottles (similar to the kind we have today) were invented. Sterling silver christening sets including a porringer (small bowl), spoon, fork, knife and sometimes a silver mug, as well, which became very popular in the Victorian era, also saw the decline of the pap boat. As a result, in the 21st century, they can be pretty rare pieces to get your hands on.

“What the hell is ‘pap’?”

In its oldest form, ‘pap’ means ‘breast’, ‘teat’ or ‘nipple’. By the 1700s, ‘pap’ also came to refer to a sort of sweet, liquidy gruel or porridge – basically baby-food – which was fed to infants and toddlers.

Recipes for pap typically included milk, flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes softened bread or breadcrumbs (for added bulk and nomminess!). Pap was thought to be soothing, tasty, and especially for babies – especially easy to digest. if babies were ill, medicine might be mixed into the pap formula so that the tot could take its dosage with minimal fuss.

Dating the Pap Boat

Dating this small piece of very old silverware was a real challenge. The actual date letter on the row of punched-out hallmarks was long gone. But there was still enough of the sovereign’s head duty mark to identify it as George III.

Duty marks on English silver came in starting in 1784. They died out in 1890. Marks changed over the reigns of the monarchs, changing marks every time the old ones either wore out as the monarch’s reign lengthened, or when the king died and another one replaced him. The duty mark on this piece of silver was identified as 1795. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when the boat was made and marked, that’s just when the new duty-stamp was introduced. Without anything else to go on, however, I’m dating this piece at 1795.

 

Bringing out the Dead: The Life of a Body-Snatcher

After I found a book on this subject at one of the local junk-shops, I thought that an article on the crime of body-snatching would make a fascinating little bit of morbid reading. It’s one of those old-fashioned crimes that we often read about in history books, like witchcraft or poisoning wells or being transported for stealing a loaf of bread. Body-snatching is one of those crimes and like all crimes, it makes people ask the question ‘Why?’ Why was it done? Why was it necessary? Why would you want to do it and who were the people who that committed crimes like this?

What Is Body-Snatching?

Body-snatching is the crime of disinterring a corpse. Or in layman’s speech…digging up dead bodies. Ain’t that cuddly? In the form that most people would understand it, body-snatching is the crime of digging up dead bodies which would then be sold. To medical colleges, teaching-hospitals, anatomical colleges, doctors and surgeons, to be precise. It was a crime prevelant in many countries in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the United Kingdom, especially, it was at epidemic proportions before the 1830s. If you’ve ever seen those old Georgian-era churchyards and cemetaries and seen the fenced-in burial-plots or those huge, wrough-iron fences with the adorable, razor-sharp spikes on top that are built around the perimeter of graveyards, those aren’t just there for morbid decoration. They were designed as a deterrent for body-snatchers, who would raid cemeteries at night to steal freshly-buried corpses!

For those of you who have heard of the saying of ‘doing the graveyard shift’, the crime of body-snatching was what made this shift so necessary. City watchmen and constables would perform the graveyard shift in churchyards and cemeteries at night to stop people digging up corpses! You can imagine how rife this must’ve been if the phrase ‘the graveyard shift’ has survived over two hundred years to be still used in the 21st Century!

Why would people want to Snatch Bodies?

As I’ve explained, ‘body-snatching’ is the crime of digging up freshly-buried corpses, and that this crime was particularly rife during the Georgian and Regency Era.

But why?

You have to admit that willingly wanting to break into a churchyard at night to dig up a dead guy is not something most people would want to do, hardened criminal or not. So why was this crime so popular?

Legislation is designed to prevent crime and aid humanity, but sometimes, and sometimes more often than not, it, aids crime and prevents humanity. In this case, legislation prevented humanity from learning all that it could about…humanity. And it aided criminals who were willing to help humanity better understand itself.

In the 18th century, medical science was advancing at a slow, if steady rate. Slowly, people were casting off the old-fashioned medical beliefs that had been taught and passed down for centuries since ancient times. Medical students were not interested in humors or blood-letting or spells and potions. They were interested in finding out how the human body was composed and how it worked. To aid curious and hungry growing medical minds, anatomical colleges and great medical teaching hospitals were created in the 17th and 18th and early 19th centuries. Doctors and surgeons or medical students flooded to these institutions so that they might learn more about how the human body worked and how they could better treat and cure it.

But for people to understand how the human body worked they first needed bodies.

An old operating or dissection theatre. If you’ve ever wondered why they were called ‘operating THEATRES’, it’s because these were the chambers where medical students would go to watch their lecturers put on a show about the human body and they were set out, quite literally, like theatres. Students would stand on the tiers above and around the central stage to observe the doctor or surgeon dissecting or operating on the body below (which would be on an operating or dissection table). The wooden rails were there so that students could lean on them and be more comfortable

The problem was, in 18th century England, bodies were notoriously hard to come by. The only bodies that could be given to such medical instruction schools for the purposes of studying anatomy were those of murderers, suiciders or the destitute who had died by execution, their own hand or through neglect and poor health. All well and good, but how many people are hanged each year? Or commit suicide? Or are found dead on the streets? Probably a fair few, but that was few enough. These were the ONLY way that such medical institutions could get their hands on bodies. Even if someone DIED and had stated in their WILL that they desired their remains to be left for the purposes of science and learning, this was against the law. There simply were not enough ‘state-provided’ corpses to be sent to medical colleges for professors and doctors to teach their students about the intricacies of the human body. They needed more bodies. And they didn’t really ask questions about where the bodies came from…if you get my drift.

Enter: The Ressurectionist. Also called ressurection-men or ‘body-snatchers’, these men would break into churchyards and cemeteries under cover of darkness to dig up corpses that had been recently buried, and send them off to doctors and surgeons who could use them to teach their students about the human body. There was big business in body-snatching. Of course, doctors have always been wealthy people, and they could…and would…pay generously for a really nice ‘specimen’. This led to the rise of the body-snatcher in the 18th century.

How was Body-Snatching Done?

It was just as well that stealing bodies paid really well (or well enough, at least), because stealing them in the first place was pretty damn hard. To begin with, you needed to find a graveyard. Having found it, you had to get over the numerous obstacles that protected it. Gates were locked at night, bars couldn’t be squeezed through and it could be tricky climbing over the sharp, wrought-iron railings. Coupled with that, there were often watchmen or police-constables on patrol, doing “the graveyard shift”. There were even watch-towers in larger cemeteries!


The tower in the middle of this cemetery (round, white building) was built for watchmen to stand guard in, and keep an eye out for body-snatchers at night

If you got past all these obstacles and barricades, you still had to dig up the body. And there was a lot of digging. To be ‘six feet under’ isn’t just a euphamism for death, it was also quite literally how deep a coffin was buried under ground! At a rough calculation, you would have to dig out about 72 cubic feet of soil with nothing but a shovel, by lamplight, risking discovery with each shovelful of earth. And once you found the coffin, you had to get it open. Coffins were often nailed shut and would have to be forced open with a crowbar. Having gotten the coffin open, you had to get the body out (a dead weight of say, 200lbs, less or more, depending on the individual) and then you’d have to close the coffin and then bury the empty coffin all over again in an operation that could take over an hour! And even then you still had to smuggle the corpse out of the cemetery!

Body-snatching, rather obviously, was against the law. Punishments for body-snatching ranged from fines to terms of imprisonment. Occasionally, body-snatching even resulted in execution. The famous body-snatchers, Williams Burke and Hare, who were Irish immigrants in Scotland, would actually murder people so that they could sell the corpses to Dr. John Knox, who ran an anatomy school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Burke was hanged for murder in January, 1829, after Hare testified against him. Hare was never prosecuted for murder and went free, but Burke’s body, as with all bodies that were hanged…was donated to a medical college for dissection. A rather fitting end.

The End of the Body-Snatchers

The crime of body-snatching, in the United Kingdom, at least, ended in 1832. The Burke and Hare murders had highlighted to the population that there was a serious and legitimate need of dead bodies, by medical instruction colleges. Doctors, surgeons and anatomists needed dead bodies if they were to teach medical students about their own bodies. In order to further the cause of medical science and to prevent further cases of body-snatching, the British parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832.

Under the Murder Act of 1752, only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for medical dissections. By the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, Parliament allowed, amongst other things…

— People to donate their remains to science in their wills (unless the family objected, and if they did, then the body would be interred).
— Doctors and surgeons the legal right to claim any unclaimed corpses from prisons or workhouses, for the purposes of medical science.
— For proper regulation of anatomical teachers (who were thereafter required to register a license as a lawful teacher of human anatomy).

 

Time in Motion: The Story of the Sea-Clock, or Harrison’s Chronometers.

Special Note: This article will concentrate on the life work of Mr. John Harrison, an 18th century clockmaker who, through literally decades of work, changed maritime navigation forever. It is not meant to be an in-depth look at the history of finding longitude, which is something that would take up the space of several articles!

A Problem at Sea

These days, navigation at sea is pretty easy. You have GPS, you have radio, you have compasses, clocks, maps and a million other navigational aids to get your ship from A to B nice and safe…dependent, of course, on the weather. But that’s now in the 21st Century. Three hundred years ago, maritime navigation was nowhere near as easy. Mariners were in constant danger of getting lost at sea due to not knowing where they were, how far they had travelled and how far they still had to go. On a ship at sea with limited supplies and limited time to find safe harbour, not knowing your position was a serious safety-hazard.

As everyone who’s passed highschool geography ought to know, the world is divided up in a grid by lines of latitude (horizontal lines that wrap around the earth and which stack up on each other), and lines of longitude, which go around the earth from east to west, meeting at the North and South Poles at the top and bottom of the globe. Back in the early 1700s and even before this, taking one’s ship out to sea was a dangerous endeavour. Once beyond the sight of land, it was very difficult to fix one’s position, and therefore know how far your ship had travelled.

The position of the sun changes at noon, due to the curvature of the earth; this is why at extreme points on the earth, such as near the poles, you might have full sun at midnight and nothing at all at midday. Sailors were able to determine their north-south latitude position by measuring the angle of the sun at noon against the horizon. This measurement obtained, they were able to mark on a chart, how far north or south they were of the midpoint of latitudes, the Equator. However, finding out how far east or west you were of a given position was considered impossible, because this required knowing very accurately, what the time was.

“Okay so you need to know what the time is to find your spot on the earth. Get a clock or a watch, dunk it on the ship and let’s go!” you probably say.

It isn’t that easy.

Clocks in the 17th and 18th centuries were large pendulum clocks (also called ‘grandfather’ clocks). Although a pendulum clock could keep almost perfect time on land, its ability to keep accurate time at sea was greatly diminished due to the fact that sailing ships rock, pitch, roll and sway on the ocean waves. Such aggressive movements threw the pendulum’s swing (and thus, the clock’s timekeeping abilities) off-beat, rendering the clock useless. The only watches available were old-fashioned pocket-watches, which, although they required no stable surface to keep time, unlike the pendulum clock, they were often not manufactured to such a level of quality as to keep time accurately at sea. Pocket-watches often varied several minutes a day. While to us a minute of difference either way doesn’t sound serious, a minute lost or gained at sea meant being off your position by as much as four degrees. If again, this doesn’t sound serious, it actually meant the possibility of being off your course and position by a matter of several miles.

Telling Time at Sea

While there were several proposals put forward on how to accurately determine a ship’s longitude, the one which most people are familiar with today, is the one involving time. The earth revolves at a constant rate. A full 360 degrees in twenty-four hours, or fifteen degrees each hour. By knowing the time at two places at once, a navigator could calculate fairly easily, his ship’s position of longitude.

If a ship left England at noon and sailed for America, it would be able to determine its position by checking the time on its sea-clock or marine chronometer, as is the correct term. When the chronometer showed it was noon in England, the navigator had to wait until it was noon onboard his ship and record the time-difference. A difference of two hours meant the ship had travelled thirty degrees (since the earth turns 15 degrees each hour). In theory, this was simple, but as I mentioned, the clocks available in the 1700s meant that keeping accurate time at sea was all but impossible.

John Harrison

After a series of catastrophic shipwrecks in the early 1700s, it was decided that the British Government had to put some serious thought into the safety of British sailors. In 1714, the year that King George I came to the throne and heralded the start of the Georgian Era, a board was set up, called the Board of Longitude. Its purpose was to judge and examine any and all schemes for successfully determining a ship’s position of longitude at sea. A prize of twenty thousand pounds sterling, was offered to any person or group of persons who successfully produced a device or a method by which longitude could be accurately determined at sea.

Enter John Harrison.

You couldn’t possibly find a more unlikely person to be the man who would change history so momentously, and who tackled the biggest technological problem of his generation. John Harrison was born in 1693. In 1714, he was a mere twenty-one years of age. John was born in the village of Foulby in West Yorkshire, the first of five children. His father made a modest living as a carpenter.

In 1700, the Harrison family moved to the village of Barrow-Upon-Humber in North Lincolnshire, the village where Harrison would spend almost the rest of his life.

In the 18th century it was common for children to follow their parents into their chosen professions. Watchmakers gave birth to watchmakers, lawyers to lawyers and carpenters to carpenters. With his father’s occupation as a carpenter, it was inevitable that John Harrison would follow his father into the woodworking trade. Only, instead of working on furniture, young John concentrated on something else. Clocks. He spent countless hours examining, disassembling and reassembling clocks and watches, until he knew them as well as he knew himself. One legend goes that when he was sick with smallpox in 1699, he was given a pocket watch to play with while in bed. He spent hours winding up the watch, holding it in his hands, looking at it, listening to it and opening it up to look at all the fiddly little moving parts inside it. By his early twenties, Harrison, who had previously been a bellringer at the local church as well as an apprentice carpenter to his father, officially decided that he would become a clockmaker. He completed his first, fully-functional clock in 1713 at the age of twenty.

Harrison was very good at what he did. A perfectionist with perhaps a slight twinge of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Harrison went over his pendulum clocks over and over and over again, checking and re-checking everything to make his machines more accurate. Considering that Harrison never had any formal education, never went to school and never went to university, he was doing very well in understanding such complex machines as mechanical clocks. Harrison had quite a reputation for his clocks. In an era where a good clocks kept time to a few minutes a week, Harrison’s clocks boasted accuracy to a few SECONDS a MONTH.


This clock, manufactured almost entirely of wood, was completed by John Harrison in 1717, at the age of 24!

The Longitude Prize

Sooner or later, Harrison was bound to find out about the longitude prize. With his background in clockmaking, Harrison was quick to grasp the fact that knowing one’s position at sea was best determined by knowing accurately, the time in two places at once: Onboard ship and at a home port. Unfortunately, as he also realised, such clocks as those which existed in the 1700s, were woefully inaccurate for the task which they would have to perform. Harrison, like so many others before him, recognised these problems with a clock keeping time at sea.

1. Temperature. Mechanical timepieces keep different times in different temperatures. Hot temperatures cause them to slow down, cold temperatures cause them to speed up. This is due to the wood or the metal inside the timepiece reacting to the temperature around it.

2. Humidity. Moisture affects how smoothly a clock runs. Condensation brought about by rapid temperature-changes could cause a clock to rust or collect water, which would slow it down.

3. Motion. The rocking, rolling, plunging and heaving of early sailing-ships meant that the clock or watch would be subjected to massive amounts of sudden and violent movement. A significant enough jolt, such as that produced by a ship sliding down the trough between two waves to impact against the next wave coming foward, would be enough to throw a clock off its accuracy, rendering it useless. And even without the storms, a swaying, rocking ship would not allow a clock’s pendulum to swing back and forth reliably enough to keep time.

To solve all these problems, Harrison knew he had to do some very careful thinking. By the 1720s, Harrison’s experience in clockmaking and timekeeping was significant. His fanaticisim with accuracy meant that he tested his clocks to make sure that they kept perfect time under every single variation he could think of. He solved the problem of clocks keeping time through temperature-differences by placing two clocks in two rooms in his house during a frigid day in winter. He built a great fire in the fireplace of one room and kept the other room freezing cold. He synchronised both clocks and then kept a check on how fast or slow each of the clocks were and adjusting their pendulums correctly.

Despite never having gone to school, despite never being taught how to read and write except through his own determination, Harrison wrote reams and reams of paper, covering his research into the affects of temperature, lubrication and the use of various metals had on his clocks. After years of research and experimentation, Harrison was ready to have a shot at the Longitude Prize.

There was just one problem.

Due to the great inaccuracy of clocks at the time, no scientist, naval or government official believed that any clock could be produced that would ever keep time at sea. This prejudice against clocks was widespread and it even included one of the most famous scientists of the day: Sir Isaac Newton. Harrison knew that he would have to be incredibly good with his work if he ever had a chance of claiming his twenty-thousand pound prize.

Time and Patience

Harrison made a total of five marine chronometers in his life, three clocks and two pocket-watches. His first clock, “H1”, was presented for trials in 1736. Harrison was forty-three years old.


A model of H1. The two counterweights at the top of the clock (linked by the metal coil in the middle) were designed to swing back and forth, to act as shock-absorbers against the rock and roll of the ship

H1 was taken for trials and Harrison accompanied his creation on his first and only trip to sea. His ship, the HMS Centurion, travelled from England to Portugal, docking in Lisbon. From there, Harrison caught the HMS Orford back to England. The crew of the Orford were much impressed by Harrison’s newfangled invention and praised him for his efforts. The Board of Longitude was also sufficiently impressed to pay him two hundred pounds sterling towards the development of another clock.

Harrison’s next clock, H2 was completed a few years later. Harrison knew that his clock had to be stronger and tougher. It was a machine, not a showpiece. This clock was more boxy and compact than H1, but it kept time just as well.


An old photograph of H2

The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) meant that Harrison wasn’t allowed to take his newest sea-clock on a trial voyage. Military officials were worried that the clock might fall into enemy hands. Instead, the Board of Longitude gave Harrison another five hundred pounds towards further development of his machines. The result was H3.


John Harrison’s marine chronometer officially called “H3”

While Harrison was happy with H3, he soon decided that he’d been wasting his life all these decades. While Harrison’s clocks all kept wonderful time and while they could be used at sea successfully, Harrison just wasn’t convinced that this was the right way to go. Clocks were bulky, expensive, delicate machines that took up space on a ship which had very little space to give. Frustrated, Harrison gave up on trying to make marine clocks and instead did a complete, 180-degree turn and considered manufacturing a marine watch instead.

The watch in the 18th century was the pocket-watch. A large, round, bulky thing, but small for the period. Most watches were expensive, but kept only mediocre time. Harrison was sure that he could improve on then-current designs, and come up with a masterpiece.

To help him in this endeavour, Harrison consulted a man named John Jeffreys, a professional watchmaker. Jeffreys agreed to manufacture a pocket watch for Harrison. But there was one catch. It was to Harrison’s own personal design. Jeffreys accepted the challenge and set to work.

When the watch, now known as “H4”, was completed, it was so incredibly accurate that Harrison was probably slamming his head against the wall at his own stupidity for wasting his life fiddling around with clocks instead of pocket-watches! H4 took six years to complete and was finally ready for testing in 1761, by which stage Harrison was nearly seventy years old!

Far too old to go to sea again, Harrison’s son, Joseph, agreed to test his father’s watch. Joseph boarded a ship, the HMS Deptford and set sail for Jamaica. After weeks at sea, Joseph Harrison determined that his father’s watch was off by a mere…five seconds.


Harrison’s masterpiece: H4

The Board of Longitude were not pleased. And neither would you be, if everything you said was wrong was suddenly proven right, and a watch or a clock could keep accurate time at sea! The father-son team of John and Joseph Harrison awaited their prize-money of twenty thousand pounds.

Which never came.

The Board of Longitude demanded another test. The outraged Harrisons had no choice but to oblige them, if only to prove them wrong, and Joseph Harrison packed his bags for another voyage, this time to Barbados. The watch didn’t fare quite so well this time, with Joseph making the inaccuracy to be thirty-nine seconds out. But things were made even worse by the appearance of a man named Nevil Maskelyne.

Maskelyne was easily Harrison’s arch-rival in the race for the Longitude Prize. Maskelyne was a proponent of the ‘Lunar Distance’ method of determining longitude at sea.
The moon moves at a constant rate around the earth; twelve degrees a day. By measuring the angles between the moon and sun before one left England and measuring these angles later when the moon was over the horizon, one could determine how far one had travelled.

There was one big problem with Maskelyne’s lunar-distance method. It was highly complicated; and most seamen were not mathematics whizzes who specialised in geometry. While Maskelyne’s method did work, Harrison believed it wholly impractical at sea due to how long it would take to calculate distance.

Claiming the Prize

Upon Joseph’s return to England, the Harrisons once again presented their results to the Board of Longitude. This time, the Board could not ignore the papers in front of them. Once is beginner’s luck. But…twice?

The Harrisons demanded their prize and were eventually offered ten thousand pounds sterling, if they agreed to turn over H4 for duplication by other watchmakers. The Harrisons did so, but the money was not forthcoming. In a twist of fate that must’ve made John Harrison rip his hair off his head, his rival, Maskelyne, was made Astronomer Royal, and thus, a member of the Board of Longitude, who could therefore influence the Board’s decisions. Maskelyne managed to find a loophole in the criteria for claiming the prize-money and effectively told the Harrisons to get lost and that they weren’t allowed the twenty thousand pounds.

Infuriated, Joseph Harrison took a pen and a piece of paper and in a very bold move, wrote directly to the one man he was sure could help him and his father claim the money which they knew was theirs.

While Joseph worked on his letters, John went back to watchmaking. In the 1760s and 70s, he created his fifth and final marine chronometer, H5. In 1772, Joseph finally had success.

The two Harrisons had managed to obtain a private audience with the King of England.

King George III listened patiently while the father and son team beat out their case in front of him. His Majesty was moved by their plight and was obviously not pleased at what was happening. He whispered to an aide that the two men had been “cruelly wronged”. After much consideration, George III took Harrison’s latest creation, H5, and performed accuracy tests on it himself, checking its timekeeping day in and day out for ten weeks, from May to July in 1772. George III, though famous for going positively looney, deaf and blind towards the last years of his life, was, amongst other things, an avid lover of science and technology. His observations told him that H5 kept time to 1/3 of a second a day! A phenomenal feat of accuracy in a day and age when a regular pocket-watch kept time to a minute a day! Eventually, the king called the Harrisons before him and advised them on a course of action. He suggested that the two Harrisons petition Parliament into giving them the twenty thousand pounds of prize-money and told them that if Parliament refused, to further add that the king himself would enter the chamber and give the entire house a good talking-to.

Well…no politician wants to be told off in public by his king.

Finally, in 1773, John Harrison got…well…some money. Eight-thousand, seven hundred and fifty pounds sterling, from Parliament, for his efforts.

If we add up all of the money that Harrison recieved for his work, we’ll find that it totals a whopping twenty-three thousand and sixty-five pounds! However, the official Longitude Prize of twenty-thousand pounds was never awarded to anyone, even though it should rightly have gone to John and Joseph Harrison.

Even when Harrison realised how much money he was making, he still wasn’t happy. He’d never recieved the public recognition of his achievements that he’d hoped for. It was as if the people in charge turned red-faced with embarrassment, shoved over a pouch of gold and then slammed the door in his face. By now, Harrison was eighty years old. Harrison had spent almost literally, his whole life trying to solve the biggest technological problem of his age, and he was never even thanked properly.

In the end, Harrison died at the age of eighty-three, barely able to live in retirement for a decent length of time to enjoy his riches. He passed away, aged 83, on the 24th of March, 1776. Ironically…the date of his death, was also the date of his birth, exactly 83 years before in 1693. He was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s Church, in Hampstead, London, alongside his second wife, Elizabeth, and their son William.

Harrison’s Legacy

Some people say that an artist’s work is never truly appreciated until they’re dead. In Harrison’s case, this was almost certainly it. Although he never recieved the fame, fortune and acclaim that he had hoped for in his own lifetime, Harrison’s lifetime of work saw the expansion of the British Empire by making sea-travel much, much safer.

And yet…despite all his efforts, marine chronometers were not widely used, initially. Their high manufacturing cost meant that these amazing machines were out of the reach of all but the wealthiest of seamen; those who had made lots of money as merchant captains or officers in the Navy, who could afford to purchase an expensive and accurate sea-clock for their ships. But as years went by, the use of marine chronometers eventually increased, until they were declared obsolete in the late 20th century, by the coming of GPS.


A marine chronometer clock, of the kind that was common from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. The clock is housed in a special wooden case and is mounted on a gimbal so that it swivels and pivots. This way, the clock always lies flat, even if the ship is rolling and heaving at sea

Harrison’s clocks and watches were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Rupert Thomas Gould, a Royal Navy officer. He is credited with documenting, examining, restoring and preserving Harrison’s clocks and saving them from total destruction. It is thanks to his research and restoration-skills that H1, H2, H3, H4 and H5 are still around today. H1-3 have been reassembled and restored to operational condition. They may be seen at the National Maritime Museum at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. H4 is also restored, but H5 still requires restoration. Only H1, 2 and 3 are in operation, however, since H4 and H5 require significant lubrication to operate successfully, whereas H1, 2 and 3 do not.


H5 (currently unrestored); the last marine chronometer that Harrison made, and the very one which was tested by King George III himself