Birthday: April 3, 1693
Died At Age: 82
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: John Harrison
Born in: Foulby
Died on: March 24, 1776
place of death: London
Who was John Harrison?
John Harrison, considered to be one of the greatest clockmakers from England, was the inventor of the marine chronometer, a device that helps to establish the longitude of a ship at sea and makes long distance sea travel safer. His invention marked a landmark in sea travel and revolutionized the way sailors had been sailing on the seas previously. The problem of accurately establishing the longitude was so acute that the British Parliament announced an award of ₤20,000 to whosoever would come up with a practical solution. The son of a carpenter with a deep fascination for clocks, Harrison set out to solve the problem. He worked hard for several years designing numerous models of clocks. Several of his clocks were tested with favorable results by the Royal Society though none of his initial models fitted the requirements necessary to win the prize. After working, re-working and improvising his clock models for almost three decades, he came up with an appropriate solution—a marine watch that could successfully measure the longitude during sea travel. The uneducated carpenter was successful in solving a major problem of sea faring even before scientists and astronomers could come up with a solution. By designing the accurate marine chronometer, Harrison had come up with a solution for one of the most puzzling technological problems of the 18th century.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as the son of Henry, a carpenter and his wife Elizabeth. The oldest of five siblings, he assisted his father in his carpentry work.
He fell ill with smallpox as a child and was given a watch to amuse himself. Thus began his fascination with clocks and he would often tinker around with old clocks and study their mechanisms. He also loved music as a youngster.
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Harrison was largely a self-taught clock maker; there are no records of him ever getting trained under a clock maker. He began building clocks quite early on with the help of his younger brother, James. The brothers built their first clock in 1713, and went on to build two long case grandfather clocks in 1715 and 1717.
In 1720 he built a clock for the tower of a local manor house. He built the parts requiring lubrication with a tropical hardwood that naturally oozes its own oil and thus would not require any other form of oiling.
His carpentry skills proved to be very useful for clock making too. He used oak and lignum vitae to make the wooden movements in clocks. He also developed the grasshopper escapement to improvise the quality of clocks.
Along with James he made at least three pendulum clocks between 1725 and 1728. He designed the grid-iron pendulum during this time. His precision pendulum clocks are considered to be the most accurate clocks of his time.
The British Parliament had announced a prize of 20,000 Pounds for a practical method determining a ship’s longitude in 1714; it was administered by the Board of Longitude. Even by 1730 no one had yet claimed the prize, so Harrison traveled to London to build an instrument for this purpose.
He created the description and drawings for a proposed marine clock and presented his ideas to the Astronomer Royal, Edmond Halley who introduced him to the watch and instrument maker George Graham. Graham not only helped Harrison financially but also in many other ways.
Harrison worked on his first Sea Clock, also known as H1 for five years. The clock was tested on a trial in 1736, and its design was much appreciated. He was given a grant of 500 Pounds for developing this design further.
He made the H2 in 1741 after some more years of work. But at that time Britain was at war with Spain and his design could not be tested. However he was provided another grant to continue his work.
After 17 years of work he designed the H3. However, he himself was disappointed with this model and started looking for other methods to improvise its performance. He decided that instead of a ‘Sea Clock’, a watch sized timekeeper would be more practicable.
He designed the first ‘Sea Watch’, the H4 after working for another six years. This watch had been built after studying the mechanism of the watches built by Thomas Mudge, the successor of Graham. The watch proved to be very accurate but the Parliament gave him only half of the prize money and told him to improvise the design.
He worked on his second sea watch, H5. But he was disillusioned with the Parliament and enlisted the support of King George II who personally tested the watch in 1772 and found it to be accurate. Harrison was eventually awarded �8,750 for his work in 1773 when he was 80 years old.
He invented the marine chronometer—a clock that precisely determines longitude by means of celestial navigation. It was a major technological development of the 18th century that took him more than three decades of hard work to achieve.
Awards & Achievements
He was never awarded the official Longitude Prize of �20,000 though he was paid �10,000 and �8,750 in separate installments. He was also awarded several grants by the Board of Longitude for continuing his work till the development of the H5.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Elizabeth Barrel in 1718. They had a son. His wife died in 1726.
His second marriage was with a woman, also named Elizabeth. This marriage lasted 50 years and produced two children. His son William assisted his father in designing and developing clocks and watches.
He died on his 83rd birthday in 1776.