The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

The title of this post is the subtitle of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, her mega bestselling account of the life and work of the eighteenth-century clock maker John Harrison; probably the biggest selling popular #histSTM book of all time.

I’m quite happy to admit that when I first read it I was very impressed by her account of a man I didn’t know from a period of history with which I was not particularly well acquainted. However, because I was very impressed, I went looking for more information about the history of John Harrison and the marine chronometer. I found and read quite a lot of academic literature on both topics and came to the realisation that Sobel’s account was not really the true story and that she had twisted the facts to make for a more exciting story but quite far removed from the true narrative.

P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The next segment of the subtitle is also not true. Harrison was supported and encouraged in his endeavours by George Graham, possibly the greatest eighteenth-century English clockmaker, and James Short, almost certainly the greatest telescope maker in the world in the eighteenth century. Both men were important and highly influential figures in the scientific and technological communities of the period. Their support of Harrison rather gives the lie to the claim that Harrison was a lone genius.

George Graham
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final segment of the subtitle is also highly inaccurate. The problem that Harrison and others were working on in the eighteenth century was a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. They were trying to solve a technological problem not a scientific one. The scientific problem had already been solved in antiquity. Scholars in ancient Greece already knew that to determine the difference in longitude between two locations, one ‘merely’ had to determine the local time difference between them; knowing this the problem was how to determine that time difference, as I said a technological problem.

In antiquity and up to the early modern period cartographers and astronomers (usually the same person) used astronomical phenomena such as solar or lunar eclipses. Observers determined the local time of the occurrence of a given astronomical phenomenon at two different locations and it was then possible to determine their longitudinal difference. Unfortunately eclipses are not very frequent occurrences and so this method has rather limited usefulness. Something else had to be developed.

In the early seventeenth century both Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter and Galileo realised that the orbits of these moons and their appearances and disappearances as the circled Jupiter could, if tabulated accurately enough, be used as a clock to determine longitude. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Giovanni Domenico Cassini and Ole Rømer succeeded in producing the necessary tables and Galileo’s idea could be put into practice. Whilst this method was very successful for cartographers on land, on a rolling ship it was not possible to observe the Jupiter moons accurately enough with a telescope to be able to apply this method; something else had to be used.

The two solutions that came to be developed in the eighteenth century and form the backbone of Sobel’s book, the lunar distance method (lunars) and the marine chronometer, were both first suggested in the sixteenth century, the former by Johannes Werner and the latter by Gemma Frisius. Other methods were suggested but proved either impractical or downright impossible. For lunars you need accurate lunar orbit tables and an accurate instrument to determine the position of the moon. Tobias Mayer provided the necessary tables and John Hadley the instrument with his sextant. For the clock method you require a clock that has a high level of accuracy over a long period of time and which retains that accuracy under the often very adverse conditions of a sea voyage; this is the technological problem that Harrison solved. Sobel presents the two methods as in competition but for navigators they are in fact complimentary and they were both used. As my #histsci soul sister Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt constantly repeats, with the marine chronometer you can carry longitude with you, but if you chronometer breaks down you can’t find it, whereas with lunars you can find longitude, as James Cook did in fact do on one of his voyages.

As I said above, I began to seriously doubt the veracity of Sobel’s account through my own study of the academic accounts of the story, these doubts were then confirmed as I began to follow the blog of the Longitude Board research project set up by Cambridge University and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, of which Becky Higgitt was one of the lead researchers. For a more balanced and accurate account of the story I recommend Finding Longitude the book written by Becky and Richard Dunn to accompany the longitude exhibition at the Maritime Museum, one of the products of the research project.

Recently I have become fully aware of another aspect of the Harrison story that Sobel does not cover. I say fully aware because I already knew something of it before reading David S. Landes’ excellent Revolution in Time: Clocks and the making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 1983). Landes covers the whole history of the mechanical clock from the Middle Ages through to the quartz wristwatch. One of his central themes is the increasing accuracy of clocks down the ages in which the invention of the marine chronometer played a central role, so he devotes a whole chapter to Harrison’s endeavours.

Landes quite correctly points out that after a lifetime of experimentation and ingenious invention John Harrison did indeed produce a solution to the technological problem of determining longitude with a clock. An astute reader with a feel for language might have noticed that in the previous sentence I wrote ‘a solution’ and not ‘the solution’ and therein lies the rub. Over the years that he worked on the problem Harrison produced many ingenious innovations in clock making in order to achieve his aim, an accurate, reliable, highly durable timepiece, however the timepiece that he finally produced was too complex and too expensive to be practicable for widespread everyday service at sea. Harrison had, so to speak, priced himself out of the market.

Harrison’s “Sea Watch” No.1 (H4), with winding crank
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Harrison was by no means the only clock maker working on a viable marine chronometer in the eighteenth century and it is actually his competitors who in the end carried away the laurels and not Harrison. Two clockmakers who made important contributions to the eventual development of a mechanically and financially viable marine chronometer were the Frenchman Pierre Le Roy and Swiss Ferdinand Berthoud, who were bitter rivals.

Pierre Le Roy (1717–1785)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plans of Le Roy chronometer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ferdinand Berthoud (1727–1807)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Berthoud marine clock no.2, with motor spring and double pendulum wheel, 1763
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Neither of them can be said to have solved the problem but the work of both of them in different ways led in the right direction. Another contributor was George Graham’s one time apprentice, Thomas Mudge, his highly praised marine chronometer suffered from the same problem as Harrison’s too complex and thus too expensive to manufacture.

The two English clock makers, who actually first solved the problem of a viable marine chronometer were John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw, who also became bitter rivals. This rivalry involved accusations of theft of innovations and disputes over patents. In the end it was John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw, who became the most successful of the early clock makers, who worked on the development of the marine chronometer.


Chronometer-maker John Arnold (1736–1799) (attributed to Mason Chamberlin, ca. 1767)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Earnshaw (!749–1829)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earnshaw chronometer No. 506
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I don’t intend to go into the details of which innovations in clock manufacture each of the man listed above contributed to the development of the marine chronometer that would go on to become an essential navigation tool in the nineteenth century. What I wish to make clear is exactly the same point as my essay on the history of the reflecting telescope for AEON made. From its first conception by Gemma Frisius in the sixteenth century, through the failure of Christiaan Huygens to realise it with his pendulum clock in the late seventeenth century (not discussed here), over its first successful realisation by John Harrison and on to the creation of a viable model by a succession of eighteenth-century clock makers, the marine chronometer was not the product of a single man’s (John Harrison’s) genius but a tool that evolved through the endeavours of a succession of dedicated inventors and innovators. Scientific and technological progress is teamwork.

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3 Comments

Filed under History of Navigation, History of Technology, Myths of Science

3 responses to “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

  1. Zach Mayo, Washington, D.C.

    Using Lunars for determining longitude always had at least two drawbacks. It required a clear sky and calculations that often took many hours to compute. No captain wants to wait 6 weeks, the documented length of one of the longest stretches in the Atlantic when the moon could not be observed, to make a measurement, and no captain wants to be told where he WAS hours ago on the open sea. The astonishing improvements and reduction in size from Harrison’s first to third iterations of a reliable marine chronometer do appear unlikely to have been conjured by a lone genius. I think Ms. Sobel was tortured by the editing of that section of her book. The torture that Harrison, until his death, and later the years his son endured at the hands of the Board of Longitude to claim a just reward are typically British as an exemplar of administrative and cultural Red Tape. It was a scientific joy, and not a technical one, that I was filled with upon my first visit to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich to see the Harrison marine chronometers. Joyful still that my mobile has an app synced to an atomic clock that is accurate, precise and reliable to the frequency of Caesium-133.

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #45 | Whewell's Ghost

  3. Pingback: All at sea | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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