John Harrison

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John Harrison (24 March 1693 – 24 March 1776) was a self-educated English clockmaker. He invented the marine chronometer, a long-sought device in solving the problem of establishing the East-West position or longitude of a ship at sea, thus revolutionising and extending the possibility of safe long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail. The problem was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million / €3.65 million / $4.72 million in modern currency) for the solution.[1][2]

Harrison came 39th in the BBC's 2002 public poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.


Early life

John Harrison was born in Foulby, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, the first of five children in his family. His father worked as a carpenter at the nearby Nostell Priory estate. The house where he was born bears a blue plaque.

Around 1700, the family moved to the North Lincolnshire village of Barrow upon Humber. Following his father's trade as a carpenter, Harrison built and repaired clocks in his spare time. Legend has it that at the age of six while in bed with smallpox he was given a watch to amuse himself, spending hours listening to it and studying its moving parts.

He also had a fascination for music, eventually becoming choirmaster for Barrow parish church.[3]


Harrison built his first longcase clock in 1713, at the age of 20. The mechanism was made entirely of wood, which was a natural choice of material for a joiner. Three of Harrison's early wooden clocks have survived; the first (1713) is at the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers' Collection in Guildhall; the second (1715), is in the Science Museum and the third (1717) is at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, the face bearing the inscription "John Harrison Barrow". The Nostell example, in the billiards room of this fine stately home, has a Victorian outer case, which has been thoughtfully provided with small glass windows on each side of the movement so that the wooden workings may be inspected. In the early 1720s Harrison was commissioned to make a new turret clock at Brocklesby Park, North Lincolnshire. The clock still operates and like his previous clocks has a wooden movement, made of oak and lignum vitae. Unlike his early clocks it incorporates some original features to improve timekeeping, for example the grasshopper escapement. Between 1725 and 1728 John and his brother James, also a skilled joiner, made at least three precision pendulum-clocks, again with oak and lignum vitae movements and longcase. The grid-iron pendulum was developed during this phase. These precision pendulum-clocks are thought by some to have been the most accurate clocks in the world at the time, and significantly are the direct link to the sea clocks. No.1, now in a private collection was in the collections of the Time Museum, USA, until that museum closed in 2000 and its collection dispersed at auction in 2004. No. 2 is in the collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom. It is not on display but it is planned to put it on permanent display in the new Leeds City Museum some time in 2011. No. 3 is in the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers' collection.

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