Modern Times · Reality

Telling The Time.

Modern Times, As Seen Through Ship Design, Part 5.

John Harrison’s first chronometer for use at sea.

Whilst this is not an official part of the design of a ship, it had a dramatic effect on the way people used them. Because for an empire as large as the British Empire was, the need to police with a navy was absolute.

There was but one problem: people didn’t know where they were. They would see land, and knowing it for one spit of land, base their decisions upon it.

The year is 1707, Queen Anne sits on the throne and in Europe, the wars of the Spanish Succession are in full cry. As part of this, Britain is defending its port of Gibraltar with its usual tenacity.

Part of normal manoeuvres is the dispatch of a squadron of ships that should return to England. In doing so, it met with severe storms, and was blown out into the North Atlantic. They had no idea of quite where they were, and no way to find out. Until the coming of the GPS in very modern times, it was impossible to determine one’s exact position without knowing where the sun was.

The gales having abated, the squadron headed East and entered the mouth of the English Channel. The admiral thought himself near Ushant, an island off the north coast of Brittany. A sailor stated that they were not; the admiral did not take to this insolence and being the gentleman that he was, had him hanged from the yardarm.

The same day the squadron foundered on the Manacles. A particularly treacherous breed of rocks, and four of the ships were wrecked including that of the Admiral himself. Some two thousand other men also lost their lives.

To this day, it stands as the Royal Navy’s worst peacetime disaster. The squadron was off the Scillies, not Ushant. The upstart seaman was correct, but it cost him his life. This is the tale of another man whose life was lost to agroup of people equally obdurate as that Admiral.

In the wake of this disaster, the parliament under Queen Anne wished that no ship in future should founder for the lack of proper navigation. In 1714 the sum of  £20,000 was offered as a prize to the person who could offer a practical solution. The question was: how to do achieve this end.

John Harrison was a carpenter, but as with many carpenters, was a clever chap. Not only that, but the cleverer the craftsman, the finer are his skills. Harrison turned his interest to clocks. Indeed, one of his early clocks at Brocklesby Park in Lincolnshire is still running, allowing for someone to pull the weights down each week. Not only that, but Harrison’s use of carefully selected species of wood has meant that not only has it kept time for three hundred years, it has never needed oiling.

How is it that Harrison knew that his clocks were accurate? Well, by the heavens of course. He knew that the star we call Sirius would disappear behind a chimney pot that he could see from his house window, and reappear three minutes and fifty-one seconds later. Knowing a little astronomy meant that he knew the exact time every day. Indeed, at London, he saw that the Royal Institution’s clock was a little slow…

Harrison was not just a fine mind, a fine carpenter, but a fine scientist too. All qualities of a mind willing and able to meet the rigorous challenges of our modern times.

It was he who realized that if a ship knew the time of day, it could work out its position to a reasonable accuracy, day or night. This required sightings and calculations, a process known as Dead Reckoning. On a vessel at sea, the inaccuracies of the reckonings would compound to form serious errors. Harrison’s idea meant that it would be possible to identify the position of the ship with a degree of accuracy, and independently of anything else. But it relied on the presence of a rigorously accurate timepiece, something that would retain its accuracy irrespective of barometric pressure, movement or salt water.

Harrison set about making his clock. To make a clock with the tools available to someone in the 18th century is hard enough. To make an accurate clock is all but impossible. Harrison achieved the impossible: the clock known today in true modern and as abstract fashion as possible, as ‘H1’.

Every part of that clock was made by hand. All I can say is that when I saw it, I was overwhelmed. Everything is balanced and has a counter-balance, every spur gear, pointer and spring was perfect. On land it performed perfectly, it was the most accurate timepiece constructed up to that point in history. There was a problem: in the weeks it took to sail to Lisbon, the clock lost six minutes. The return voyage saw it lose no time at all. This was a very serious problem, and nobody knew what was going on.

Harrison's Sea Watch, ‘H4’
Harrison’s Sea Watch, ‘H4’

Harrison was a scientist, and in the succeeding months, determined what the problem was. His two successive clocks were improvements to H1, but did not take this problem into account. Harrison knew that it was the gyroscopic motion of a vessel turning at sea that would affect the clock’s pendulums. (If you want to experience this for yourself, take a bicycle wheel by its axle and spin it gently. Then, try to turn it a quarter turn. It is possible, but only if one allows the axle to form a curve in space. The one hand will be forced outwards – according to the motion of the wheel, of course. Turning a direct quarter turn invokes immense forces that only the strongest of men could overcome.)

Harrison’s fourth clock was a small chronometer, and looked like a large pocket watch. It had jewelled bearings of ruby and diamond, and in a passage to the West Indies that lasted 81 days, lost one minute and fifty seconds. Today, my grandfather’s clock in my living room will lose two minutes a day. Harrison had solved the problem of gyroscopic inaccuracies.

Even with this mound of evidence, the board of Longitude – the people overseeing the prize money – were not happy. Well, they wouldn’t be: Harrison was to them, a peasant and an outsider. In short, the members of the Board of Longitude represented a group of people who had not accepted the challenges of the times they lived in. To them, heritage was everything and ability nothing. The British establishment were, as they are today, a close-knit lot. Nor did they harbour democratic feelings amongst themselves.

So, they did what any honest group of people would do in the circumstances: they changed the rules. After all, they were the Scientists, they had the power and they didn’t want any upstart to have more money than they did. They made demands of Mr Harrison and his now grown son, that in all fairness, were simply daft. They wanted to watch him take his clock apart and whilst re-assembling it, be able to ask questions of any part of his clock at any time. Imagine having to describe how to make and anneal the steel spring of a clock to a person who can’t saw a piece of wood? Leave alone be able to saw it clean and straight.

Harrison had spent his life trying to meet their needs, and in his late seventies, was confronted by people who arbitrarily changed the rules – and the law of the land – to suit their own purposes.

It’s not as if the board were even serving the needs of the Royal Navy in their machinations, but that is why Britain needed a navy in the first place! Self seeking people will seek to fulfil their own ends, and in doing so, dishonestly make others shoulder their burden. The above story is a case in point. Not just Mr Harrison, but every man a ship of the Royal Navy. Indeed, many sailors would lose their lives because of the board’s selfishness. But then, that is what happens when people do not accept the challenges they are faced with.


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