John Harrison (3 April [O.S. 24 March] 1693 – 24 March 1776) was a self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer, a long-sought-after device for solving the problem of calculating longitude while at sea.
Harrison’s solution revolutionized navigation and greatly increased the safety of long-distance sea travel. The problem he solved was considered so important following the Scilly naval disaster of 1707 that the British Parliament offered financial rewards of up to £20,000 (equivalent to £3.17 million in 2020) under the 1714 Longitude Act.
In 1730, Harrison presented his first design, and worked over many years on improved designs, making several advances in time-keeping technology, finally turning to what were called sea watches. Harrison gained support from the Longitude Board in building and testing his designs. Toward the end of his life, he received recognition and a reward from Parliament. Harrison came 39th in the BBC’s 2002 public poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
John Harrison was born in Foulby in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the first of five children in his family. His step father worked as a carpenter at the nearby Nostell Priory estate. A house on the site of what may have been the family home bears a blue plaque.
Around 1700, the Harrison family moved to the 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 and he spent hours listening to it and studying its moving parts.
He also had a fascination for music, eventually becoming choirmaster for Barrow parish church.
Harrison built his first longcase clock in 1713, at the age of 20. The mechanism was made entirely of wood. Three of Harrison’s early wooden clocks have survived: the first (1713) is in the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers’ collection previously in the Guildhall in London, and since 2015 on display in the Science Museum. The second (1715) is also in the Science Museum in London; 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 stately home, has a Victorian outer case, which has small glass windows on each side of the movement so that the wooden workings may be inspected.
On 30 August, 1718, John Harrison married Elizabeth Barret at Barrow-upon-Humber church After her death in 1726, he married Elizabeth Scott on 23 November, 1726, at the same church.
In the early 1720s, Harrison was commissioned to make a new turret clock at Brocklesby Park, North Lincolnshire. The clock still works, and like his previous clocks has a wooden movement 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 longcase clocks, again with the movements and longcase made of oak and lignum vitae. The grid-iron pendulum was developed during this period. These precision clocks are thought by some to have been the most accurate clocks in the world at the time. Number 1, now in a private collection, belonged to the Time Museum, USA, until the museum closed in 2000 and its collection was dispersed at auction in 2004. Number 2 is in the Leeds City Museum. It forms the core of a permanent display dedicated to John Harrison’s achievements, “John Harrison: The Clockmaker Who Changed the World” and had its official opening on 23 January 2014, the first longitude-related event marking the tercentenary of the Longitude Act. Number 3 is in the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers’ collection.
Harrison was a man of many skills and he used these to systematically improve the performance of the pendulum clock. He invented the gridiron pendulum, consisting of alternating brass and iron rods assembled so that the thermal expansions and contractions essentially cancel each other out. Another example of his inventive genius was the grasshopper escapement – a control device for the step-by-step release of a clock’s driving power. Developed from the anchor escapement, it was almost frictionless, requiring no lubrication because the pallets were made from wood. This was an important advantage at a time when lubricants and their degradation were little understood.
In his earlier work on sea clocks, Harrison was continually assisted, both financially and in many other ways, by George Graham, the watchmaker and instrument maker. Harrison was introduced to Graham by the Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley, who championed Harrison and his work. This support was important to Harrison, as he was supposed to have found it difficult to communicate his ideas in a coherent manner.
Death and memorials
Harrison died on 24 March 1776 at the age of eighty-two, just shy of his eighty-third birthday. He was buried in the graveyard of St John’s Church, Hampstead, in north London, along with his second wife Elizabeth and later their son William. His tomb was restored in 1879 by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, even though Harrison had never been a member of the Company.
Harrison’s last home was 12, Red Lion Square, in the Holborn district of London. There is a plaque dedicated to Harrison on the wall of Summit House, a 1925 modernist office block, on the south side of the square. A memorial tablet to Harrison was unveiled in Westminster Abbey on 24 March 2006, finally recognising him as a worthy companion to his friend George Graham and Thomas Tompion, ‘The Father of English Watchmaking’, who are both buried in the Abbey. The memorial shows a meridian line (line of constant longitude) in two metals to highlight Harrison’s most widespread invention, the bimetallic strip thermometer. The strip is engraved with its own longitude of 0 degrees, 7 minutes and 35 seconds West.
The Corpus Clock in Cambridge, unveiled in 2008, is a homage by the designer to Harrison’s work but is of an electromechanical design. In appearance it features Harrison’s grasshopper escapement, the ‘pallet frame’ being sculpted to resemble an actual grasshopper. This is the clock’s defining feature.
In 2014, Northern Rail named diesel railcar 153316 as the John ‘Longitude’ Harrison.
On 3 April 2018, Google celebrated his 325th birthday by making a Google Doodle for its homepage.
In February 2020 a bronze statue of John Harrison was unveiled in Barrow-Upon-Humber. The statue was created by sculptor Marcus Cornish.