The Conquest of Time

SHIP-BANNER3Here is another lesson from history…

The Conquest of Time. (and the importance of developing the right business relationships)

The measurement of time is taken for granted in this atomic clock age,

But it was not always so.

In fact an accurate and robust method of time measurement was vital to enable shipping to navigate at sea with confidence.

Whilst Latitude is simple to measure Longitude is less so and this problem resulted in substantial loss of life and assets through shipwreck.

Even experienced Ships Masters could find themselves hundreds of miles off course.

In 1714, the British Government offered, by Act of Parliament, a solution which could….

Provide longitude to within half-a-degree (2 minutes of time). The methods would be tested…..on a ship, sailing…over the ocean, from Great Britain to any such Port in the West Indies as those Commissioners Choose… without losing their Longitude beyond the limits before mentioned and should prove to be tried and found Practicable and Useful at Sea.

This was the mandate laid down by the British Admiralty’s board of longitude to try and solve the problem of sailors and ships being lost at sea.

Incidentally £20,000 in today’s money is around 4.5 million (or about 10 million dollars) ……that’s how serious the problem was.

There were two main contestants and schools of thought as to how to solve it.

The Lunar method championed by ……( I am not going to mention his name because he does not deserve it…read on and you will discover why)

And the chronological method…. ultimately solved by John Harrison.

The fact that the Luna proponent also happened to chair the Admiralty’s board of commissioners added an interesting twist to the story and may in this case show that it is…

What you know and not who you know that counts.

Although it took a lifetime, and the intervention of King George 111 to prove it…. so I suppose….

What you know AND who you know is is the rub.

The Luna method by definition involved finding longitude by using the moons cycles ….and was impracticable …unreliable …and too complex to mention.

The only realistic answer was to build a clock that was (in those days)

fantastically accurate,

and able to function without fail during the rigors of a sea voyage.

No mean feat with the tools, materials and expertise of the age.

John Harrison started making clocks from wood and although brilliant in conception and construction the material was totally unsuitable for the purpose.

His first serious attempts to make a ships clock were made in metal and are in…

the British Maritime museum ….

known as H1, H2 , and H3, they are works of art as well as mechanical wonders, and still work to this day

These three clocks were developed over a lifetime …

All were rejected by the Admiralty.…

who’s chairman was still advocating his own Luna method (surprise, surprise!)

Finally Harrison submitted his masterpiece… H4 …. in 1759

Although this timepiece fulfilled the original Admiralty mandate it was still rejected…

and through subterfuge and downright deceit the commissioners connived to withhold Harrison’s prize money.

Only in 1773 when The king himself ordered the money to be paid did Harrison receive his just reward, he was 80 years old and only lived another 3 years to enjoy it. in fact he was never paid in full…. ( no one ever was) …..

There is no doubt that John Harrison was a genius, who had some of the characteristics of a great man



Self Belief



But he also had flaws that made his journey harder


An inability to work with others

Poor social skills

Single Mindedness

Some of these traits are two sides of the same coin.

In fact several members of the Admiralty were pro Harrison’s H4 timepiece, they knew the Luna method could not work and recognized the answer lay with Harrison.

Harrison’s faults however, ostracized him, and left him with few allies.

Had Harrison understood the power of partnerships he may have enjoyed his prize money for longer and benefited from a less stressful life. His stubbornness was a two edged sword.

I sometimes think of John Harrison and the lessons that can be learned from his life…

And don’t get me wrong here…. he did collaborate … it is a question of with whom….

Having an idea and belief is all important but it is not always enough….

the right mentors and partnerships…. should not be overlooked lightly.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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