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The Four Chronometers of Greenwich

I confess when I visited Greenwich my mind wasn’t on chronometers, it was on the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time.  But after the obligatory pictures at 0° along the famous line that dictates so much of our modern lives I spent the duration of my time exploring the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and listened intently as an exceptional guide detailed the story of the four clocks that changed the world.  That all four of the clocks were on display, and three of them were still running was a mind-blowing moment.

John Harrison invented the first clock, H-1, in an attempt to solve the most perplexing problem of the day – determining longitude while at sea.  It was such a critical issue that Parliament passed The Longitude Act 1714 with a prize of £20,000 for anyone who came up with an accurate way to determine longitude.  Dava Sobel wrote an excellent book that details Harrison’s lifetime pursuit of a final solution.  H-1 was completed in 1735, but Harrison wasn’t completely satisfied with it and went about immediately to work on an improved chronometer.  H-2 never went to trial (tested at sea), H-3 was completed in 1759 but wasn’t trialed right away because of the Seven Years War.  While they waited to trial it Harrison invented the smaller H-4, which was the size of a very large pocket watch, which went on to win the prize money after a lifetime of work and refinement and continuous trouble with The Commissioners of Longitude (some of whom were biased towards an astronomical solution to the longitude riddle).

Part of me wishes I’d read Sobel’s book before visiting Greenwich and seeing the four chronometers that changed the world.  But there’s another part of me that is grateful for discovering them unexpectedly.  I immediately purchased Longitude when I returned from the UK.  Having seen the four chronometers side-by-side in the museum, with all in working order (H-4 is deliberately kept unwound to preserve it), I felt an immediate affinity for the story when I began reading.  But another hero emerged from the book besides Harrison.  It was Rupert Gould, a Lieutenant-Commander in the British Royal Navy who was given permission to restore the four chronometers that had been sitting in a deteriorating state for almost a century.  Gould spent 13 years restoring the clocks to their original state, and in doing so returned four examples of timeless magic for visitors to the Flamsteed House and the Royal Observatory Greenwich.  He’s a quiet hero in history, and is rightfully remembered as such.  I was spellbound by H-1, H-2 and H-3 as they earnestly marked time 2 1/2 centuries after Harrison built them.  Now that I know their history, I look forward to a return visit someday, and will re-read Longitude and linger for a spell in the presence of history.

H-2
H-1

H-4
H-3

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