Read more at —


NMM Harrison feature


Wikipedia on Harrison


Worshipful Company of Clockmakers


The English attack on the Longitude problem (St Andrews)


Royal Naval Museum Portsmouth



Books —


Glyn Williams ‘The Prize of all the Oceans—The triumph & tragedy of Anson’s Voyage Round the World’  HarperCollins 1999


Dava Sobel & William J.H. Andrewes ‘The Illustrated Longitude’  Fourth Estate 1998


Flamsteed Astronomy Society

Huygens, Halley & Harrison

— Anniversaries 2006

1736, May 19th — 270 years ago, John Harrison set sail on HMS Centurion (60) to test his first marine timekeeper ‘H1’ on a voyage at sea.  To get this far, Harrison had received the backing of the Royal Society with a certificate of endorsement signed by five Fellows including Edmond Halley, George Graham, and James Bradley (later 3rd Astronomer Royal).  The Admiralty had been persuaded to give Harrison passage to make the test and Captain Procter R.N. was ordered to take him to Lisbon in Portugal aboard Centurion.  Harrison hated the voyage.  He was thoroughly seasick but mercifully the outward voyage took just a week.  Captain Procter seems to have been impressed by Harrison and his endeavours, but unfortunately he died soon after their arrival in Lisbon and therefore didn’t provide any evidence to support H1.   After just four days in Lisbon, Harrison was transferred to HMS Orford for the return.  This time the passage took a month, so we can only hope that Harrison had gained his sea-legs.  When the English coast was sighted, the Orford’s Master, Roger Wills, identified it as Start Point, but Harrison’s own chart, plotted using H1, placed them 68 miles further west, at Lizard Point.  We can only guess at how Wills felt being contradicted in front of his Captain by this landlubberly carpenter.   Good news then, that a year later Roger Wills was generous enough to give Harrison a certificate attesting to the value of H1 :  “...the said land, according to my reckoning, and others, ought to have been the Start; but before we knew what land it was, John Harrison declared to me ... that ... it ought to be the Lizzard, the which indeed it was found to be ...”   Wills’ evidence may have tipped the balance in Harrison’s favour when the Board of Longitude met to consider the clock on June 30, 1737.   Harrison was granted a loan of more money to enable him to construct an improved sea-clock H2.  The rest, as they say, is history.

1776, March 24th — 230 years ago, John Harrison died.  It is quoted that he died on his 83rd birthday but it’s unclear whether his birthday is given old or new style :  Britain had switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 during Harrison’s lifetime, and if his dates of birth and death are in the different ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles, then they really fall 11 days apart.  In any case, he didn’t live to hear about the events in Philadelphia in the July of 1776.  Harrison had continued to campaign to earn recognition for his achievements with H4, his first watch, for which he claimed the Longitude prize.  On its second trial, to Barbados, in 1764 H4 had performed three times better than required by the Act.  But the Board of Longitude never agreed with Harrison and never awarded the accolade.  They had granted half the prize in 1765, but it required the intervention of the king, George III, to get Harrison the rest of the money, via a special Act of Parliament, in 1773.   John ‘Longitude’ Harrison was buried in the churchyard of St John at Hampstead.  All his money (worth over £2 million in today’s values) passed to his son, William.   And William never made another watch.  He became a gentleman of leisure and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire, and did good works.   Sic transit gloria mundi.   270 years later, in March 2006, John Harrison was at last granted the public recognition he deserved with the unveiling of a memorial in Westminster Abbey.  It’s about time.

John Harrison 1693-1776


John Harrison there were two Harrison anniversaries in 2006 :

Turn over for two more 2006 anniversaries

The Centurion herself was soon to be famous as Commodore Anson’s flagship on his circumnavigation of 1740-1744 during the War of the Austrian Succession (King George’s War), when he took the Spanish Manila treasure galleon Neustra Senhora de CavadongaIt made him and all his (surviving!) crew rich beyond their wildest dreams.  Many didn’t survive.  Anson’s rounding of Cape Horn in 1741 has itself become a classic tale of the hazards of 18th century navigation — Anson couldn’t tell how far west he had sailed and turned north too soon, only to be faced by the fierce rocks of the Horn.  Later, after he had managed to round the Cape, he headed north to the latitude of Juan Fernandez Island where he planned to water and get fresh food.  Again, Anson estimated his longitude wrongly and turned east in error, away from the island.  He only realised his mistake when he raised the enemy coast of Chile and was forced to retrace his steps to gain the safety of Juan Fernandez Is.  It took Centurion from February 27 to June 9 1741, 102 days, to round the Cape and make Juan Fernandez — Centurion lost about 300 of her complement of 500, most to scurvy after fresh food ran out.  One supposes that when Anson later became First Lord of the Admiralty (1757-62), he was understandably sympathetic to what Harrison was trying to do for navigation.

The capture of the

Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga

by HMS Centurion, 20 June 1743.

© NMM London

Harrison’s first marine timekeeper H1  © NMM

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