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John Harrison’s Revolutionary Maritime Invention

Maritime History

Photo by Harrison H1 Clock Credit Flickr

John Harrison’s Revolutionary Maritime Invention

A simple invention that helped solve a maritime navigation issue:

You may have never heard the name John Harrison, but he belongs to the list of inventors who moved transportation forward.

Harrison was a clockmaker from England and he revolutionized long distance travel by sea. During Harrison’s day, traveling the open seas was one of the most dangerous things one could do. Harrison changed the course of seafaring forever by devising tools that would help sailors better navigate open waters.

The British Royal Navy had lost many ships at sea prior to the 18th century, and during the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707, four ships and 1,300 sailors were lost at sea. After that, British Parliament offered thousands of euros to anyone who could find a way to calculate longitude while at sea, which they thought was the best way to solve the problem of ships getting lost.

At the time, captains were able to calculate latitude at sea, but longitude had stumped them. Harrison, just a self-taught carpenter and amateur clockmaker, took up the challenge and came up with a solution. After seven years of hard work, in 1735, he created his—and the world’s—first marine chronometer. It’s said Harrison never “perfected the sea clock to his satisfaction,” but he certainly changed transportation for anyone who has ever traveled by boat or plane.

The story of Harrison’s H1 clock is that after testing it on smaller bodies of waters like rivers, he finally had the chance to test it at sea. Despite the crew having trouble early on in the voyage, the clock worked smoothly, and as a testament to his invention, Harrison actually saved the ship, which had traveled over 60 miles off course.

If you’ve ever tried to invent something, or create something, and felt like quitting along the way, you might learn a thing or two from good ole John Harrison.

Though his invention was helpful the first time, when Harrison brought his invention to the British Parliament and their Board of Longitude, they asked him to make a more accurate version of the device.

The inventor then spent the next two to three years working on a new version, that’s when he realized the “yawing” motion of a ship distorted the accuracy of his clock. Determined to make a more precise invention, Harrison spent the next 19 years completing his second design of the chronometer.

Harrison’s hard work would come full circle in 1751. He fashioned a smaller model of his life’s work that looked like a small pocket watch. A ship captain offered to buy the invention on the spot after Harrison had his son take the device along on a journey to Jamaica. The Board of Longitude, eventually, reimbursed the inventor for his years of work.

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Clock, John Harrison, Maritime Inventions, Navigation

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