Hero Harrison the Horologist

Who is John Harrison? Why is the Longitude Prize Important?

The Longitude AMR seed prize is a £10 million fund available to researchers at every stage of their scientific career, from all different disciplines. The prize is searching for ideas to overcome antibiotic micro bacterial resistance, a global problem that is only set to get worse. The venue for the launch (the newly located Clockmaker’s Museum on the third floor of the Science Museum) is the perfect place for innovation- John Harrison is a celebrated British Thinker. To kick of the launch, Dame Sally Claire Davies, DBE, FMedSci, FRS, talks us through the motivation behind the initiative; backed up by a lot of frightening facts. Dame Sally Davies is the Chief Medical Officer for England- but more importantly, a classmate of my mother’s at medical school!

When we go to the GP (or to the kitchen in my over medical family), we only feel validated as patients when we get some kind of medical treatment. Living in a family of doctors, this means I don’t feel like I’ve been looked after if I haven’t been given any tablets by lunchtime. The current patient culture means that 33 % of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily, often for conditions like throat infections where only 10 % respond to antibiotic treatment anyway. Antibiotics account for more than 50 % of global prescriptions and make up 25 % of the counterfeit drug market. Dame Davies is calling for point of care rapid diagnostics, and using the sponsorship of NESTA to develop and nurture ideas. Their plan is to cultivate creativity from diverse inter-disciplinary teams, who may not be able to get conventional funding. They are to raise awareness and spar innovation, supporting the innovative out-of-the-box thinking that isn’t widely recognised in modern day society.

As part of the launch, we were even shown around the new Clockmaker’s Gallery in the science museum by some of the biggest names in horology. We hear from them about the genius of Harrison: the determination and head-strong pioneer who had very little science capital but made big things happen. There’s fifteen of us are standing silently in absolute awe as we hear of Harrison’s heroism. With the discovery of the pendulum in the 1600s, scientists knew we could keep time, but keeping time in the rolling waves of the sea was another matter. The world was obsessed with sea travel: merchants, adventurers and pirates taking to the waves. But sea travel was dangerous: when you’d lost sight of land, it was impossible to know where you were. It’s pretty easy to know where you are on the N – S axis by charting the position of the sun in the sky, but longitude (where you are E – W) requires a knowledge of time at sea. By 1700, almost no one believed a sea clock could be made – Isaac Newton thought it was most unlikely. There were two problems with taking a clock to sea: a lack of oil and the fact that materials expand in different temperatures.

How would Harrison overcome this? Well, he’d get rid of oil for a start. Harrison was one history’s great lateral thinkers. He knew metals contacted and expanded by different amounts, so performed the most basic and brilliant of scientific experiments: hanging strips of different metals on his door and measuring them in and out of the sun. As a carpenter, Harrison was familiar with the woods of the world, and turned instead to naturally oily tropical woods. Using his unrivalled understanding of metal expansion, he coined a bimetallic pendulum comprised of alternating parts of brass and steel- if one expanded the other could contract. Unsurprisingly, there’s more to taking a clock to sea than oil and metal expansion. There’s also the temporary weightlessness the clock (and associated springs/ pendulums) feels when it moves from the crest of a wave to a trough. In the end, it took Harrison 5 years to produce the first generation sea clock (H1). It very very nearly worked: as did H2 and H3. Whilst Harrison’s complicated collection of springs and balances were appreciated by the sailing masters; they didn’t vibrate quickly enough to keep time. Harrison’s H4 was a true “sea watch”, with perfectly cut diamond blades. Diamond is super stable, and a spring along the hands made sure the vibrations were kept in check. The sea watch was a dream, losing only 24 seconds over 9 days. Harrison was not celebrated by the government, so when aged 79 he completed H5, he went to the King directly. Harrison took his watch for a trial at King George III’s private observatory. H5 went on trial, and after a false start (King George kept his private magnet stash too close to the watch) it performed brilliants. King George remarked: “… these people have been cruelly wronged… by God, Harrison, I will see you righted!”.

The exciting story doesn’t stop with the death of Harrison. The timepieces lived on, moving between, merchants, collectors and royalty. The sea watch found itself in an antique shop in Hull, which was badly hit during the Hull Blitz in 1941. The shop burnt for 10 days and despite being stored in a safe, the watch (containing Harrison’s perfectly cut diamond blades) was blackened.

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