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John Harrison: The Yorkshire carpenter who changed history

Updated on August 15, 2015
John Harrison.The Yorkshire carpenter who changed history.
John Harrison.The Yorkshire carpenter who changed history. | Source

The Yorkshire carpenter & clockmaker who changed the world

John Harrison wasn't an educated man.

But back in eighteenth century England, he solved the largest and most pressing problem of the day.

His invention saved countless lives, it had a huge impact on the economy and benefited not just England but all of mankind. Unbelievable? No, true

It still benefits us today. His story is one of adventure, conflict and determination. This exciting and fascinating tale is now available on DVD and is a must for any collection.

Admired by me ... and Neil Armstrong

For couple of years when I lived in Yorkshire, I dealt in antique clocks. I soon learned about John Harrison and saw one of his longcase clocks at Nostell Priory (a stately home).

Neil Armstrong? Yes, the man who first walked on the moon, shortly after that momentous event, dined at 10 Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister.

He made a toast to John Harrison, declaring that without his eighteenth century discoveries and navigational inventions, space travel would not have been possible. Now that is praise indeed.

The problem of longitude

I apologize if you were expecting something more exciting, but this was an enormous problem in days gone by and this is truly a fascinating and insightful true story of the man who literally opened up the world.

Sea-faring in those days was dangerous, inexact and cost the world not just a great deal of money, but countless lives. The problem, the lack of any method for those at sea to calculate longitude, was causing so much strife that the British government - and this shows you how serious this problem was - offered a cash reward to anyone who could solve it.

In the currency of today, this was the equivalent of over four million US dollars.

The marine chronometer

Although he was self-educated, Harrison made a living as a carpenter who taught himself to also make clocks. He was obsessed with creating the ultimately accurate timepiece. When he heard of the challenge, he believed that he could develop the solution and embarked upon the creation of the marine chronometer.

Taking time for granted

Today, if we want to know the accurate time, we glance at our computers or cellphones. Most people I know who still wear wristwatches wear them as jewelry now and not for their function.

But imagine the problems of creating a timepiece that would function aboard ship, anywhere in the world, in any weather, with all the changes of temperature and barometric pressure ... with the facilities of the eighteenth century at your disposal. Imagine now that the establishment ridicules your attempts and that it takes you thirty years to finally develop the marine chronometer.

A truly fascinating story.

An unknown hero

Until this film was made,many people simply weren't aware of the existence of the man who had opened up the world - and beyond - for exploration.

Many have still not heard of the man who, it could be said, changed history. (This is not somuch the case in Britain though.In 2002 the BBC had a poll to discover to top one hundred greatest Britons and Harrison was judged to be number thirty nine. No mean feat in view of the competition).

And yet it was Neil Armstrong himself who gave the credit to John Harrison for the fact that he walked on the moon. I know of no other person who received this accolade from him.

They were born two hundred and thirty seven years apart. And coincidentally there were two hundred and thirty nine years between Harrison's first marine chronometer and Armstrong's moonwalk.

See a clip

The film intersperses the true story of John Harrison with the added character of a man from the early twentieth century who is obsessed with Harrison's work and determined to allow him the posthumous honors he deserves.

© 2013 Jackie Jackson


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