Restoring Harrison’s Timekeepers

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Restoring Harrison’s Timekeepers

Postby koimaster » January 26th 2018, 4:58pm

A good article well worth reading

An unscientific – to the point of being casual – survey of watchmakers over the years has reveal that John Harrison is the most highly regarded watchmaker of the past. Harrison This article about restoring his timekeepers appeared in IW Magazine in 2011. The editor who worked with me was Jonathan Bues. As proof that the world is small (at least the horological world) Jonathan and I are from the same town and attended the same high school.

Jonathan Betts may have the world’s best horological job. As Senior Specialist in Horology at the UK’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich, just outside London, Betts gets to spend months picking the brain of a genius: John Harrison.

As recounted in Dava Sobel’s bebestsellerLongitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Harrison created the first marine chronometer enabling sailors to determine their exact position at sea. Sobel’s book details Harrison’s battles with the Board of Longitude established by the British government in 1714 to dispense money for chronometer R&D and award a huge monetary prize to the successful inventor.

Today’s many watchmakers regard Harrison (1693 – 1776) as the greatest ever practitioner of their art. (See IW March 2010; History’s Greatest Watchmaker.)

Betts’ brain picking is not some ghoulish undertaking. Harrison’s brain and the rest of his body remain intact and untouched in a small London churchyard. For Betts picking Harrison’s brain consists of disassembling the four Harrison marine chronometers in the Observatory’s care: H1 (1737), H2 (1741), H3 (1759) and H4 (1760). Before reassembly every component is studied, measured, sometimes weighed, researched to determine its material, exact function and origins, and then photographed.

Other then some of the photography, Betts is doing the job entirely on his own. Along with his horological skills he approaches the assignment with insights acquired while writing two books: Harrison, a study of the man’s output packed with technical details and Time Restored, a biography of Rupert T. Gould who restored Harrison’s timekeepers in the 1920s and 30s.

Working on the Harrisons is part of a project begun in 2007 and due to finish in 2012, cataloguing the Royal Observatory’s collection of 210 marine chronometers.

“We want to produce catalogues of all of our navigation collection,” explains the 56-year-old Englishman. “We started with the globe collection, then sundials, then sextants, and then astrolabes. These four are now published and are big glossy things. The flagship of these catalogues is to be the one I am working now, the marine chronometers.”

And, to mix metaphors recklessly, the jewels in the crown of the flagship catalogue are Harrison’s timekeepers.

Most chronometers have only a few hundred components so Betts completes the cataloguing process in a day or two. Harrison’s timekeepers are far more complex. H1 has 5,500 including the 4,000 bits of the two fusée chains. H2, with only one fusée chain, has 2,160 pieces. Cataloguing both took six months. Betts estimates that cataloguing H3 and H4, which he plans to start in 2011 will keep him busy for four months.

“I’m doing the job really slowly and carefully,” says Betts, “to make sure we get as much out of the Harrisons as we can.” ... mekeepers/


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