- Gould, R.T., Lieutenant Cdr , RN
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A clause in a General Supply Bill finally gave Harrison, without any further delays or trials, the second £10,000, which, legally and morally, ought to have been his more than ten years earlier. He did not live long to enjoy this final triumph, dying in his house in Red Lion Square, London, on March 24, 1776, in his eighty-third year. He is buried near the south porch of Hampstead Parish Church, where a long and garrulous epitaph, in the bad taste of the period, recounts his, services to horology.
His No. 5 timekeeper remained in private hands (it is now in the Guildhall), but his four earlier machines, including No. 4 the prizewinner, became national property in 1765. They were sent to Greenwich Observatory and there they remained until a few years ago.
When I first saw them in 1920, none was in going order. All four were dirty and damaged. Important parts of the three big machines were missing, and they were badly corroded. No. 1 in particular looked as though it had gone down in the Royal George and been on the bottom ever since. It was entirely covered, even the wooden parts, with a bluish green patina.
Their deplorable condition seemed scarcely in keeping with the undoubted fact that they were the first accurate marine timekeepers ever made – the life work of a great original genius. I determined, since there seemed little chance of any public money being expended on cleaning them, or of anyone else being found to do the work, that I would, provided I could obtain permission, undertake it myself. I did so, and began operations on No. 1 chronometer in the summer of 1920. Having got about 1¼ lb. of dust and verdigris off it with an ordinary hat-brush, I took it to pieces as far as I could, and cleaned each part separately. These were then lacquered to avoid further corrosion. It was extremely difficult to discover how it had ever been intended to work, since many quite large parts were missing.
Still, I was prepared to replace the missing parts as best I could, and get the machine going again. At the time, however, the authorities vetoed this. So after a year’s work No. 1 went back to the Observatory clean, but not in going order. Thus it remained for ten years. I next tackled No. 4, the winner of the £20,000. This was extremely dirty. The mainspring was broken and the escapement had been maladjusted by a chronometer-maker who cleaned the machine in 1890 for display at the Naval Exhibition. The whole work of cleaning and repair occupied about a year, after which the machine went back to Greenwich in good going order. I again cleaned and re-oiled it in 1935, since when it has been kept going continuously – as also has Kendall’s duplicate, which I cleaned at the same time.
In 1923 I took No. 2 in hand. Of the three big machines, this was in the best condition. Although it was dirty, only a few minor parts were missing. After having being dissected and carefully cleaned in detail, it was reassembled and adjusted by a laborious process of trial and error. In the summer of 1924 it was going again.
No. 3 chronometer, the most complicated of all the machines, took Harrison seventeen years to make. It took me seven years to overhaul. Twice interrupted by ill-health, the work was begun in 1924 and finished in 1931. Here the chief difficulty, apart from the fact that the machine contains several devices which are entirely unique, whose purpose was obscure, and of which essential parts were missing, was the almost complete inaccessibility of the parts requiring most adjustment, such as the escapements. No. 3 was set going again, however, in March 1931 and has gone uninterruptedly since.
Finally, I obtained permission in the summer of that year to complete my work by restoring No. 1 to going order again, if I could. It certainly looked a fairly formidable job – particularly since there were enough missing parts to fill a bucket. Many parts of the complicated “grid-iron” compensation were missing.
However, most of the machine was still there. With ten years experience behind me it was not particularly difficult to work out the size and shape of the missing portions. Early in 1933 I started assembling No. 1 with fair confidence that every part which was to be found in it when it first went out to sea two centuries ago was again there and working. In February 1933 I completed my final adjustments, and had the pleasure of seeing the machine going again for the first time since June 17, 1767, an interval of 165 years.
It is much to be hoped that the four Harrison timekeepers which belong to the nation will always be maintained – as, most certainly, is the present intention of the authorities – in going order, and going. Their importance in the history of navigation is difficult to exaggerate. They constitute the finest possible memorial, one far more appropriate than any statue or any tablet in Westminster Abbey could possibly be, to the memory of a man who made the whole world his debtor – a man who was most truly great.