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Who was John Harrison? Google honors revolutionary British clockmaker

In honor of what would have been British horologist John Harrison’s 325th birthday, Google featured a colorful time-stopping illustration of the famed clockmaker on its homepage Tuesday.

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Born in Foulby, Yorkshire, England in 1693, Harrison was a self-made carpenter who went on to become the first marine chronometer to calculate longitude at sea, an achievement that helped rescue countless sailors.

In 1707, 1,500 English sailors died off the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall. The tragedy was believed to have been caused by navigation errors. According to the Verge, seamen at the time still used the position of the sun or North Star in the sky to calculate latitude, but understanding longitude was much more difficult, resulting in those aforementioned navigational errors.

“Seeking to remedy naval disasters, the British government created the Board of Longitude in 1714, which offered a reward of £20,000 [about $28,000] to anyone who could devise a navigational instrument that could find the longitude within 30 miles of a sea voyage,” Google wrote in a blog post.

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According to Biography Online, even Sir Isaac Newton had doubted whether such a device could be created. 

“A good watch may serve to keep a reckoning at sea for some days and to know the time of a celestial observation; and for this end a good Jewel may suffice till a better sort of watch can be found out,” Newton once said. “But when longitude at sea is lost, it cannot be found again by any watch.”

Harrison created his first sea clock (H1) in five years, which was approved after a sea trial to Portugal but wasn’t deemed worthy enough for the Parliamentary prize.

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For the next 40 years, Harrison worked on perfecting his clock technology and design but eventually began working on a smaller sea watch series instead. His two sea watches (H4 and H5) proved reliable, yet again Parliament withheld the full prize.

Frustrated, Harrison enlisted the help of King George III, who urged him to petition for the prize and Harrison was eventually awarded £8,750 (approximately $12,000) for his achievements following successful trials. He was 80 years old by then and died a few years later on March 24, 1776 at age 82.

The full prize was never awarded to anyone, but Harrison’s revolutionary invention would go on to help countless sailors at sea. 


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