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Future Tech: 

250 year old clock proven to be ahead of its time

Better late than never: ironically Clock B's vindication was delayed by 250 years. (Photo: British Maritime Museum)

Better late than never: ironically Clock B’s vindication was delayed by 250 years. (Photo: British Maritime Museum)

Isn’t it great to confound your critics and be proven right? It’s hard to think of anything to put a dampener on that, although having been dead for 239 years would probably do it.

And unfortunately for John Harrison, that’s exactly what’s happened. Although his peers derided him as being “little short of the symptoms of insanity”, his clock has finally entered the World Records Book under the (we imagine) not-too-hotly contested ‘Most Accurate Mechanical Clock With a Pendulum Swinging in Free Air’ category.

“It is a quite extraordinary achievement and a complete vindication of Harrison, who suffered ridicule over his claim to be able to achieve such accuracy,” said Rory McEvoy, curator of horology at the Royal Museums Greenwich.

How did it come to this?

John Harrison was a British clockmaker from the mid-18th century who specialized in marine chronometers which determine longitude for sailors at sea. However, towards the end of his life he published a book where he stated he could smash his rivals when it came to the accuracy of land-bound timepieces, stating he could build a clock that would be accurate to within a second over 100 days.

It was this claim that saw him ridiculed – The London Review of English and Foreign Literature described the book as “one of the most unaccountable productions we have ever met with”. The clock was dismissed, and Harrison eventually died. Of course he did – he was 83 in an era where the average life expectancy was less than half that, but he did at least die wealthy, unlike others not recognized in their lifetime. Nikola Tesla, for example.

Anyway, fast forward 239 years, and Harrison has been vindicated. His clock was made – to two different specifications – by artist and clockmaker Martin Burgess. Clock B has been fine-tuned, and after testing in temper proof conditions, was found to have lost just 5/8ths of a second in 100 days. Harrison was right.

It would take another hundred years from Harrison’s death for mechanical clocks to match this accuracy, so better late than never, Harrison’s genius can be appreciated. About time too.

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