John Harrison had a problem to solve.
And it was a good one. Ships were crashing into shores all over the world. Mariners didn’t know their right from their left. Shipping routes were being ruined, and fortunes were being lost. This was exactly the kind of problem that a problem solver like John Harrison loves hearing about. He was a woodworker, liked working with his hands, liked clocks and repairing them. And it turns out this problem, of ships crashing and sinking, was right up John Harrison’s alley. Because it had to do with location. And that had to do with time.
Time and location, as I learned while touring the Royal Naval Academy in Greenwich today, are inextricably linked. And not just in an Einsteinian relativity way, though of course they’re linked in that way, too. No, time and location are linked because time has to do with where the sun is in the sky. If the sun is up, that’s daytime, and if it’s down, that’s nighttime. If the sun is right above you, that’s noon, and time goes on from there. As you travel the earth, then, you’re not just moving in space — you’re also moving in time. That’s why it’s currently 7pm in London as I write this, and 11am in Los Angeles, even though I could call and talk with someone there in real time.
So here’s the problem that John Harrison decided to solve, in order to earn a 20,000 pound prize from the British crown itself: Sailors on ships around the world could look right up at the sun and instantly know what time it was where they were, but they couldn’t tell what time it was where they weren’t. In order to know how far they’d traveled from, say, London, they needed to know not only their own time, but the time from their home base. If they’d left London at noon and it was now noon where they were, just that information was no help. They needed to know that it was now 1pm in London — if that was true, then they’d been traveling for enough distance to put them one hour behind, and that would give them an exact location.
Well, that’s dumb, you might say. All they need is a clock. That’s exactly right: If they had a clock that kept London time, they could just check it against the time given by the sun where they were, and bingo, they’d be able to track their location perfectly. But that was Harrison’s problem: At the time, most clocks were pendulum-based, and a rocking pendulum on a rocking ship doesn’t keep time at all. Other types of clocks just weren’t accurate enough to keep time, and as a result, ships were crashing everywhere. They were misestimating the time they’d traveled, which made them misestimate their distance from shore, and thus they would run aground, costing shippers money.
So the British king and Parliament passed an act offering a reward, asking for a clock that worked on a ship, and was accurate to such a degree that sailors on sea could tell time, and thus their location, from it. Harrison loved clocks, worked well with wood, and really wanted that 20,000 pounds. So he got to work, and made this.
It’s called the H1, and I saw it in person today at the observatory. This is Harrison’s 1st generation iPod, if you will — it’s an astoundingly accurate clock that indeed does work on a ship. Instead of a pendulum, Harrison used two undulating bars with springs pushing them back and forth. There are four dials on the front, for hours, minutes, seconds, and days, and there are large gears inside built out of wood (Harrison, like all good problem solvers, knew how to use well what he did best). This clock went on a maiden voyage and predicted a ship’s movement more accurately than ever before. It wasn’t good enough to win the prize, but it was a breakthrough in engineering.
The H1 wasn’t good enough for Harrison — he got some money loaned to him, and went to work on a clock called the H2. This time, Harrison was a little more savvy — he hired other craftsmen to make parts for him (no wood, this time), and proudly proclaimed on a nameplate that the clock was made with money granted by King George II, not to mention that the clock was made by Harrison himself. The H2 was bigger and more elaborate than the H1, but it still included those two bars. It was an iteration on the first idea, not necessarily an advance on the problem.
The H2 might well have won the prize, except that a few things went wrong. First, Britain went to war with Spain, which put a delay on actually testing the clock out at sea — the country couldn’t send out a high-tech piece of equipment like that with the Spanish Navy wandering around. Second, Harrison himself decided he didn’t like the design: His two undulating bars had issues that he himself couldn’t get past.
So he went to work on the H3, a model much bigger than the other two that never actually got finished. He worked on the H3 so hard and for so long that he actually spawned two major inventions from it that we still use today, a strip made of two metals that bends when heated, and a caged roller bearing, which is a series of small ball bearings used in a joint. But despite all of this, the H3 never worked for Harrison. He himself grew tired of the clock, and got so frustrated with it that he gave up on it around 1750, seventeen years after he started working on H3, and nearly four decades after Parliament first offered the cash prize in 1717.
Before I go any farther, I should probably explain why I think this story is so great. I didn’t go to the Royal Observatory to learn about John Harrison — indeed, this morning I had no idea who he was. If you’d asked me, I would have guessed that he signed the Declaration of Independence or something (not true, being that he was British, not a politician, and died in 1776). I went to the Royal Observatory to see the Prime Meridian line, the exact location at which longitude is defined as 0 degrees. Greenwich isn’t just the home of Greenwich Mean Time, it’s also the home of navigation in general, and the point at which west meets east. It’s the edge of the world, essentially.
I did see that line, and the laser that shoots out of the small building there to mark it off, and the official clock which keeps GMT. I also saw lots and lots of old telescopes, and the buildings and grounds where the Astronomers Royal marked out the stars for the British government, and laid most of the groundwork for the Age of Sail.
But Harrison’s story grabbed me, while wandering through the museum there, because as soon as I started reading and hearing about it, I realized it was actually about something that I love very much: Technology. Harrison was a problem solver, a perfectionist, and, sure, a genius. But I love that he was a man who was handed a problem and just plain figured it out. I’ve done the same things Harrison has while programming, and while writing, and just looking at these clocks on display in the museum (the actual parts he assembled himself!), I was struck by the care he had not just for accuracy and function, but for beauty and concision. Have you picked up on my Steve Jobs comparison yet? I admire Steve Jobs and his work, and as of today, I would put John Harrison right up there alongside him. He seems like a man who loved technology, and, like me, loved coming up with and hearing about new ways to use it to solve problems.
After the H3 and its failure (again, failure in this case meaning multiple legendary inventions), Harrison decided to try a different tack: Pocket watches. Previously, his clocks had all been based on trying to translate larger pendulum clocks to working on the open sea, but since he’d began, pocket watches had gotten better and more accurate, and Harrison decided that maybe lubricating the mechanics with oil, and using smaller, more energetic pieces would do the trick.
The H4 is what he came up with. It’s Harrison’s iPhone, if you will — a completely different piece that broke right through the barriers he was trying to beat, and serves as a masterwork. Though it looks completely different from the H1, 2, and 3 (much smaller and more portable, with obviously much tinier parts), it was accurate enough to earn the prize and finally solved the problem Harrison had set out to solve.
Of course, the Board in charge of awarding the prize didn’t give it to Harrison right away — he had to meet all sorts of extra requirements, and in the end, only petitioning the King himself got Harrison the money he’d earned. That’s another story, and it’s probably more about how troubling bureaucracy is rather than the brilliance of invention.
But Harrison’s work served its purpose. With an accurate enough clock, sailors could tell their distance easily, and the shipwrecks (at least for that reason, anyway) stopped. Other innovators learned to make Harrison’s clocks easier and cheaper to make, and soon everyone could afford to keep a clock on their wrist or by the bedside table.
The problem then became making sure that clock was set to the right time, and that’s what led to the Greenwich Mean Time standard, which was delivered out first by hand, then by telegraph and telephone. Today, most computers actually use UTC rather than GMT, based on the movements of atomic clocks rather than where the sun is over Greenwich. These days, your cell phone gets a time signal automatically, and even wristwatches are accurate to within 10 seconds per year — more than enough to guide a ship around the world without problem. Greenwich still keeps time, and it’s still the name for that area’s time zone, but not too many people use the standard it set way back when.
I love Harrison’s story and its lessons, however. Get a problem, and use what you know to figure it out. When things get tough, back up and try a different tack. Never stop trying. Make things that are beautiful and work well. And when the time comes to claim your prize and land your own little piece of history, don’t even bother with the Bureaucrats. Go straight to the King.
I just wanted to also note that I ate at Subway here in Britain today — obviously, I have been trying to eat locally, because it’s pointless to travel halfway across the world and then eat the same junk I usually eat back home. But it’s Easter today, and I took half the day off just relaxing in my hotel room because it’s been a long week, so when I walked out of the Greenwich tube station and saw a Subway, I figured I might as well go with one of the comforts of home. You know, for research purposes.
Turns out it’s not quite the same. There was actually a Chicken Masala sub on the menu, and I almost wish I’d tried that one, but instead I went with the standard meatball sub, swiss cheese, peppers and onions. The meat was actually way better than anything I’ve had in America from Subway — more meaty for sure. The bread wasn’t quite as sweet though. Maybe no high fructose corn syrup, which was probably good.
If I had to choose one, well, I’d probably choose not to eat at Subway again. And it turns out I instantly regretted my choice — right across from the Subway was what looked like a really good Thai place. But I gave it a shot. A few people have told me to go to McDonald’s in France just so I can order a beer and a Royale with Cheese, but I boycott McD’s in the States already. Most likely, that’s the last I’ll have of American fast food franchises while overseas.
One more thing: The pictures I’m putting in these posts are simply for accompanying the writing. I’m posting all of the pictures I take to my Facebook account. So go over there if you want to see everything. I am not sure if you have to friend me to see them or not, but if you do, I will accept your friend invite. And your friendship.
Posted on Sunday, April 8th, 2012 at 2:35 pm. Filed under general.