John Harrison

Today is the anniversary of both the birth (1693) and the death (1776) of John Harrison. Harrison was a clock maker that figured out how to accurately determine longitude.

Mariners had been able to determine latitude, but not longitude. Because of this, they could not actually determine their location while at sea. This was a major problem. The British Parliament established a large monetary reward for the solution. The scientific minds of the day figured that the solution would be astronomical. Harrison decided to approach it as a time keeping problem. Even though he solved the problem, the scientists and politicians refused to recognize his accomplishment. They made him do extra work before they would declare him the winner of the prize. After waiting years, Harrison finally appealed to King George III. The King conducted his own experiments and declared that Harrison had achieved what had been required. Harrison received £8,750, but never received the official award. He died 3 years later on his 83th birthday.

Harrison’s story is recounted in the excellent book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, and also was told in a dramatic television show shown in the United States on A&E.

One of the best lessons of Harrison’s story is that the solutions to problems may not be found where we are looking. Not only could the “experts” of the day not solve the problem, but were also incapable of seeing the answer once it was solved because it didn’t conform to the answer they were expecting. Sometimes we need to search the unexpected to find solutions to our problems.

Another lesson is not to judge the quality of a person’s thoughts or actions by who you think they are. Let their actions speak for themselves. The scientists refused to think that a “mere” clockmaker could solve a problem that the “great” minds of the day could not solve.

Below are photos of 3 of Harrison’s time pieces, each an improvement on the model before.


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