I love to hear stories about people who are proved right, despite all the doubters telling them at the time they are wrong.
Just recently there was an extraordinary ceremony at the National Maritime Museum in London. The Guinness Book of records declared that a clock, that had been sealed in a large plastic container, to prevent tampering, was “the most accurate mechanical device with a pendulum” yet invented. During a one hundred day trial, the clock was accurate to within 5/8 of a second.
An interesting story you might think and we do all like to know about records being broken, but the most interesting thing for me is that the clock in question was designed more than 250 years ago and even more interesting than that it was designed by a man who came from round here. A man who was told by the establishment when he announced he could create such a device that he was “incoherent”, “absurd” and “showing signs of insanity.”
This man was John Harrison, the eldest of five children born in 1693, to a carpenter who worked at Nostell Priory.
John was a self-taught man who became a woodworker himself but after a childhood illness became obsessed with clocks and time-keeping.
The story goes that, at the age of six, when the young boy was in bed recovering from small pox, he was given a watch to amuse himself. The young John spent hours listening to it and even longer taking it to bits, studying it and putting it back together.
In 1707, an incident occurred far away from John’s life in Nostell, but it was to have bearing on what he did for ever after.
That year the British Navy suffered its worst ever disaster when four Royal Naval ships were wrecked off the Isles of Scilly with the loss of up to 2,000 lives.
The disaster was blamed on something that had been a cause of concern for mariners for many years, the inability to accurately tell on which line of longitude they were sailing. The British government of the time responded by offering a reward to anyone who could invent a device which could accurately tell longitude at a given point on the ocean.
Harrison devoted more than 30 years of his life to perfecting the ship chronometer and invented a device that could pinpoint longitude by comparing the set time along the Greenwich meridian with local time.
It was with this device that the other great Yorkshire adventurer
James Cook was able to steer a course around the world.
For some reason Harrison became a forgotten man, until the book “Longitude,” subsequently made into a film, reawakened interest in his work and these days he is seen as the genius that he was.
In a BBC poll to find the “100 Greatest Britons” Harrison takes his place alongside: Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
He lived to a good age and died on his 83rd birthday and is buried far from his West Yorkshire home in London. Before he died, John Harrison seemed to turn on his detractors and published a book in which he claimed to have invented a clock that could keep accurate time to within a second over a hundred days.
Again, as when he declared his chronometer, he was pooh-poohed, by those who thought they were in the know, scientists at the time agreeing that such a feat was impossible.
The London Review of English and Foreign Literature declared Harrison’s book “the most unaccountable production we have yet encountered.”
Last week in Greenwich, John Harrison was vindicated, a bit late in the day, but not before time.
His clock when compared to the most accurate device at the famous observatory ran just over half a second out over the designated period, even more accurate than its inventor had suggested more than 250 years ago.
In his younger years, Harrison made clocks exclusively from wooden materials, they still have one of his wooden clocks at Nostell Priory.
If you drive from Nostell toward Wakefield you will pass through the hamlet of Foulby. On the left is a house built on the site of the one Harrison was born in. There is a blue plaque on the wall.