A 250-Year-Old Clock Claimed a World Record (And Vindicated its Maker)

By Chris Mills on at

Shortly before his death in 1776, eccentric British clock-maker John Harrison claimed to have designed the ‘perfect’ clock, one that would keep time flawlessly. His rivals and peers wrote it off as the boastings of a bitter, 80-year-old failure — but in modern-day light, Harrison has finally been proved right.

Back in the 18th century, Britain was at the height of its naval power and was looking for a better way to keep track of its ships at sea. In the days before GPS, celestial navigation was the only good way to get a positional fix, and celestial navigation relies heavily on time, which made owning an accurate clock a vital pursuit.

For most of his professional life, Harrison sought to build a watch that would meet the standards of the Royal Navy, winning a prize pot worth about £4 million in today’s money. Despite building a watch that (seemingly) met the standards, Harrison was never accepted by his peers, and never quite got the full payout.

But towards the end of his life, he designed a clock he claimed would be more accurate than anything else on the land, losing less than a second per 100 days. The designs were written off and forgotten until the 1970s, when clockmaker Martin Burgess found Harrison’s designs, and built clocks from Harrison’s blueprints.

And, according to the Guinness World Records people, Harrison’s claims were exactly right — in a test conducted at the beginning of this year, the clock was shown to lose just 5/8ths of a second in 100 days, making it the world’s “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air”. It’s a few years late, but Harrison certainly got the last laugh. [Guardian]