The Harrison Confusion

What connects John Harrison, the inventor of the Marine Chronometer, and Warrington? 

If you’ve used the Google search engine today (3rd April 2018) you may have noticed that the Google Doodle is a picture of clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776) who would have been 325 years old today. Harrison was a British clockmaker who famously solved the ‘longitude problem’ by creating  a clock called a ‘marine chronometer’ which sailors could use to calculate their longitudinal position at sea. This was one of the most important navigational aids ever invented and made ocean voyages much safer as a result.

John Harrison’s name has long been associated with Warrington and regularly appears on lists of famous people associated with the town. Some time ago you would have been able to see a picture of John Harrison’s house and accompanying workshop in the museum and heritage guides to the town would point out the site of his premises on Bridge Street. There was even a metal sculpture at the corner of Bridge Street and Friar’s Gate in Warrington paying tribute to the clockmaker and his revolutionary chronometer.

So what connects John Harrison with Warrington?

The answer … sadly … is nothing. There is no evidence the clockmaker even visited Warrington, let alone lived in the town.

John Harrison was born near Wakefield in Yorkshire, the son of a carpenter and part-time clockmaker. Around 1700 the family moved to Barrow upon Humber in Lincolnshire. Fascinated with clocks and watches from the age of 6, John built his first longcase clock in 1713 at the age of 20 but it was for maritime clocks that John would become famous.

Following a naval disaster in 1707 in which four warships along with 550 sailors were lost at sea due to navigational errors a British Board of Longitude was established in 1714 to solve the problem of how ships could accurately calculate their longitudinal position at sea. The Board offered a prize of almost £20,000 (equivalent to almost £3 million today) to anyone who could create a device to overcome this problem and Harrison set out to solve the problem by creating a clock that was not affected by temperature, pressure or damp and could keep the time of the reference place.

In 1730 Harrison presented his prototype to the board who were sufficiently impressed to award him money to develop it further. His first working marine chronometer, nicknamed ‘H1’ was completed in 1736. Although it worked admirably Harrison refined the design at least three more times with the fourth and fifth versions (‘H4’ and ‘H5’) providing the template for marine chronometers that would be used up until the 19th century.

With developments in technology replacing the marine chronometer during the Victorian period John Harrison’s fame faded from view somewhat until two things brought his story to the fore again. In 1995 Dava Soubel wrote a book entitled ‘Longitude’ which brought Harrison’s story to the general public and became the first popular bestseller on horology (the study of clocks). The following year in Christmas special of the popular long-running sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ the long suffering main characters finally became millionaires after 15 years upon finding one of Harrison’s original chronometers in a lock-up.

Harrison died on 24th March, 1776, a few days before his 83rd birthday. He is buried in Hampstead along with his 2nd wife and son.

So why is John Harrison – a Yorkshireman who lived in Lincolnshire and who died in London – associated with Warrington?

The confusion seems to have arisen during the 19th century – the earliest reference we can find dates back to 1825 – when local antiquaries were compiling lists of famous Warringtonians and John’s name was somehow included for the first time. We do know that there was a Warrington clock-making family led by an Edward Harrison working in Warrington as early as 1769 making the two Harrisons roughly contemporary with each other. Our best guess is that some of our 19th century sources confused the two men.

The “fact” that John Harrison resided in Warrington was generally accepted well into the 20th century but unfortunately it appears that this is just a myth.

This article was originally posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018.