John Harrison, an 18th century inventor whose marine chronometer greatly improved seagoing navigation and saved countless lives, is being honored today with our culture's highest civilian honor.

I'm talking, of course, about a Google Doodle.

It's hard to know the kind of man Harrison truly was, given that he died literally almost two and a half centuries ago.

Accounts suggest a truly stubborn, self-educated, workaholic genius, whose technological advances were entangled with problems exacerbated by his own lack of social skills----and who was ill-equipped to take much joy in his accomplishments.

"An eternal flame"

Harrison's invention took nearly 50 years to approach perfection, and it solved one of the great technological challenges of his time: how to accurately calculate longitude while at sea.

This was a massive challenge during his day, as inaccurate navigation led to calamitous shipwrecks. Calculating longitude required keeping precise track of time, and the watches and clocks of that era simply couldn't stay accurate during a long sea voyage.

The problem was important enough that in 1714, Parliament established a £28,000 prize for anyone who could come up with a solution----an amount that would be the equivalent to several million dollars today.

A self-taught clockmaker, Harrison devoted his life to the problem. Ultimately, as his biographer Dava Sobel summarizes, he "accomplished what Newton had feared was impossible: He invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world."

But no joy in his creation

Along the way, however, Sobel continues, Harrison "crossed swords with the leading lights of his day. He made a special enemy of the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the coveted prize money, and whose tactics at certain junctures can only be described as foul play."

There is a lot of tea leaf reading in piecing together Harrison's story, of course.

He wasn't sufficiently famous for others to chronicle his life contemporaneously in great detail. He went years at a time without keeping any diaries or other records of his life and work.

His first wife and two of his three children died without leaving any trace other than church records. There's no record that I can find of him expressing any happy emotions. 

A surviving portrait of him "which dates from about 1770, depicts the aging watchmaker's thin lips decidedly downturned," Sobel writes.

"To the detriment of his health"

And it's perhaps telling that in his entire biography, Sobel manages to cover Harrison's entire life and never once use the words happy, joy, or contentment in relation to Harrison.

Instead, he worked.

The only time the word "satisfaction" comes up: when Harrison is described as having decided, after four years of thought, that he might have an idea for solving the Longitude Problem worth pursuing. ("When he had thought out the novel contraption to his own satisfaction...")

During one 19-year stretch when Harrison worked on the third version of his "sea watch," according to Sobel, "he did nothing but work ... almost to the detriment of his health and family, since the project kept him from pursuing most other gainful employment." 

He apparently made only £2,500 over that entire two-decade stretch. 

As Sobel points out, it took only 10 years for man to reach the moon once we'd decided to make it a priority; the Suez and Panama canals each took 10 years to dig.

Harrison spent nearly 20 years working single-mindedly on a watch.

An unreasonable man

In fact, it was only after decades of fighting with the Parliamentary board, and literally asking England's King George III to intervene, that Harrison received any substantial financial reward for his lifetime of effort.

In 1773, at age 80, he was finally given £8,750. It was a sizable amount that allowed him to live his remaining years in financial comfort, but he seems to have remained tortured and bitter.

Two centuries later, playwright George Bernard Shaw came up with the perfect quote to describe people like Harrison: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

So rest in peace and enjoy your fleeting adulation, John Harrison: inventor, tortured genius, and we remember today, an unreasonable man.

Published on: Apr 3, 2018
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