A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2010 Nov 6, 19:22 -0700
Alan, you wrote:
"Didn't see this particular film, but from what I have seen/read, Mr. Harrison it appears was poorly treated, or put bluntly, screwed over by those in power.
It did seem that King George sort of "put the thing to rights", in that he ordered payment to Harrison, if I understood correctly. Better late than never, though it remains that Harrison, despite his efforts and contributions, was poorly treated by his country, his reward coming near the end of his life."
But was he "poorly treated" or "put bluntly, screwed over"? Let's look at the facts of his treatment.
First, John Harrison was certainly treated as an outsider and something of a curiosity by the so-called "establishment" of science in England in the 18th century, but this was hardly unusual. The "sciences" or "natural philosophy" were still very much the arena of hobbyists back then (at least from a modern perspective they most closely resemble "hobbyists"), and there were many eccentrics doing interesting work. The stark distinction between insiders and outsiders that we perceive from a modern perspective was much less clear in the 18th century. Sure, Harrison was an outsider, but he could still approach and communicate with the top "insiders" of science with little more than a few words of introduction.
Next, Harrison was lavishly rewarded for his work both financially and symbolically. The former is well-known, but let's not forget that in 1749 John Harrison was awarded the "Copley Medal" which was a prestigious honor from the Royal Society, arguably the most important scientific body of the era. Just browsing a list of other prize winners, it's worth noting that in the previous year, the Copley Medal was awarded to James Bradley, the Royal Astronomer at that time and one of the founders of modern astronomy. Four years after Harrison, the medal went to Benjamin Franklin for his experiments on electricity and lightning. A year before Harrison died, the medal was awarded to Nevil Maskelyne, then the Royal Astronomer and Harrison's nemesis, and the year after that it went to James Cook (not for his amazing navigation and Pacific explorations, but for his cure for scurvy). The Copley Medal was quite an honor. It's impossible to count that as poor treatment.
Of course, John Harrison really wanted the Longitude Prize, not some Medal, both for the great financial reward and also for the inestimably greater prestige of being known as the man who had "found the longitude". Though his trials with his time-keeper had met the narrow limits of the terms in the Longitude Act, the members of the Board of Longitude insisted on more tests and, above all, they insisted that Harrison prove that his techniques and inventions could be applied generally. This was a simple and sound requirement: prove that the device is not a fluke, prove that it is a general solution to the problem of longitude. If he could do that, they would award him the second half of the 20,000 pounds (the half already paid was widely understood to be a substantial fortune). Unfortunately, Nevil Maskelyne, who clearly distrusted the "mechanical" solution to the problem of longitude and prefered the astronomical solution of lunars, which he worked so hard to perfect, raised rather bizarre objections about the rates of the time-keepers which suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of their practical operation. To John Harrison, it all seemed like a conspiracy...
Near the end of his life, Harrison seems to have become increasingly paranoid. No doubt, he would have explained that this was because "everyone is out to get me". And that's the trouble with people exhibiting paranoid behavior --sometimes everyone IS out to get them! Were they? Or was some of it in his mind, a product of his own bitter interpretation of events? Harrison's own accounts of how poorly he was treated have come to be accepted by many people as simply factual, rather than ambiguous, personal, and emotional. Though she certainly wasn't the only one to do so, Dava Sobel in her excellent book "Longitude" most famously took his side, flew his banner, and stumped for his party. But she wasn't the first by any means, and today with the advantage of online resources, we can easily dig back to the original sources that led to this rather lopsided view. A large portion of Harrison's account of his "poor treatment" was published by his grandson (I think) in 1835 in a small book entitled "Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III" which you can download or read online at Google Books here:
The stories here should be broadly familiar from Sobel's "Longitude" and other sources. The author on the title page is listed as "Johan Horrins" which is an anagram of "John Harrison". This is the gossip-filled, tell-all story --Harrison's opinion of events as they had gone down with some commentaries from his grandson. The title is a tribute to the king's end-run around the Board of Longitude's authority. It's an excellent source for John Harrison's own perceptions.
No matter how we slice it, John Harrison was a very strange man, as driven, creative people often are. When asked to explain his time-keepers, he would use the opportunity to explain his invention of a musical scale which had no lasting significance, but to him it was extremely important. Harrison was a poor communicator, amazingly bad at writing prose (as Sobel, too, points out), and his distracted, muddled explanations may have seemed deliberate deceptions in the period. I don't think it's surprising that he made enemies. It's just a shame that the Board of Longitude and his other advisors did not find a better way to manage his work. The product of his ideas and inventions could have been brought into practice at a considerably earlier date if it had been given greater priority.
So was John Harrison "screwed over"? Personally, I consider the evidence mixed. He was lavishly rewarded both financially and with the prestige of the Copley Medal, long before things turned sour. But the final delays were to some extent unfair and unquestionably drawn out by Nevil Maskelyne's own callous, ill-tempered behavior. To that extent Harrison was certainly "poorly treated". The abrasive interaction between Harrison and Maskelyne may well have delayed the advancement of the technology of "time-keepers" by a decade. It's a shame Maskelyne didn't have the wisdom to recuse himself from the whole matter. It's a shame that no one else overseeing the Board of Longitude had the wisdom to separate those two opposing personalities.
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