About time

Man spends his entire life on something, and the world forgets. But then remembers. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw famously wrote:

“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."

On the occasion of what would have been his 328th birthday, let’s talk about an extremely unreasonable man: John Harrison, inventor of the “sea watch,” or the “marine chronometer.”

Harrison spent nearly 50 years of his life on his invention, which solved one of the great technological challenges of his time: how to accurately calculate longitude while at sea.

Inaccurate navigation led to calamitous shipwrecks, because calculating longitude required keeping precise track of time, and the watches and clocks of the pre-Harrison era simply couldn't keep accurate time during long sea voyages.

This was a massive challenge, so important that in 1714, the British Parliament established a £28,000 prize for anyone who could come up with a solution (equivalent of several million dollars today).

A self-taught clockmaker, Harrison devoted his life to the invention. But more than three centuries later, Harrison is a cipher.

He wasn't sufficiently famous during his lifetime for others to chronicle him in great detail, which now seems horribly ironic, since his entire life was devoted to keeping time.

He went years at a time without writing diaries or keeping notes of his life and work. His first wife and two of his three children died without leaving any trace other than church records.

What we do know of him suggests a self-educated, workaholic genius whose technological advances were overshadowed during his life by a complete lack of social skills, and an inability to take joy in his accomplishments.

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."

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’s no record that I can find of Harrison expressing any happy emotions whatsoever. 

A surviving portrait from 1770 "depicts the aging watchmaker's thin lips decidedly downturned," Sobel writes, and thanks to word search, we know that Sobel managed to write an entire biography of Harrison without every once using words like “happy,” “joy,” or even “contentment.”

Instead, Harrison worked. During one 19-year stretch, according to Sobel, "he did nothing but work ... 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 time. 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 multiples of that working single-mindedly on a watch.

But, the invention worked. And Harrison finally achieved some small recognition in 1773, at age 80, when, after decades of fighting with Parliament and then petitioning King George III to intervene, he received a financial reward for his lifetime of effort: £8,750.

Harrison only lived two more years after that, but even though his invention revolutionized maritime travel, he was almost completely forgotten for more than a century, until a naval officer named Rupert T. Gould rediscovered and restored his work about 100 years ago.

Posthumous recognition followed. A BBC list of the 100 great British heroes as of the start of this century included Harrison, listed alphabetically after George Harrison and before Stephen Hawking.

He also later received our culture’s highest civilian honor, a Google Doodle in 2018.

(Obviously, I’m joking about how important a Google Doodle is; I just like to think of how many other things you’d have to explain to someone from the 18th century like Harrison before he could possibly understand what a Google Doodle is.)

Still, it’s pretty cool. So, happy birthday John Harrison, rest in peace, and enjoy your fleeting adulation: an inventor, a tortured genius, and as we remember today, a proudly unreasonable man.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Friday was the busiest day for U.S. airports since the start of the pandemic more than 13 months ago, even while “health experts warned that rising COVID-19 rates across the US could continue to surge.” TSA agents scanned almost 1.6 million people at U.S. airports, “the most since March 12, 2020.” (NY Post)

  • Disney World says it’s dealing with a number of guests who either refuse to wear masks or to have their temperature taken before entering the park. Most recent: A Louisiana man who spent $15,000 on a vacation but then refused a temperature check was arrested for trespassing and led away in handcuffs. (Orlando Sentinel)

  • The Guantanamo Bay detention center remains open, but the U.S. military closed the most secretive and controversial part of the facility. Camp 7, which held five prisoners charged with war crimes for allegedly planning and providing logistical support for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was shuttered recently, the military revealed, with its prisoners transferred elsewhere on the base. There are 40 prisoners in total still at Guantanamo. (NBC News)

  • “Hundreds of residents in Manatee County, Florida, were ordered to evacuate their homes over Easter weekend as officials feared that a wastewater pond could collapse ‘at any time.’” (CBS News)

  • Phone numbers, user. IDs, names, locations, birthdates, and email addresses are among the data for 500 million Facebook users found on a website for hackers. Among the names: Mark Zuckerberg. “This is old data that was previously reported on in 2019,” Facebook said; still, I don’t know about you, but I have the same name, phone number, birthdate, etc. that I had in 2019. (AP)

  • A random guy crashed USC football practice, got ahold of a helmet and practice jersey, and started catching punts for a while before anyone realized he’s not on team. He was escorted away by security and likely got in some trouble, but he also got a pretty good story out of it, if you ask me. (Inside USC)

  • Here’s what it looks like when 1,000 dolphins in a “super-pod” stampede ride alongside your charter boat. (SF Gate/Instagram; photo below might open in new link)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Flickr. I’ve written about Harrison before at Inc.com. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.

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