We’re in low power mode for a few days due to spring break and Easter. Thanks for reading!
I’ve been going through the nearly 1,000 editions of Understandably going back a few years.
Some of my favorites are often ones I’d forgotten about. Here are abridged versions of two that have something in common: 18th century pioneers whose birthdays would have been right about now (one today, the other a few days ago), but who seem like they never actually had a happy birthday in their lives.
The moral of their stories: Enjoy the journey, because the payoff (even if highly useful) doesn’t always guarantee happiness.
Lewis Harrison, inventor of the “sea watch,” born 330 years ago today!
Playwright George Bernard Shaw 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.”
That was John Harrison. He spent nearly 50 years of his life on his invention, which solved one of the great technological challenges of his time: how to keep time at sea.
This was a huge problem in the 18th century. If you can’t keep accurate time during long sea voyages, you can’t calculate longitude correctly. That led to inaccurate navigation and calamitous shipwrecks.
So, in 1714, the British Parliament established a £28,000 prize for anyone who could solve the problem (equivalent of several million dollars today). A self-taught clockmaker, Harrison devoted his life to the invention.
We don’t know a ton about Harrison’s life, because he wasn’t famous enough until the end of it for anyone to notice him. He didn’t keep a diary or many notes (at least none that survived). His first wife and two of his three children died without leaving any trace other than church records.
What we do know, as biographer Dava Sobel summarizes, suggests a self-educated, workaholic savant with a complete lack of social skills, and an inability to take joy in his accomplishments. As Sobel put it:
Harrison “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, he “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”
Unless we have the entire picture wrong, there is no record of Harrison ever expressing any happy emotions whatsoever. In fact, since I downloaded the Kindle version, I can tell you that Sobel wrote an entire biography of the man without once using words like “happy,” “joy,” or even “content.”
Instead, Harrison worked. During one 19-year stretch, “he did nothing but work … to the detriment of his health and family, since the project kept him from pursuing most other gainful employment.”
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, he achieved his goal, invented the sea watch, and likely saved a lot of lives and many millions of dollars (okay, fine, pounds).
At age 80, in 1773, Harrison finally received some small recognition: an award in the amount of £8,750 from King George III. Then he died two years later, and he was completely forgotten for another hundred years, until a naval officer named Rupert T. Gould rediscovered and wrote about his work.
I don’t know if anyone ever said this to him during his lifetime, so: Happy Birthday John Harrison!
Second, Hannah Glasse, who would have just turned 315 a few days ago: basically the Julia Child or Martha Stewart of her time!
A groundbreaking 18th century author, Glasse was best-known for her wildly popular English cookbook, which was basically the first mass-market book meant for regular people (as opposed to chefs in opulent manors). I love this title and subtitle:
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Anything of the Kind Yet Published
But, her story is messy, starting right from birth. Our Hannah’s mother was also named Hannah, and her father was named Isaac. But, Hannah’s mother wasn’t married to Isaac; in fact, Isaac was married to another woman … but that woman (his wife) was also named Hannah!
And yet, all three Hannahs—mother, daughter, and spurned wife—lived together with Isaac, along with with Isaac’s two sons.
I have no idea if this was some kind of 18th century commune or open polyamory or just an old fashioned case of cheatin’, but we do know that our Hannah described her childhood as “wicked,” and ran away at age 15.
She soon married a “considerably older” Irish soldier, according to a 2011 book, A History of English Food, by Clarissa Dickson Wright), and they had 10 children. Five survived, and our Hannah was nearly 40 before she finally had the time to write the cookbook for which she would eventually become known.
A few notes:
She apparently set out to write the book as an entrepreneur first and an author second, as she was trying to support her family.
Glasse originally published pseudonymously, with the author credited simply as “A Lady.” I like to imagine this was to keep the news from her soldier-husband, but that’s pure conjecture; we don’t know why.
She included a radical step for the time in her recipes: Wash your vegetables before cooking them.
The book “did make her quite a lot of money,” according to Wright, but Hannah’s Irish soldier-husband died just after it was published, “leaving behind quite a lot of debt.”
She wound up having to sell everything she owned—including the copyright.
Ultimately, she spent time in debtor’s prison, and died in 1770, aged 62—outliving all but two of her children.
Happy endings were in short supply in 18th century Britain, I suppose.
But, if you’ve ever thrown a casual dinner party, or if you have a shelf full of cookbooks, or if you’ve never traveled to South Asia and yet you love Indian food (her book included a recipe “to make a currey the Indian way”), you might have Glasse to thank. So, happy belated belated belated to her as well.
Thanks for reading! Photo by Jamie Morrison on Unsplash. I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. During low power mode we usually skip the 7 other things section. It'll be back next week ... or maybe sooner!
Thank goodness all is well with Bill and he's just enjoying a break. I was worried.
Of the 100 greatest British, Harrison is ranked 39.