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Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms/Appendix 2

< Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms

No. 2.



Finding it impossible to obtain justice from the Board of Longitude, and therefore vain to hold any further intercourse with it, I am emboldened to make this last effort for preserving the benefit of my Father's Invention to this country; requesting a few minutes of your attention; and if I durst flatter myself that you could with propriety lay my case before His Majesty, I should have no doubt but the nation would be relieved from the imputation of violated faith, and that an Invention so important to science, to commerce and to naval greatness, would still find a Protector.

Impelled by the irresistible bent of his genius, my Father (in a remote part of the country, and under circumstances most unfavourable) had for many years devoted himself to the improvement of clock-work, before he even knew of the existence of a reward for discovering the Longitude; and so long ago as the year 1726, he had invented and executed the gridiron pendulum, and made a regulator which has gone from that time to this without ever erring more than a second in a month. For pretty near the last half century, his life has been solely spent in adapting the principles of his clock to the motion of a ship, upon the faith of the Act of Queen Anne: and from the time I became capable of doing any thing, to the age of forty-three years, I have been wholly employed in the same manner.

Till about the year 1761, we had no difficulties to encounter besides those which nature threw in our way; for until the Invention was brought to maturity, we were happy in the uniform countenance and protection of the Board of Longitude; but no sooner was it evident that we had succeeded, than by a strange fatality that Board turned against us, and has ever since acted, as if it had been instituted for the express purpose of preventing our Invention from being made useful to mankind.[1]

In 1761, we demanded and obtained the ultimate trial, prescribed by the Act of Queen Anne, viz: a voyage to the West Indies.—By appointment of the Commissioners of Longitude, I went to Jamaica with the Watch, which kept its Longitude considerably within the nearest limits prescribed by that Act. However when the Commissioners were called upon to certify the fact, they were pleased to declare the contrary. We desired copies of those calculations made by their order, upon which their decision was founded; which were refused; nor were we ever able to come at the calculations, either by official applications or private favour, till several years afterwards, when they were ordered to be laid before the House of Commons; and it then appeared, two of them were absolutely inconclusive, proving neither one thing nor another, and that the third decided in our favour.

In the mean while we had consented, for the sake of removing every possible scruple, to trust our title to the reward, to the success of a second voyage,[2] which I accordingly made to Barbadoes, in the year 1764, under the appointment of the Commissioners; but, seeing the cavils which were raised against the former voyage, I requested that a paragraph might be added to my instructions, to the effect, that those instructions being fulfilled, we were without further difficulty to receive our reward. Lord Sandwich, who presided at that Board, replied, that it would be mere tautology, for the very giving of the instructions purported the same thing.—The performance of the Watch was such, that the Commissioners were forced to certify that it had kept the Longitude within a third part of the nearest limits required by the Act of Queen Anne, viz: within ten miles: but instead of issuing the reward, which they were then by law compellable to do,[3] they applied to Parliament, and obtained an Act taking away our right acquired by forty years labour under the old law, acquiesced in during that time by numberless acts of their own Board, and subjecting us to new conditions, undefined and discretionary.[4] We were at that time ignorant of the nature of Parliamentary applications, without money, and with few friends, browbeaten by one set of men, betrayed by another, and so lost the opportunity of petitioning each branch of the Legislature against the passing of so injurious a law.

After much difficulty respecting the discovery of the principles and construction of the Watch, we at length obtained £7,500, being the remainder of the first half of our rewards (the other £2,500 having being advanced to us, and actually spent in making the experiments and trials:[5]) after which the Commissioners thought proper to take all the Machines, hitherto made, out of our hands, to lock them up at Greenwich,[6] and to refuse us the use of the last made one, to serve as a model for the different parts to be made by other workmen.— It took up eighteen months to get the determination of the Commissioners, what number of other Watches they expected to be made, under the new Act. After which time, they told us they would be satisfied with two, and if they were made by other workmen, it would be so much the more agreeable to the spirit of the last Act, which had been grounded upon a doubt whether other people could make them.—It has been hitherto impossible to get them to fix any determinate mode of trial with which they will be satisfied. They did indeed propose in 1767 that the new Watches should be tried for ten months under Mr. Maskelyne's care at Greenwich, and for two months in the Downs, but they refused to specify what degree of exactness they expected even during that trials or whether they expected the Watch should now, for twelve months, not err more than that Act of Queen Anne had allowed for a voyage of fire or six weeks: and they also would not promise to abide by the result of such trial.[7]

Trusting however to the ultimate justice of our country, and desirous of vindicating our fame, we set about making another Timekeeper, and have prosecuted it more as a study of the different ways in which the operation may be abridged and improved, than with a view of getting the Watch completed a few months sooner, or later: and in the success of our researches we have found some consolation for the injuries heaped upon us.—Mr. Kendal has during the same time, made by order of the Commissioners, an exact copy of our old one; which we have had no opportunity of examining, but are informed, and believe, it is just as good as the original:[8] and while we were only waiting for some cold weather to finish some experiments we wanted to make, meaning afterwards to apply once more to the Board for some reasonable trial of Mr. Kendal's and our new one, as the two required by the last Act, we were apprized of the intention of the Board, to send Mr. Kendal's upon the expedition with Messrs. Banks and Solander.—Upon this occasion, I stated by letter to Lord Sandwich, the general history of what had passed. The impropriety of sending Mr. Kendal's Watch upon that expedition, when our old one would just answer the same purpose, and Mr. Kendal's would, by ascertaining our right, facilitate the bringing of the Invention into general use; and offering to agree to any mode of trial, by men not already proved partial, which should be definite in its nature, conclusive as to establishing our reward, in case of success, and in any degree near the limits of the original Act, in point of duration and exactness. And I also took the liberty to observe to his Lordship, that the instructing one excellent workman to make the whole with his own hands, was not the way to bring the Invention into general use, and pointed out to him an effectual method for that purpose.—This letter was laid before the Board; and I was told, in answer to it, that we must make another Watch before the Commissioners would appoint a trial, for they always understood the two were to be made by us; and, that as to a mode of trial, they had already determined upon one (which is above recited) and saw no reason to alter their opinion.—There was no mistaking the intention of the Board when thus explained,—and I told them, as the truth is, that we shall never give them any more trouble.

After the experience we have had, I humbly conceive that it would be absurd in me, as it is impossible for my Father, who is on the verge of fourscore years of age,[9] to attempt to risk the matter any further through the same channel.—If His Majesty would be graciously pleased to suffer our new-made Watch, to be lodged for a certain time in the Observatory at Richmond, in order to ascertain and manifest its degree of excellence, I should hope that the prejudices of many might thereby be vanquished, and that it would become easy to obtain redress.

I humbly beg pardon for the liberty I have herein taken, but I conceive it a duty I owe my King and Country, to make this representation: and in acquitting myself thereof, I beg leave to subscribe myself, Sir,

Your most obedient

and humble servant.


Red-Lion- Square,
31st, 1772.


  1. The necessity of generalizing his statement, precluded the insertion of what we find in his pamphlet, that "far the greater part of the Commissioners" (meaning the Admirals and the Civilians, except Lord Morton) "were perfectly innocent of the treatment he had met with."
  2. Here he steps over the separate Commission, the sequel of which had so much share in his future troubles, by the unintentional affront given to that weak but irritable northern peer, the Earl of Morton.
  3. With that knowledge, it becomes in a manner impossible to divest the refusal of the reward, of the meanest private and personal motives. The case of John Harrison besides, becomes remarkably illustrative of Lord Chesterfield's favourite position—that the ostensible purposes of public men are seldom consistent with their real drift.
  4. This discouraging, or we should say, this disheartening uncertainty, was transferred by Lord Morton to his own bill from the sixth of those abortive resolutions, under the 2nd George 3rd, which were likewise his own, and ordered that when the explanatory Watches (as they might have been called) were finished, "they shall be tried in such manner as the Commissioners shall judge proper."—As this latitude of interpretation perfectly assimilated with the views of the Lunar junta (who, by the subsequent acknowledgment of Dr. Shepherd, never intended that the Mechanics should benefit by the 14th George 3rd) it was embodied by them in the clause we have quoted from. But does not the illiberal conduct of these scientific tilters, show them vulnerable in their own armour: since, exclusive of a deficient headpiece here and there (according to Dr. Knox) "These Professors of abstract sciences" showed that the philosophy of human nature was a branch of metaphysics, in which John Harrison, unlearned as he was, far excelled the Gownsmen, when he said, in a letter to the Board, May 24th, 1766, "I am ready to execute your commands; but no man chuses to begin a journey, or to enter upon any piece of work, without some view where it shall end."
  5. This may much surprise Mr. Croker, whose want of experience on the subject, when, in 1818, he introduced his bill for consolidating the several Acts of Parliament connected with the Longitude, led him to advert to "Mr. Harrison having being so fortunate as to receive £4,000 more than the Act of Queen Anne contemplated;" which he, mistakenly imputes to the confusion among the several Acts of Parliament relating to the Longitude (but of this anon.) Either for want of leisure, or from relying on the report of a clerk, he includes in this sum what was advanced as an outfit to the younger Harrison for the two voyages; which as the Astronomers employed were considered in the same way, could not be fairly reckoned as any part of the reward. Another advance was to indemnify the Candidate for his expenses in procuring the Act under which the separate Commission had sat. These ought in all reason to have been defrayed by Lord Morton, who was the sole cause of rendering that measure entirely useless. But, so it is, Mr. Croker will find this expense included in that of the outfit for the Barbadoes voyage, 9th August, 1768, which with that for the former trial, extends these items to £550; and this reduces the overplus, he states, by that sum which leaves £3,450. Supposing the reward to have been paid after the return from Jamaica; as it would have been in the general belief, had not the Lunar party, when his success threatened to clap an extinguisher on their expectation, resorted to the daring injustice of refusing him a check on the computations. Now if the interest of one moiety of the reward, taken at 3½ per cent., is reckoned for ten years; and that of the other for two; no such good luck can be deduced, for the money thus lost, amounts, with a few pounds extra, to the sum just named. Mr. Kendal informs the Commissioners (11th April, 1766) that he has set aside his private business for two years, to be better enabled to complete his engagements with them: but there is nowhere any trace of a comparison in this important particular, between the case of the contractor and that of John Harrison—who had impliedly coyenanted with the Legislature, that if he conformed to certain conditions, as they were uniyersally understood, he should receiye the premium stipulated by the contract. To which end, he certainly set aside his private business, not for two years only, but for an indefinite period, which was extended through his life, after he had given up his mind to the absorbing question of the Longitude: which being premised, it is but fair to enquire what his earnings might have been (certainly with more comfort to such a quiet man as he was) if instead of pursuing the ignis fatuus into which the enmity and meanness of opponents possessing a power without appeal (except to Parliament) had converted the solution of this problem, he had taken up and prosecuted with his habitual industry the trade of constructing clocks for mathematical purposes. The superior reputation, and the consequent high price of his works, both here and on the continent, justify us in allowing him forty-four years, 'communibus annis, £600 of the currency then; but to be on the safe side, we will say £500. His Son is stated to have assisted him twenty-five years, but we will say twenty; and if we give him half as much as his Father, which, under so able an instructor, he could scarcely fail to earn, the calculation from these data results in £27,000. This excess of 3,000 above the 24 stated to have been received, we will deduct for bad debts, or any casualty Mr. Croker may object (though we can think of none like those which were so near sending William Harrison, with the Timekeeper, to the bottom in the Merlin.) Now we assert that whoever knew John Harrison, would immediately have said, that no consideration on earth could have tempted him to arrive at the same point of recompense through those hateful scenes in which he had to contend with such objectionable characters as any man becomes who is not ashamed to sit in judgment on his own cause—an oppression from which this worthy citizen, as well as scientific and enterprising genius, was finally relieved only by the interference of George 3rd. Had Mr. Croker lighted on the Journal often referred to, and seen a passage in it, we may reckon sure, that his notion of the profitable speculation of the Candidate and his Son, would have been altered much for the worse. Nay—the reward doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, would have left him no desire to share a modicum of such good fortune.
    When Mr. Harrison went on board the Merlin, Captain Bourke, who commanded her, advised him to place the Timekeeper on the counter, or after-part of the ship, in the cabin; his reason for this, was, that if they should fall in with a hard gale of wind, that, he said, would be the likeliest place in the ship to be dry. After they had been at sea about three weeks, they fell in with a hard gale of wind; and the ship sprung a leak. The wind continued to blow exceedingly hard, with little interruption, for upwards of three weeks; during which time it was with the greatest difficulty that Mr. Harrison was able at some times to keep the salt water out of the box which contained the Timekeeper; for it blew so hard that they were forced to lay to for the most part; and the ship at those times would receive such violent shocks by the breaking of the waves against her quarter, that the Timekeeper received almost as violent blows as if it had been thrown in its box from one side of the cabin to the other: and by these violent shocks of the waves the water would spurn [spume] through every joint in the ship. And in order to keep it out of the box in which the Timekeeper was, Mr. Harrison had no other method but to keep a blanket about it; and when it had imbibed so much water, that he could with his hand squeeze it out, he then took that blanket off, and placed the box in another. And he had at some times no other method to get these blankets dry again, but by covering himself up in them when he went to sleep: and this with sea-sickness threw him into a severe fit of illness; and it was with the greatest difficulty that his life was saved—but he very well knew, that if he did not keep the water out of the box, that some would be so cruel as to say, he let it in on purpose, because he knew it would not answer: and others would say, it was a thing too tender, and too delicate to go to sea: and would not consider the hardships of the voyage, nor the cruelty of not having a proper place prepared to put it in: and that he was sent home in a ship which with the greatest difficulty they were able to keep above water in the weather they met with.—Thus after one of the roughest voyages that any ship ever had, they on the 26th March, arrived at Spithead.

    He would not have expressed himself thus, on not having a proper place, if he had reflected further, for it was the cruelty of fortune, in this instance. Commodore Forrest, the officer in command, he previously says, "gave him all the assistance in his power" to promote the objects of the voyage.

    He said his orders were to ship him, and Mr. Robison the Astronomer, [after the observations were completed] in the first man of war that should sail for England; but that he did not expect there would be one that would sail till June. This was very bad encouragement for Mr. Harrison, who did not want to stay so long in that country.
    Subsequently however, the Authorities at Jamaica having occasion to send a dispatch home without delay; and the observations being completed,
    the Commodore sent to Mr, Harrison, and informed him, that there would in two days time be a ship sail for England with an express; and if he was ready he would ship him on board of it.
    —He does not say, he applied to the Commodore, or the Captain, for the carpenter to prepare a place for the Timekeeper; and it could not be supposed those Officers would think of it, but at his suggestion. His being sent home in an old ship, not worth repairing, and condemned after her arrival, which, by its consequences, had he not being providentially of a robust constitution, was so near costing him his life, was yet altogether a casualty, like some of the most important events in the lives of other men.
  6. The injury to the three Machines, and the gross misconduct of those who compromised their duty by not enquiring into it, though they had been claimed as public property, are passed by, but the omission could not fail to be supplied by his Majesty's recollection; for at those few times when he accompanied parties of the Royal Family to Greenwich, he must have seen these first Timekeepers in their deranged state; and the fact of their having been removed in a jolting carriage, instead of being carried by a chairman's horse, and on the water, which the Astronomer Royal could not evade, though he might suppress that of having employed a blacksmith as his assistant, would leave a hiatus which the King, who understood the subject, would not be at a loss to fill up. When he was first shown these "curious progressive specimens of genius," it must have been both novel and contemptible to hear the occupant of Flamstead Hill trying to parry the questions that would occur—to make the worse appear the better reason, and to mystify the Inventor's illustrious Patron, if he could.
  7. Who is there will not decidedly condemn such conduct, confirmatory as it is of Dr. Shepherd's admission that—it never was intended Timekeepers should gain the reward? which though spoken of the 14th George 3rd, was as applicable to Lord Morton's Act: for though by that explanatory measure, one half of the premium was to be paid on certain conditions (the framer of the bill having no choice, as the public indignation would not have suffered him to withhold it) yet the other half was placed beyond reach in little less than direct terms, by being hedged round with such a tissue of uncertainties. It was only the protection extended to John Harrison by his Sovereign, that enabled him at length to cut this Gordian knot. The whole conduct of the Lunar party, and of the northern Peer, furnishes an impressive lesson, of the revolting consequences to be expected, when any set of men are entrusted with arbitrary power without any enquiry into the probable perversion of it to the purposes of clashing interests, or of unextinguishable animosity.
  8. There is a discrepancy here, but of little consequence. According to the minutes of a Board, 3rd March, 1770, he had seen and expressed his satisfaction at the goodness of Mr. Kendal's work.
  9. The singular inhumanity of exacting more labours from a man near fourscore, would of itself alone, have made an impression on His Majesty highly favourable to the Applicant's case—aggravated, as is seen, by the consideration that they previously allowed it would be more in the spirit of the Act to amend and alter, if one of the two Watches was made by another hand.—In the original work the Author thought himself justified in demanding of the learned Professors, if they did not know, from their classical reminiscences, that old age had no where so honourable an abode as at Sparta; and if they meant it should not have a more disgraceful one than in Britain? Did they not know, that impaired sight and an unsteady hand, are among the common and serious disadvantages of age? Were they so entirely ignorant of chronometry as to overlook such impediments? Certainly the Gentlemen of Oxford and Cambridge owe no thanks to their predecessors, for leaving it to be inferred that the sentiment which honours a virtuous old age did not appear among them, in its essence, though it might be descanted on in the pulpit, which was their trade. It is yet consolatory to add, that the Spartan notions are not extinct among the modems, as appears by the following remark, which occurred in a party who were ascending Mount Blanc.—
    Expecting very much from Simeon, I was not disappointed, and felt increasingly convinced, from his conduct, that respect for superior years is a sure indication of moral health. He that venerates not the hoary head with all its little infirmities, is destitute of some of the heart's best emotions, and his old age shall be void of honour. [New Monthly Magazine for May, 1826.]

    It is singular enough, that though the Author of this extract knew nothing about the particulars introduced here, yet it becomes the bitterest satire on the mathematical Commissioners who abetted the inhumanity of Lord Morton, that a premeditated intention could have devised—leaving the inference, that neither learning, nor the Christian ministry, to which they all belonged, could, in their case, supply "some of the heart's best emotions which nature had denied them to participate in.