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John Harrison and how a watch helped him win over three million pounds

John Harrison

How far would you go to win over 4 million pounds prize in money? Would you dedicate over 30 years of your life to it? John Harrison faced that question and decided that he would be the man to win the prize.


But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. In 1707 the Scilly naval disaster occurred. 4 Naval ships and with them 1550 sailors lost their lives in one of the worst disasters of British military history. The cause? An inability to calculate their position due to inaccurate equipment.


scilly naval disaster

  Artist impression of the Scilly naval disaster  


Following this tragedy, the British Parliament decided to offer rewards of up to £20,000 (adjust for inflation that’s close to five and a half million dollars for our American readers) under the 1714 Longitude Act for tools that could help determine the precise longitude of a ship at sea. Such a high incentive reflected the importance of precise naval instruments for the British empire as up until then the navy had to rely solely on the stars for navigation, which becomes difficult as soon as it is cloudy.


Harrison H4 Marine Timekeeper icon gear patrol ambiance 

The H4, a watch worth million


A few years on a young John Harrison made it is his obsession to win this prize. Over thirty years of experimentation in the course of which three prototypes are developed where necessary before he came up with what is known as the H4. Also known as the sea watch it was completed in 1759, taking 4 years of labour to create it distinguished itself by virtue of its novel vertical escapement with D shaped pallets made out of Diamonds.


Unfortunately for Harrison he only received his money following a decade-long struggle with the British government. He received it in high age, four years prior to his death. Nevertheless, his legacy has remained intact, and deservedly he was voted 39th in BBC’s 2002 public poll of the 100 greatest Britons.