Go back to article: James Short and John Harrison: personal genius and public knowledge


Marking the 300th anniversary of the 1714 Longitude Act has been an occasion for enriching our understanding of the eighteenth-century context for the longitude problem and its solutions. Recent work has achieved a more balanced and nuanced approach to the episode than one animated by the opposition of good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and trickery. The exhibition at the National Maritime Museum offers a richer, historically more plausible and altogether more interesting story, supported in the same vein by the accompanying book (Dunn and Higgitt, 2014), while the programme of the related conference expanded the context for longitude work out to the broadest social, political and economic issues of the day[1].

This paper seeks to contribute to this trend by showing that some of the big questions raised by Harrison’s work, concerning universal knowledge and its relationship to individual skill, were already at play in the community with which Harrison was obliged to engage in the mid-eighteenth century. The section of that community considered here, namely the astronomers, may seem the least concerned with this issue. It might be thought that astronomy had already achieved the kind of universality in the standing of its theories that had erased dependence on individual, embodied skill, and indeed that it was this characteristic that recommended an astronomical solution to the longitude problem. Horology and astronomy can seem to represent opposed, irreconcilable interests in the Harrison story, but similar concerns can be found around the question of embodied skill, even if Harrison did not appreciate this himself.

It might be helpful to explain that this is a study of eighteenth-century attitudes and ideas, some of which were at the time, as we shall see, applied specifically to Harrison.[2] Aspects of recent research would identify his achievement as principally ‘technological’, a term whose meaning has shifted over time and must be used with care so as not to import modern assumptions. The present article has little to say to an ambition to identify the ‘true’ character of Harrison’s accomplishment, though it may offer that project some help in explaining how Harrison was received and understood (or, it might be argued, ‘misunderstood’) in his time. Prominent among the notions that should be taken in the sense of the period are those surrounding the idea of ‘genius’.

Figure 1

A mezzotint portrait of John Harrison from 1768 with calligraphic writing at the base relating to his interests and achievements

John Harrison, English inventor and horologist, 1767

The revisionist historiography of Harrison does not consider him a ‘lone genius’, as the title of Dava Sobel’s bestseller presents him (Sobel, 1996), but he had a ‘genius’ in the eighteenth-century sense of the word, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘Natural ability or capacity; quality of mind; attributes which suit a person for his or her peculiar work’ (OED, 2014). We shall try to remain within that sense of the word, while bringing two other men of genius into the story: John Dollond and, more especially, James Short. Of the two, Dollond has the greater prominence, in both the popular and the scholarly context, while Short is already associated with Harrison’s story. Both were telescope makers, but they represent quite different types of instrument, Dollond being famously linked to profound and far-reaching developments in the refractor (a telescope whose only optical components are lenses) and Short concerned exclusively with the reflector (where the main optical components are mirrors, though there will be lenses as well, at least in the eyepiece). For this reason we might have expected them to have been commercial rivals, but instead they seem to have been friends, collaborating, for example, over the application of the divided-object-glass micrometer to the Gregorian reflector.

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of a thirty six inch reflecting telescope

Thirty six inch reflecting telescope by James Short in 1769, complete with object glass micrometer made by John Dollond.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140209/002