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

The marine timekeeper and John Harrison

The figure of £20,000 (the value of the full longitude reward) is not the only biographical coincidence between Short and John Harrison. Harrison too came to London in the 1730s and, supported by some of the same people who helped Short, began to interact with the metropolitan mathematicians and natural philosophers (Andrewes, 1996; King, 2008; Quill, 1966). Although both men offered their mechanical skill as their principal asset, they cut very different figures – Short a university-educated tutor to the aristocracy as well as a craftsman, Harrison a poorly educated and relatively inarticulate carpenter. We should remember also that Short’s mechanical skills were in an area where fellow practitioners included university professors, fellows of the Royal Society and gentlemen of means and status; his mechanical work took him into contemporary scientific practice, rather than separating him from it. Nonetheless, although the Harrison story is popularly associated with enmity, rivalry and bitterness towards the astronomers of the period, that does not characterise the early decades of his time in London.

The certificate provided to Harrison in 1735 proposing a trial for his marine timekeeper H1, which occasioned the first meeting of the Board of Longitude, was signed by four astronomers (as well at the instrument maker and occasional astronomer, George Graham FRS), at least two of whom – Robert Smith and James Bradley – were among the gentlemen mirror-polishers. When another certificate was provided to Harrison by fellows of the Royal Society in 1741 a further gentleman polisher, John Hadley, added his name. Harrison was encouraged by leading natural philosophers, accommodated sympathetically and supported financially by the Board of Longitude, and presented with the Royal Society’s highest award, the Copley Medal, in 1749.

If Short had the patronage of MacLaurin and was absolutely the right sort of mechanic to fit into the then-current Newtonian optics, how was Harrison’s case promoted in the context of eighteenth-century London? We find a clue in the address given by the Royal Society’s President, Martin Folkes, when presenting the Copley Medal:

Mr Harrison, who, before he came to this Town lived in a place called Barrow in the County of Lincoln, not far from Barton upon Humber, was not originally brought up to the business he now professes, tho’ he was afterwards directed to it, by curiosity and inclination, and by the strong impulses of a natural and uncommon genius, but such a one, as has been sometimes found, in other instances also, to carry those who have been possessed of it, much further than they could have been led by the most elaborate precepts and rules of art. (Royal Society Journal Book, Copy, xx, p 184)

We have noted the growing fashionable interest in natural philosophy in contemporary London, fed by instrument makers who sold instruments, wrote popular books and gave or accommodated courses of lectures, accompanied by engaging demonstrations. Their shops were for more than ‘getting and selling’: they were also spaces for instruction and demonstration, as they promoted the new culture of public natural philosophy (Bennett, 2002). Harrison entered this world as he became a minor celebrity in a London society discovering the polite enjoyment of natural philosophy and mathematical and mechanical ingenuity.

As early as 1736, when Harrison and his first timekeeper were committed to the care of the Captain of the Royal Navy ship Centurion for a trial voyage to Lisbon, the First Lord of the Admiralty told the Captain that, ‘The Instrument which is put on Board your Ship, has been approved by all the Mathematicians in Town that have seen it, (and few have not)’ – the text of the letter and the Captain’s reply are given in Horrins, 1835, pp 137–8. Citizens and strangers with an interest in the ingenious or the curious viewed the timekeeper either at the workshop of George Graham or later at Harrison’s home in Red Lion Square. Short also recorded that Harrison’s first timekeeper ‘was seen by every curious and ingenious person, who were pleased to go to his house’ (Short, 1752, p 521); it impressed John Bevis, when he saw it at Graham’s in 1735 (Journal of the House of Commons, 29, pp 546-53). As the number of timekeepers grew, Harrison placed them in a public viewing room, where the large machines were kept running. Benjamin Franklin, for example, paid to see them in 1757 (Andrewes, 1996A, pp 207–8).

To appreciate the impact of encountering what we know were perceived as mechanical marvels from the accounts of those who visited, we must imagine them set alongside what we know of the public demeanour of John Harrison. His difficulty with communicating cogently and expressing himself coherently was probably the principal reason for his published tracts being substantially prepared by others. On the one occasion when this was not so, in 1775, the tract A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or True mensuration of time was notoriously opaque. We need not rely on our own judgement of its intelligibility to Harrison’s contemporaries: ‘Any one who reads but a single page of this pamphlet will be convinced that Mr. H. is utterly unqualified to explain, by writing, his own notions, or to give a tolerable idea of his own inventions’ (Monthly Review, 1775, p 320). The reviewer then reproduced passages from Harrison’s text and offered ‘translations’.

Harrison was a country carpenter from a remote and obscure village in Lincolnshire with little in the way of formal education. He had no experience of metropolitan culture prior to his first visit to London, which occurred in 1730, or perhaps a little earlier, with a manuscript account of his horological inventions. He returned in 1735 with his first marine timekeeper. The Captain of the Centurion found him ‘a very sober, a very industrious, and withal, a very modest man’, fearing that these qualities were hardly sufficient for the ‘attempted impossibilities’ of a sea-going clock (Horrins, 1835, p 138). Harrison must have seemed utterly foreign to the admirals, churchmen, natural philosophers and mathematicians who were interested in the longitude problem, and even more so to the general audience for polite, rational and improving entertainment that was growing in fashionable society. His unassuming manner, unfamiliar speech and incoherent commentary (though that may have been particularly problematic in his written accounts) must have made an incongruous accompaniment to the mechanical grace and eloquence of his machines – the ‘sweetness’ of the motion, as William Stukeley put it, recalling the impression made by seeing the first timekeeper at Graham’s workshop (Andrewes, 1996A, p 207; Penney, 1996, p 298). The Gentleman’s Magazine, in reporting the first meeting of the Board of Longitude, presented the enigma as follows: ‘This ingenious Person was originally brought up a Joiner, and ‘tis thought by Mathematicians, his Machine is nearer finding out the Longitude than any ever attempted of this kind’ (Gentleman’s Magazine, 7, 1737, p 448). To emphasise the force of that observation, we might remember that one writer of the period judged that in the common view finding the longitude was ‘placed in the same degree of probability with the secret of prolonging life, the perpetual motion, and the squaring of the circle’ (ASTROPHILUS, 1761, p 437).

How could there be such a combination of inexperience and ingenuity? The very starkness of the contrast made the answer obvious: this was what Martin Folkes meant by a ‘natural and uncommon genius’. Remember that Folkes had emphasised that Harrison ‘was not originally brought up to the business he now professes’ but his genius had taken him much further than would have been possible ‘by the most elaborate precepts and rules of art’. Mechanical skill was normally acquired through a lengthy apprenticeship but in Harrison’s case a lack of education had allowed him to become the consummate mechanic: his natural abilities had not been clouded and dulled by the drudgery of training. There are eighteenth-century references to him as ‘nature’s mechanic’ (Hatton, 1773, p 22), while his obituarist in the Annual Register, reminding his readers that Harrison had been trained as a carpenter, referred to ‘the vigor of his natural abilities, if not even strengthened by the want of education’ (Annual Register, 1777). ‘Nature’s mechanic’ was a linguistic trope, because it combined the incongruous and traditionally opposed categories of the natural and artificial. It was a deliberate oxymoron that played to a notion that was gaining currency at exactly this time, that of natural, innate ability, or genius.

There is every indication that this was a notion with which James Short would have been sympathetic. He was surely Harrison’s most consistent supporter outside his immediate family. He defended Harrison’s priority over the gridiron pendulum in a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions. He was one of the friends – probably the principal one – who helped with composing the pamphlets presenting Harrison’s case to public or parliament, the person most commonly associated with this role and acknowledged as such at the time. When Harrison objected to requirements from the ‘Commissioners for the Discovery of Mr Harrison’s Watch’ in 1763, saying that he could not afford to employ workmen to make duplicates of his watch, Lord Morton told him ‘...if you cannot do it of yourself, you must get your friend Mr. Short or some other Friends to assist you’ (Bennett, 2002A, p 83). Short defended Harrison’s position during the proceedings of this Commission. Later Harrison nominated Short, together with Short’s colleague John Bevis, to examine the instruments to be used on the trial voyage to Barbados, and nominated him again for the subsequent calculations.  Short appeared for Harrison’s case before a committee of the House of Commons in 1763 (Journal of the House of Commons, 29, pp 546–53).

Perhaps the most cited example of Short’s links to Harrison comes from the filling of the vacancy for Astronomer Royal following the death of Nathaniel Bliss in 1764. Nevil Maskelyne was appointed but the candidates had included John Michell and James Short. (Michell was yet another of those mathematicians engaged in polishing specula and making reflectors.) We have seen that Short and Lord Morton, now President of the Royal Society, had served together on the Commission appointed in 1763 for examining or, as it was expressed at the time, ‘discovering’ Harrison’s watch and that Short alone had sided with Harrison. This was to cost him now, in that Morton opposed the candidature of his former client and colleague.

That Short was disposed to support nature’s mechanic might well be imagined from his background and from other things we know about his friends and interests. The Edinburgh of his student days saw the first flowering of the set of ideas and principles associated with the Scottish Enlightenment, with Short’s first patron, Colin MacLaurin, an early participant. Short was a founder member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, of which MacLaurin was the prime mover. The Society’s historian Roger Emerson presents it as an institution that ‘can be fitted into the wider context of the European Enlightenment’ (Emerson, 1979, p 154). In London, Short was a friend of his near contemporary David Hume, and a friend also of Benjamin Franklin. One of his supporters as a candidate for fellowship at the Royal Society was the mathematician John Eames, a man of known liberal views, in charge of a non-conformist academy. Although the author of Harrison’s tract An account of the proceedings is identified as a fellow of the Royal Society, and so was probably Short, when the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, on a visit to London, was given a copy by Short himself in 1763 he was told that the work had been shared with the lawyer Taylor White. White was not a fellow, but was Treasurer of the Foundling Hospital, with its progressive philosophy of philanthropy and education. Martin Folkes, one of Harrison’s strongest supporters in the Royal Society, was a founding Vice-President of the Foundling Hospital from 1739 to 1747. It is not difficult to build a picture of Short’s attitudes and those of his circle that is conducive to notions of natural ability fostered by application and improvement.

The most detailed reference we have to the Greenwich appointment comes in a letter from Alexander Small to Franklin in 1764:

Mr. Short is a Candidate for Greenwich but having opposed Lord Morton in the £5000 afair [the Commissioners for the Discovery of Mr Harrison’s Watch], Lord Morton now opposes him and gives it as a reason that Mr Short is a Scotch Man, though he acknowledges that he is the fittest for it of any Man. (Franklin Papers)

This reference is well known to historians of the episode but there might be more to the charge of being a ‘Scotch Man’ than has been noted before, that is, more than a mere reference to Short’s origins. Morton had had a long time to come to terms with the fact that Short had been born in Scotland and it does not seem to have concerned him previously.

The Commission on which Morton and Short sat together in 1763, where Morton seems to have realised that Short was a ‘Scotch Man’, was concerned with what was called the ‘discovery’ of Harrison’s watch. The main Board had held that it was all very well for a watch, brought to a perfection of adjustment by the obsessive attentions of a dedicated maker, to keep time on a single voyage to the West Indies, but how did that solve the longitude problem if we did not know how the watch had been made? How could such watches be made by the generality of competent watchmakers, unless it was known on what principles it was based and by what methods constructed? The problem was more acute, of course, if the obsessive maker had ‘a natural and uncommon genius’, to quote Folkes again, so at this stage being ‘nature’s mechanic’ might be a liability instead of an asset.

It is interesting to note that the very same notion of natural genius was applied to Short as well as to Harrison. David Steuart Erskine, Earl of Buchan, published a brief biography of Short in 1792. He was well placed to write this, having a number of links to Short, including family connections to MacLaurin. He is the source of the stories of Short’s early mechanical abilities, which prompted him to observe:

It is much to be wished, that the early and natural symptoms of genius in children were more attended to. It is very true, indeed, that they generally imitate what they see about them, and that no conclusions can be drawn from the scratchings of a child in a painter’s house, or the cutting of sticks in a carpenter’s; but a genius manifested without any concomitant circumstances, strongly evinces the bent of the mind, and should be carefully attended to and fostered by those to whom the care of youth is intrusted. (Erskine, 1792, pp 252–3)

Buchan was a political reformer (a very unsuccessful one) and a friend of Benjamin Franklin; he supported the American colonists during the War of Independence and was involved with radical Corresponding Societies in the 1790s. It is interesting to see the continuing survival of this attitude to early ‘genius’ and its application in particular to the case of James Short.

Buchan also supplies evidence of Short’s support for Harrison’s cause continuing throughout his life. Short died in June 1768 and, purely to show the suddenness of his demise, Buchan tells us that ‘A few days before his death, he had dined with young Harrison, son of the inventor of the time piece, at his house in Shore Ditch, and had walked from that place in the evening to his own house at Newington Butts’. This was a distance of two or three miles.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140209/004