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What is a Marine Chronometer?

It is believed that ancient Greeks started using time at around 325 BC. They basically used clocks to determine hours of night and day. But did you know seafarers use unique clocks?

In 1673, the first marine chronometer was invented. It utilized a balance wheel and a spring for regulation instead of using a pendulum since they were quite unreliable at sea. It is a precision timepiece that was used on ships. This device paved the way for modern pocket watches and wristwatches.

The History of the Marine Chronometer

The marine chronometer was essential in telling time and determining the ship’s position by celestial navigation. By comparing the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the current location’s time found through observations, sailors were able to determine the longitude.

Let’s dial back a bit. In order to determine your position on earth, you would need to know the longitude, latitude, and altitude. Accurate navigation at sea was complicated during the early 1700s. Navigators had a hard time determining their longitude, while they determined their latitude by measuring the sun’s angle.

To find the longitude, they would need a standard time that would function on the ship. Galileo’s method in observing Jupiter’s natural satellites was not possible on the sea due to the ship’s motion. Instead, the lunar distances method was used. Johannes Werner developed this in 1514 in parallel with the marine chronometer.

The purpose of the chronometer is to measure time accurately from a fixed location. Gemma Frisius initially used this in 1530. (Source: Edubilla Global Education)

Where Did The Term “Chronometer” Come From?

Jeremy Thacker coined the term chronometer in 1714. The term is most widely used to describe wristwatches that were tested and certified according to precision standards. Timepieces from Switzerland will often have the word chronometer displayed only if the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute certifies their products. (Source: Edubilla Global Education)

Who Invented the Marine Chronometer?

The marine chronometer was invented in the year 1761 by John Harrison. Harrison was a self-educated carpenter and clockmaker. He was born in Foulby on March 24, 1693. Their family moved to Lincolnshire by 1700. He followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a career in carpentry.

When he was six years old, he was in bed with smallpox and was given a watch to amuse himself. He spent hours and hours on end listening to it and studying its moving parts. As an adult, he dabbled with clocks in his spare time. After years of working on timepieces, he invited the marine chronometer, which completely changed how seafarers navigated the ocean. Eventually, these marine chronometers paved the way to the modern wristwatches we all appreciate today.

Harrison passed on his 83rd birthday and was buried at the graveyard of St. John’s Church, north of London. The Corpus Clock in Cambridge that was unveiled in 2008 is an homage by the designer to Harrison’s life’s work. It features his grasshopper escapement and signature pallet frame. (Source: Edubilla Global Education)

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