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BOOKREVIEW : Betts -Time Restored: The Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould..

  • Thread starter Fortunat Mueller-Maerki
  • Start date

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

NAWCC Star Fellow
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NAWCC Fellow
Sep 23, 2001

Time Restored: The Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew (almost) everything.

By Jonathan Betts; published 2006 by Oxford University Press, Oxford UK & New York, NY and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich UK; Hardcover (dust jacket), 464 pages; 62 black and white illustrations in the text, 16 color plates; extensive bibliography, glossary, index; ISBN 0-19-856802 9; available through http://www.oup.com/us or amazon.com , list price US$69; lending copies available to NAWCC members at the National Watch and Clock Library in Columbia PA.

Most serious students of horology will be familiar with the name of Rupert T. Gould (Lieut. Commander, RN, retired) primarily as the author of “The Marine Chronometer, its history and development”, originally published in 1923 (and reprinted repeatedly up to 1989, now out of print, but amazon is now taking preorders for a new reprint). That book remains –in the opinion of this reviewer- 80 years after it was written still the best text on the history and technology of the marine chronometer. The general public in the USA is more likely to have come across Gould in Dava Sobel’s bestseller “Longitude” as the amateur clock restorer who rescued the early longitude clocks by John Harrison from obscurity and decay. These clocks - now commonly referred to as H1 to H3- together with H4 and H5 are clearly among the most significant horological artifacts in existence and form the core of the timekeeping exhibit at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (UK), the one world heritage site that every horologist should visit.

Jonathan Betts, the Senior Specialist, Horology, at the Royal Observatory, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, is one of the most respected horological scholars, lecturers and writers alive. As the current custodian of these Harrison clocks he has long felt a deep and personal affinity to the person who –against all odds- brought these horological marvels back to life in the second quarter of the 20th century. For decades, Betts has painstakingly collected and studied material for a comprehensive biography of Gould. He was fortunate to not only have access to Gould’s extensive notebooks (held at the NMM) describing the restoration work in painstaking detail, but also to be personally very familiar with these timepieces. Furthermore, Betts had won the trust of Gould’s heirs and thus access to private diaries, photo albums and other family papers.

The task of writing a Gould biography must at times have appeared overwhelming to Betts, because Gould was a very complex and extremely multifaceted person. The temptation to write “only” a “horological biography” about his hero must have been tempting to Betts, and such a book on its own would have presented a welcome addition to the horological literature. Such a book would have been easier to read for the many Harrison afficionados and horologists who longed for it. But Betts chose the harder route: He chose to write a Gould biography that would do justice to Gould the person rather than just to Gould the horologist. This reviewer feels that this ambitious task has been accomplished in a balanced and sensitive manner.

R.T. Gould was a brilliant individual, with many heartfelt interests, who made major contributions in many of the tasks he undertook: He was a polymath and scholar of many diverse subjects. He excelled in horology and as a radio presenter; he studied and wrote on the history of the typewriter; he was a brilliant conversationalist and talented artist; he was an expert on sea monsters (including the Loch Ness monster) and systematically collected and documented curious and unexplained facts; and early in his life he had a promising naval career. But for much of his life he also sporadically suffered from severe mental illness which caused chaos in his marital life and his career.

This reviewer believes that it is impossible to fully comprehend the horological achievements of Gould, to truly understand his obsession with the Harrison sea clocks, without wading through the other more troubled chapters of his life, and without discovering the other subjects that were dear to him.

The author faced the challenge of writing a biography of a genius, who led a chaotic personal and professional life, whose many accomplishments fell into widely diverging disciplines and areas, whose horological endeavors were spaced out over decades. There seems to be no easy way to tell the complete story of such a complex person; both a strictly chronological structure or strictly thematic chapters would be somewhat difficult for the reader to follow. Betts chose a hybrid approach between a rigid timeline and a thematic organization of the material, and in addition wisely chose to move several of the ancillary subjects to appendices and 412 footnotes (which account for over 100 pages of the book).

In the book as published 8 (out of 22) chapters (and 3 out of 6 appendices) deal primarily with Gould the horologist. I suppose a reader with a horological focus could possibly read only those parts and learn quite a bit about Gould the horologist. This reviewer is glad to have had all parts of the book available, because Gould -and all his achievements, horological and otherwise- can only be fully appreciated in the larger context of his life and his time.

From a horological perspective, the meat of the book is in the chapters describing Gould’s restoration work on the big Harrison sea clocks, H, H2 and H3, in the 1920s and 1930s. Gould took on this task as a volunteer and amateur horologist. If he had not “rediscovered” those magnificent machines in a state of complete neglect, they would probably no longer exist, let alone run today. Gould kept extremely detailed, richly illustrated notebooks documenting his efforts, which form the basis for much of this book’s narrative in the horological chapters. Any horologist with a deeper interest in John Harrison’s work must read “Time Restored”, because it contains so much additional information on these machines and their history. Anyone who has struggled to .bring a long neglected, complex mechanical movement back to life will be fascinated –and will fee empathy with Gould- reading these chapters. Most readers will also be surprised at the utter lack of standards that existed just 70 years ago regarding the restoration and conservation of objects, which today are considered artifacts of global historic significance.

One of the side effects of reading “Time restored” for this reader was to whet his appetite for future horological publications not yet published, such as a) a scholarly re-edition of Gould’s’ “Marine Chronometer” with the countless revisions and additions suggested by Gould himself over the decades, and b) a facsimile edition of Gould’s notebooks detailing his work on the Harrison pieces. Now that the Gould biography is published, Betts would be the ideal person to get these priceless horological treasures into print.

In summary: “Time restored” can be enjoyed as a well crafted description of the horological contributions of an important persona of his time, but for the reader so inclined, it is much more, it is a sensitive portrait of a troubled, but brilliant human being, who pursued his horological and scholarly goals against the odds imposed by society and his era.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex, NJ
December 29, 2006

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