REVIEW: McKay: Longitude's Legacy–James Harrison of Hull 1792-1875,Turret Clockmaker

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
The Horological Achievements of the Descendants of John Harrison's Youngest Brother James Harrison
Bookreview 2015 by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

Longitude's Legacy - James Harrison of Hull 1792-1875: Turret Clockmaker - The last of the Harrison Clockmakers. By Chris McKay. Published in English February 2015 by the author (Print on demand). ISBN 978-1-51181033-5. 289 pages, softcover, forestgreen, 28x22 cm. Numerous b&w illustrations. Includes 15 chapters, 7 Appendices, Bibliography and Index. Available through Amazon at for $38 plus shipping.

While John Harrison (1693-1776) of longitude fame is a universally recognized clockmaker, and some horologists know that his younger brother James 1 (1704-1766) played a major role in actually building H1, few know that James1's grandson James 3 [born 1767], and especially his great-grandson James 4 [born 1792] in the years spanning 1790 to 1875 were prolific and innovative turret clock makers active in the Hull (UK) area. Chris McKay, the eminent historian of British tower clocks has meticulously researched - and now published - that hereto unexplored chapter of horological history.

The first parts of the book provide the wider context: Chapter 1 is a short introduction, Chapter 2 summarizes the longitude issue, Chapter 3 John 'Longitude' Harrison's quest for a solution, and Chapter 4 explores the activity of the Harrisons in bell foundering and bellfrys. Chapters 5-8 deal with James 1 (known for the wooden Brocklesby Park clock ca.1720, but mainly for his 80 bell-frames, and as founder of 46 bells) and his son Henry 2 (1732-1780), also a bell founder.

Henry's son James 3 (1767-1834) took over the family bell foundry business at age 17 when his older brother died, and soon moved it from Barrow to Barton-upon-Humber. This Harrison was very inventive and argumentative as described in Chapter 9. In his lifetime he cast about 210 bells, and left a long trail of inventions (starting with a 'bell tuning machine') and correspondence, including many letters to "The Mechanics' Magazine" (fully reprinted in Appendix 3 of the book). Chapter 10 describes in detail the clock of his design in the church of Alkborough, built together with his son in 1826, and Chapter 11 discusses the design and functioning of the novel 'Detached Escapement and Fly' which he invented. At his death James 3 was insolvent.

His son James 4 (1792-1875), in 1821, when he married was known as a cabinetmaker, and settled in Hull, but undoubtedly was active in the bells and tower clock field for most of his life. Some 30 clocks with his name survive, all of them following a standard design, using cast plates and usually a form of the detached escapement invented by his father. This escapement was delicate to adjust and maintain, and therefore not adopted any other makers. Most examples were converted to more conventional escapements once James 4 no longer serviced the clocks, as his successors did not understand the mechanism, as described in Chapter 12. James 4 for most of his career did not employ others.

Chapter 13 -with 40 pages by far the longest chapter in the book- describes and documents (including over 100 photographs) the 26 surviving clocks built by James 4, all located within a two day horse ride of his residence in Hull. This chapter forms the core of the book. Chapter 14 offers a slightly speculative analysis of how the James Harrison detached escapement may have influenced the detached gravity escapement which Dennison installed in Big Ben a few decades later, and Chapter 15 is a short epilogue titled "Longitude's Legacy".

The seven appendices -for this reviewer- provide a major element when considering if you want to purchase this book. Accounting for over half the pages of the book, they all contain numerous full transcripts of contemporary original source documents from the time of Harrison's heirs (some published but impossible to find, some manuscripts) which are essential to understanding the role Harrisons heirs played in British horological history. None of this material is published anywhere else. A two page bibliography and a six page index concludes the book.

While harboring no illusion that Chris McKay's book will become a horological bestseller, this reviewer congratulates the author for his tenacity and perseverance to finally illuminate a corner of British horological history which too long has rested in the shadows, and providing so much new original source material to his fellow scholars of horological history.

Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ (USA)
May 2014

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