In 1998, Patrick Malahide played John Harrison in the documentary Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude. You can read his biography via Wikipedia. This will primarily focus on Mr. Malahide’s performance. But, I will give a brief overview.
In 1714 the British government offered a reward of £20,000 to whoever could devise a way for ships to find longitude. They had been using the method of “dead reckoning,” but after the Scilly naval disaster of 1707, they could not rely on the method for such long voyages. Most scholars thought some sort of lunar / astrological method would work. But taking accurate readings from the sky would be nearly impossible considering a ship rocks around so much (not to mention cloud coverage), and then they would have to do long calculations which would only tell them where they were when they first took their sky reading.
John Harrison: Self-taught Clockmaker
Enter John Harrison and his clocks. Living in the Lincolnshire village of Barrow by the river Humber, he learned of the prize from passing sailors. He determined that if a sailor knew the time at his home port compared to the time on board ship, he could determine how many degrees he was from home. The difficulty would lie in producing a timekeeper that could withstand the ship’s motion and extreme changes in temperature.
Patrick Malahide’s role in this documentary is to dramatize Harrison’s journals. He shows Harrison’s sharp sense of humor, intense devotion to detail, inherent distrust of “university men” (his main rivals in the Longitude Prize), and inquisitive eye.
When we first meet Harrison, we see he doesn’t just build standard clocks. He makes observations of timekeeping and movement and then applies what he has observed to building a clock. “I, from being a bell ringer since a boy, had saw the bell swing in an enormous arch 250 degrees or more. And when I went out to plan the pendulum of my first timekeeper, I knew that proper point in the swing where to best apply the force. I speak from strictly due experience, which is the best proof of usefulness; not withstanding what university men may write or do.”
That statement tells us a lot about Harrison. He is really into his pendulums, something which comes up again in a funny moment. He is also a man with no formal education and is very wary of the university men who have connections and advantages that he does not.
A Wonderful Performance
The production has a nice mixture of outdoor and indoor shots for Harrison. It shows how in touch with everyday life Harrison was, and we see grey sea scenes that highlight the importance of reliable navigation.
I wondered if it would be weird watching Harrison talking away by himself. It isn’t. Mr. Malahide is natural with monologues. Plus, he has a lovely Lincolnshire accent!
John Harrison conducted his own experiments. He sat up at night looking at the fixed stars.
“I have fashioned a true way of setting my clocks, by the apparent motion of the fixed stars with a very large sort of an instrument with about a 25 yd radius (*smirks*) composed of the west side of my neighbor’s chimney and the east side of my window frames…”
I love that scene and not just because he looks very good wrapped up in his cloak, though he certainly does, but because it shows us Harrison’s sense of humor. There is he is, doing precision timekeeping/astronomical experiments using his neighbor’s chimney as his point of reference. He must have been wondering what the uni crowd would think of that. 🙂
Another experiment he works on deals with the problem of metals shrinking/expanding in different weather conditions.
“After I discovered the wires to be longer and shorter by heat and cold, I prepared to try the different quantity that one metal altered in proportion to another.”
By combining wires of different metals, Harrison produced his gridiron pendulum. It is another great scene. Mr. Malahide (who has fit forearms!) is working with the different metal wires to create the pendulum and places it in the clock. The mechanical pieces he works with are beautiful. Harrison was both scientist and artist.
He took his experiments further by placing two clocks in different rooms during frosty weather. “I’ll make one room very warm with a great fire whilst the other is very cold.” Harrison proved his pendulum wires worked in either condition.
With his proof, Harrison left Barrow for the first time in his life, and we are treated to a nice silhouette style shot of Patrick Malahide walking by the sea with his walking stick, for London. He presented his case to the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Edmond Halley (the comet guy), who referred him to London’s most famous clockmaker, George Graham.
Harrison arrives home after a successful meeting. I love this scene because we get an excellent monologue. I also love the way he whips of his wig. He looks extra handsome without it, especially wearing those sturdy eighteenth century clothes. It is a pity he didn’t throw the wig away. 😉
And the monologue – oh it is good! “Dr. Halley advised me to go to Mr. Graham. Advice which went very hard with me, for I thought it a step very improper to be taken. But he told me Mr. Graham was a very honest man and would do me no harm as by pirating anything from me.” This part is intriguing because it reminds me of the concerns computer developers have sharing their work. Google Steve Jobs/Xerox or Bill Gates/Steve Jobs for examples.
Then he opens a huge leather pack and takes some bread out which he rips up and starts eating. It must be tough bread because he chews on it for a while. Then he delivers this exquisite line:
“While Mr. Graham proved indeed a fine gentleman, if truth be told I were taken aback by the poor, little feeble motions of his pendulums. The small force they had, like poor creatures sick and inactive. But, I commented not on the folly of his watches.” Ha! I said he was into pendulums.
He got H1, his first marine clock up and running and took it on a sea voyage.
“Upon meeting the captain, he said to me that the difficulty in measuring time with the motion of the sea gave him concern and he felt I had attempted impossibilities. He later wrote a report and said Mr. Harrison was seasick throughout, but the motion of the sea was not in the least detrimental to his sea clock keeping true time.” We get another cute smirk with the seasick line.
After H1, he immediately began work on H2. Again, the concerns of piracy arise. It was said he used workmen to help with the construction, but he’d only give them small pieces of work so that no one could claim any of it.
He continued having trouble with the university men who thought his clocks must be some sort of deception. “I say for the love of money these professors or priests have preferred their cumbersome lunar method over what would be had with ease.” This time there is no humor, he is genuinely angry at being underestimated or thought a fraud. Mr. Malahide exudes the bitterness and contempt, all the while gazing upon beautiful pieces of mechanical art.
Undaunted, he forged ahead, but made an incredible change of direction when he realized that he had been thinking wrong by making the clocks larger. He made the balance wheel heavier, but placed it inside a much smaller watch which was to be placed in a secure holding box. The result was H4.
H4 was tested on a voyage to Barbados, a 46 day voyage with a 30 degree temperature shift. John Harrison was 71 (he didn’t look it – no attempt was made to age Mr. Malahide up) so his son William (I wonder how Mrs. Harrison felt about those late nights with clocks?) ran this test.
Those Pesky University Men
There was a problem, waiting in Barbados to judge the test was Rev. Dr. Nevil Maskelyne, one of the university men who favored the lunar method. William was not pleased. When the box was opened, it was proven that the clock worked, it measured longitude with just 1/6 of a degree error and satisfied the requirements of the prize.
Rev. Dr. Maskelyne, who was the new Astronomer Royal, ordered the timekeepers carted away for further tests. The clock had actually worked too well for them to believe it! This was a massive blow for John Harrison. He was told that his timekeepers were too precious, and that they must be kept tucked away at the Admiralty for safekeeping. There was no reward coming his way.
“Nay, my timekeeper is beyond the reach of both the latitude and the longitude of these villainous priests of Cambridge and Oxford. The trouble with which these “lunar men” have occasioned me….” Ooooh, he’s angry! He’s practically Shakespearian!
Fortunately, William was a cool sort and he wrote to King George III (the “Madness of” guy) who tested H5 himself. George III agreed that Harrison had been wronged. Hooray! Harrison got his money! And as you can see, he put the money to good use. 😉
This is really well produced documentary. The subject, his clocks, and the experts are all engaging, and Mr. Malahide is the most engaging of all. He gives such life to John Harrison, sharing his wit, tenacity, frustration, and eventual success with assurance.
Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude is available on Amazon in Region 1 DVD.