Article on Time 



Newton thought that time was fixed in its regularity and absolute, but Leibnitz and Descartes the philosophers thought it was relational to processes going on and we know since Einstein that time is relational in a scientific sense of related processes. Newton had to assert that a body with no force on it moves in a straight line at constant speed, meaning an fixed distance in a fixed time. But for Einstein, space and time are not constant. Before the universe of matter there was no time, during the universe space bends and time changes in relationship to another time, and in black holes time stops. As craft go faster and faster, time slows down in relation to slower objects. If Leibnitz and Descartes were superseded in their views by Newton, they have returned with a vengeance for time is a servant of physical processes according to relativity. Unfortunately it does not stop here because at quantum level, time is not simply relative regarding processes, it is contradictory for one event seen from different observed viewpoints and methods. In other words time can be different within the one situation, never mind relational between two. No one has yet combined this state of affairs which is no state of affairs.

None of this would have mattered to those who navigated the earth in ships and tried to check their positions in an east-west position. All they needed was working accuracy where Newton would have been quite sufficient. Indeed, Newton was a bit of a red herring in that he was part of the ongoing notion that the problem of navigation lay within the clockwork universe. He believed in astronomical readings, and so did the scientific establishment. Simply, they could measure the height of the sun to check when it was midday, but they could not tell which midday they were at, because they lacked an working accurate basis of comparison. Perhaps they needed lunar readings if the sky was clear and lots of tables, but these seemed too complicated. Newton saw stars and their positions as the way of ensuring one could recapture longitude which a clock could not do if its accuracy was lost. At a time when they measured the speed of light, the weight of the earth and distances across the universe, longitude remained a huge problem. Newton died in 1727.

This web site originated at New Holland, Lincolnshire. Two miles south from there is Barrow, where John Harrison (born March 24th, 1693) lived from being a small infant. He was a carpenter who took on the scientific establishment that supported his clock-making endeavours yet became hell-bent on denying him the prize of £20000, established by Act of Parliament in the reign of Queen Anne, in 1714, to the person who could keep sufficiently accurate time. He achieved this.

A carpenter after his father, he was self taught in Newtonian ideas if verbose in expression and was skilled in music and its time. His larger clocks needed no lubricating by using wood (as with the pendulum clock he built at Brocklesby, not far away, about 1722, once he was known for clock making), they compensated for different temperatures, and were unaffected by surrounding movement. At his Barrow home the clocks were tested against the night sky at this latitude, using a neighbour's chimney and the border of their window pane. The clocks became smaller and more practical (as the Act demanded) and discarded the pendulum in order for them to go to sea, despite having counteracted the effect of different temperatures - and they became ever more accurate. He gained his reward, if not exactly the prize, in 1773, after appeal to the King and Act of Parliament, with just two years of life to enjoy his fortune. His only surviving son, from his second marriage, who faithfully supported him and the quest for the prize, never made another clock afterwards.

The establishment supported the Lunar method. Charles II had established the Greenwich Observatory to build up data on the Moon's complicated movement against the background of the stars. Supporting this view was Newton himself and the belief in the reliable clockwork-like universe. On the other hand a clock was something that would never be accurate or accurate enough, it was thought. But a clock could be, as the Act demanded, practical and useful. The Moon and sky might have to correct it, but they would need complex interpretation.

There were a number of different Harrison clocks. Having been to London once and seen Edmund Halley and George Graham the clockmaker, and partly supported by the East India Company that at the end made chronometers compulsory in all its ships, H-1 (as it was later known) was built with 4 dials in a four foot cubed glazed box. His brother and John Harrison tested it on the Humber, then John showed it to the Royal Society, then it was tested with success to Lisbon in 1736, especially as his ship back neared home and averted danger. Harrison thought he could improve upon it and make it smaller. When he produced H-2 by 1739, he talked it down in front of the Board of Longitude, as he had with H-1. It had a better uniform drive and a more responsive temperature compensation, and was very accurate, and the Royal Society approved. Harrison then lived in London.

It took nearly twenty years to produce H-3, with circular balance wheels to replace the bar shape balances of H-1 and H-2, his main income coming from Board of Longitude stipends. He received the Royal Society's highest award, the Copley Medal, in 1749. H-3 also has a bimetallic strip, as used today, which gives immediate compensation for temperature changes, and caged ball bearings, as used in machines today. It was a foot wide and two feet high and extremely complicated with discarded elements left in place. H-4 was made to be something like a watch made to Harrison's specification by a watchmaker. Signed as John Harrison & Son A.D. 1759 inside, it was five inches in diameter and 3lbs in weight. For a change, John Harrison liked it. It used diamonds, the mechanisms are enclosed, it needed winding each day, and containing friction in its parts it needed lubrication and therefore cleaning, and is subject to wear and tear needing replacements. Yet it was miniaturised accuracy, and despite the difficulties he faced it won him the prize. Presented to the Board in 1760, it was going to be tested with H-3, but after likely deliberate delays, H-4 was tested alone with strict quality controls, where the watch proved its worth in relieving the ships crew with fresh wine enroute. H-4 lost five seconds after an 81 day voyage.

John Harrison

It was after their successful return in 1762 that the Board played dirty, and Parliament became more demanding. Harrison claimed his watch had performed within the 1714 Act and he wanted his prize (as remaining). He would have to have an additional sea trial. An additional Act in 1765 to the original Act made matters worse, and minute explained examination, and making two more watches, the arrest of his other clocks with rough handling, and botched Greenwich testing of H-4. In addition his rival and enemy on the Board, Nevil Maskelyne, had published his lunar tables (see below) in 1763, being the method they thought had most promise.

K-1 built by Larcum Kendall

H-5 was the first of the two watches John Harrison had to make, and it took him three years to make and two to test. The Board also ordered a copy of H-4, which was K-1, built by Larcum Kendall (approved by the Harrisons), and this went for sea trial with Captain Cook and in fact stayed with Cook until his death on three voyages. H-5 itself was tested with the King's continuing interest at the now Kew Observatory and worked extremely well once some lodestones stored near to it had been removed. The King activated a process that eventually bypassed the Board of Longitude and received an amount of money from Parliament that nearly made up the difference in the prize money due. A new Act demanded very stringent tests for the actual prize money to be rewarded, which never was.

After John Harrison had died, Larcum Kendall's work was superseded by Thomas Mudge, and John Arnold produced very many (called chronometers) at a more reasonable cost, the first three of which accompanied K-1 with Captain Cook, and although the climate changes rendered them useless, Arnold eventually produced No. 36 small enough to fit into a pocket, and he and his son (and so did Thomas Mudge's son) went into mass production. However, mass production was only perfected by Thomas Earnshaw with a simpler and unchanging design, and there was much enmity between Arnold and Earnshaw over who had the intellectual property rights. With the proceeding of the century, chronometers were becoming popular, with more than one used to check upon each other, and the Lunar method lost ground in its comparative complexity, although used as support for the chronometers set to Greenwich Mean Time.

Fast mail coaches and especially the railways created the need for a more uniform time in Britain, led by the Great Western Railway from 1840, and adopted by the Railway Clearing House in 1847. Chronometers travelled from London to transmit time accurately. The Post Office had since the 1840's seen the need for a standard time. The adoption of a standard London time by railway companies added to the confusion of travellers who also thought in terms of local time. Major Scottish local authorities changed their time to Greenwich in 1848 but parts of the west of England and indeed (if strangely) some places in the east held out for longer. Incidentally, changed observation meant the Greenwich Meridian line moved about nineteen feet east in 1851. Telegraph messages were instant but heard in some places in the west on the day earlier than in the east using local times, but the Telegraph went on to perform the duty of sending out electrical pulses to transmit the observed correct Greenwich time. It did to Exeter, for example, the day after which on 2nd November 1852 local time was removed from the cathedral clock. The telegraph performed this service from Greenwich as by various circuits (private and public) around Britain until finally in the 1960's and the use of the atomic clock. Although in practice from 1870, it was not until 2nd August 1880 that all legal time in Britain was Greenwich Mean Time. On 5th February 1924 the six pips were introduced on the wireless, and the telephone speaking clock began on 24th July 1936. Also the source clocks of time became more accurate (quartz clocks, for example, though they vary as the quartz ages, and then super tube atomic caesium clocks) and underwent shifts and additions in locations.

Time zones

Of course almost instant communication was not limited to within Britain, and for greater distances time zones were eventually adopted universally (based on Greenwich, by the one hour or half hour, but practical regarding borders and geography) and the 1884 Washington Meridian Conference had chosen Greenwich as the zero of longitude which gave that standard. Later it became known as Universal Time after 1928, with Co-ordinated Universal Time (for time signals) staying within 0.9 seconds of this (as corrected for Polar Motion), allowing for adjustments from a pure time regularity to the slowing, irregularity and variations in the spin of the Earth by which time here (night and day, after all) exists.

From 1967 a (uniform) second was defined as 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom (see Howse, 1997, 173). But then we know that all time is universally relative, and even quantum contradictory!
Free software to reset the computer clock via the internet!

It's that time again!

Smolin, Lee, 'What is Time' in Calvin, W. A. (et. al.) (1995), Science, Mind and Cosmos, Phoenix.

Sobel, Dava (1996), Longitude: The True Story of a Lone genius Who solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, ISBN 1-85702-502-4, Dewey: 681.118.

House, Derek (1997), Greenwich Time and the Longitude, Philip Wilson, Official Millennium Edition, ISBN 0-85667-468-0 (hardback), ISBN 0-948065-26-5 (paperback), Dewey: 529.7, first published as Howse, Derek (1980), Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude, Oxford University Press.