A brief history of Chronometer testing and repair at the Royal Observatory

The Observatory’s involvement with Chronometers dates back to 26 April 1766 when the Board of Longitude resolved that Harrison’s longitude watch (H4) along with his three earlier seagoing clocks should be tested there. Over the next 50 years, a small number of other chronometers were also tested mainly for the Board (these included Kendal No.1, Mudge “Green” and Mudge “Blue”).

In 1818, a new Longitude Act was passed, as a result of which, the post of Superintendent of Chronometers was created with a salary of £100 a year. Initially this was bestowed upon the Hydrographer of the Navy, Captain Thomas Hurd. On 23 July 1821 it was transferred to John Pond, the Astronomer Royal.

A month earlier, on the 25 June, following up a suggestion from the chronometer maker WJ Frodsham, the Admiralty instigated a series of annual trials at the Observatory ‘for the purpose of further encouraging the improvement of chronometers’. To encourage makers to submit their instruments, it was announced that the Admiralty would ‘purchase, at the end of each year, the chronometer which shall have kept the best time, at the price of £300, and the second best at the price of £200’.

The first trial began in 1822, and was followed by twelve others. From 1828 instead of agreeing to purchase the two best chronometers, the Admiralty instead purchased the best three for £200, £170, and £130 respectively. Each of the trials, which became known as the ‘Premium Trials’, lasted for a period of 12 months. They were discontinued in 1836 as no useful purpose seemed likely to be served by continuing them. Over the course of the trials, there had been no marked improvements nor had there been any new inventions or discoveries. Worse still, some individuals had abused the system by entering chronometers that they had not made.

As well as being responsible for conducting the trials Pond was also required to run the complete administration for the issuing and receiving of chronometers. His successor George Airy objected to this arrangement and managed to ditch much of the administrative work as he told the Visitors when he presented his Annual Report in June 1836:

‘ I have on a former occasion expressed to the Visitors my belief, that the oppression of business arising from the care of chronometers has been most injurious to the astronomical efficiency and general reputation of the Royal Observatory: and I take this opportunity of repeating that belief. I also beg to remark, that this oppression has not been produced by that part of the business which relates to the rating or reporting upon or experimenting upon chronometers, but by that which relates to the money accounts, the accounts of chronometers in store, &c., and the delivery of chronometers to ships. At my representation, alterations have been made in several of the arrangements, the effect of which has been to diminish in some degree the various interruptions to the astronomical business of the place. If at any subsequent time it should be necessary for me to request an expression of opinion from this Board, I trust that I may represent their sentiments correctly by saying, that the persons of this establishment are astronomical observers and calculators, not clerks; that the Observatory is an astronomical institution, not a storehouse; and that any regulation which makes the account-keeping and storekeeping department predominant over the astronomical is an unjustifiable and injurious diversion of its powers.’

A new series of trials in a different format was begun by Airy in 1840. In 1888/9 separate trials for watches were instigated. These trials continued in much the same format until the outbreak of war in 1914 at which point, they were suspended. Although the formal trials ceased, the testing of watches and chronometers for the Navy did not. As late as 1926, it was still the Astronomer Royal’s intention to reinstate the formal trials, but this never happened, the work of the Observatory’s Chronometer Department becoming largely confined to rating of chronometers and watches that the Admiralty already owned.

In 1936, on the retirement of William Bowyer, Humphry Smith was appointed as the new Head of the Time Department. Unlike Bowyer who had risen through the ranks having started as a Boy Computer in the 1890s, Smith arrived on the scene as a young graduate.

In 1937, at his intsigation, a workshop was set up for the first time for the repair and adjustment of watches and chronometers. This was a strategic move designed to both ensure a high standard of work (at that time the work was being done by commercial workshops whose number and standards were in decline) and a continuity of service should hostilities develop within Europe. Initially, it had just two members of staff, Robert Kunzler (Principal Watch Adjuster) and Hugh Warden (Assistant Watch Adjuster).

With the outbreak of war, the Time Department was effectively split into two. In September 1939, George Rickett (the most senior of Smith’s staff) was evacuated with the chronometers and a small team and the workshop staff first to Bristol and then to Lynchetts, a requisitioned house, in Bradford on Avon. Meanwhile a duplicate time service was set up at the Magnetic Observatory in Abinger.

At Lynchetts, the number of workshop staff gradually increased from five in 1941 to ten in 1944. At the end of December 1944, a new watch repair shop was completed in a substantial prefabricated building that had been constructed for the purpose in the garden. Throughout the war Rickett and his team, worked tirelessly to keep the armed forces supplied with the properly tested and rated chronometers and watches they needed, issuing some 21,023 instruments in the last year of the war.

After the war, the owner of Lynchetts resorted to the threat of legal action in order to get the house back. As a result, the Chronometer Department (as it had by then become, with George Rickett as its head) was the first to move into the Observatory’s new site at Herstmonceux. One of the problems however of moving to such an isolated site was the inevitable lack of nearby housing. Whilst the Astronomer Royal was going to have an apartment in the Castle, those staff not in a position to buy a property were expected to take up hostel accommodation in the hutments or attics of the Castle until permanent housing became available. Those with families rejected this arrangement.

Meanwhile, the local council had been consulted and had made the promise of a special allocation of council housing. But this still had to be built, and was in any case only going to be available to married members of staff. At around the time that the Astronomer Royal was moving into the Castle, six houses became available which were sufficient in number to accommodate the staff of the chronometer department who moved in September 1948.

At Herstmonceux, the paperwork for the Chronometer Department was done in an office on the north side of the Library landing in the Castle. A chronometer workshop was set up in one of the wartime hutments, whilst the rating of the chronometers under varying conditions of temperature took place in rooms on the lower floor of the west-wing of the Castle.

In 1957, the chronometer workshop moved into a purpose built space on the first floor of the newly completed West Building. The office and rating section however remained in the Castle until 1962.

With the rapid growth in the number of science and engineering graduates, together with problems inherent in the funding of ‘big’ science, the way in which civil science in the UK was arranged was reviewed by a committee set up in 1963 under the chairmanship of Sir Burke Trend. Among the outcomes of this review was the Science and Technology Act 1965, and the creation in April 1965 of the Science Research Council (SRC), to which control of the Observatory apart from the Chronometer Department was transferred from the Admiralty Board. In the run up to this change, in 1964, all the ‘non-industrial staff’ of the Department were redeployed to posts in other departments.



Click here to read the minutes of the Board of Longitude meeting held on 26 April 1766
Click here to read the letter appointing Pond to the position of Superintendent of Chronometers

See also:

Chronometer Section: 1914–1981 by William Roseman
The staff of the Chronometer Department
Rates of chronometers and watches on trial at the Observatory, 1840–1915, (from the appendices of Greenwich Observations)