The Origins and Development of the Marine Chronometer

Nikos Hecht
Oct 23, 2019 · 2 min read
Marine Chronometer By User:Ktr101 — Ladd Observatory, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45968685

A native of Colorado, Nikos Hecht represents a sustained success story within the hedge fund industry. Passionate about tennis and wine, Nikos Hecht also maintains an extensive collection of rare and unique watches.

One of the most storied categories of timepiece is the marine chronometer, which was developed to provide accurate timekeeping when at sea, where the need was most acute. Knowing the exact time is essential to determining location, because one hour corresponds to 15 degrees of longitude.

By the 18th century, accurate timekeeping on land was firmly established through pendulum clocks. Unfortunately, the pendulums and weights that made up such clocks would move erratically at sea, even when secured within gimbals. While spring-regulated oscillators in pocket watches were not as affected by ocean movements, their mechanism was not of high enough quality to ensure accuracy.

The end result could be fatal, as in 1707, when a fleet of 21 British warships was blown off course and more than 2,000 sailors lost their lives after hitting rocks in the Scilly Isles, near the Cornwall coast. Spurred by a nationally mandated competition, it was John Harrison who developed the marine chronometer over a period of decades, with the fifth-generation H5 effectively solving the “longitudinal” problem.

The impact of this sophisticated timepiece was profound, with ships’ captains and masters invariably possessing a chronometer, and officers setting their own time by them, such that the crew operated by a unified system of timekeeping. The same principles of the gimbal-mounted sea clocks were ultimately integrated within compact deck watches made by the likes of Hamilton, Mercer, and Zenith.

A Colorado-based financial professional, Nikos Hecht most recently spent 14 years as a founding partner at Aspen Advisors.

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