BRITISH HERITAGE 

We have been inspired by British innovators seeking to mitigate danger on land and sea. Our British designs reflect the tenacious spirit of those who made a difference with these timely developments.

The Longitude Act

The escalation in long distance sea travel during the period of the 16th to 18th centuries made navigation, particularly knowing your position on the globe by pinpointing two coordinates on the lines of latitude and longitude, increasingly important. Measuring latitude using the sun has been known about and used for centuries but measuring longitude proved very challenging. Over the course of this time maritime nations seeking to dominate the oceans offered rewards to solve this problem.

In 1714 the British government passed an Act of Parliament which offered a prize of £20,000 to any person who could determine longitude at sea to within a half degree or the equivalent of two minutes of time. “…nothing is so much wanted and desired at sea, as the discovery of the longitude, for the safety and quickness of voyages, the preservation of ships, and the lives of men…” The Longitude Act, 1714. Submissions were assessed by the Board of Longitude which consisted of experts selected from scientific, maritime and political leaders, including the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich.

Many eminent scientists applied themselves to the challenge but it was John Harrison, an unknown British joiner and clock maker, who succeeded in the task. He and others thought that time was key - knowing the local time at your position and the time at a reference point, such as Greenwich, establishes the time difference between the two and this is used to calculate the degrees of longitude at your position. The problem was, no clocks existed which could travel and maintain accurate time. Harrison spent many years developing and refining his design for a spring-driven clock which maintained an accuracy to within two minutes. This work culminated in H4 which lost just five seconds in over two months at sea on a voyage from England to Jamaica in 1761-62. Harrison was the eventual winner of the prize and his clock later became known as the marine chronometer.

The Railways and Greenwich Mean Time

The introduction of rail travel was the impetus for the harmonisation of time across different local areas in Great Britain. As the number of train journeys increased a higher incidence of accidents and narrow misses occurred due to the inconsistent time keeping across the nation.  The response to this was the introduction of Railway Time by the Great Western Railway in 1840.

In the following two or three years all railway companies adopted Railway Time which soon became standardised with London Time. This was set at Greenwich by the Royal Observatory and was known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) a standard that endures to this day. This was used to set station clocks and to organise train schedules. Although there was some initial resistance to adopting London Time - in some instances the station clock differed by several minutes from other public clocks - it soon became accepted as the default time. In 1880 the government legislated for a single standard time and a single time zone across the whole of the country.

The Wristwatch was not Always so Popular

It is believed that the world's first wristwatch was created in 1810 by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, although the idea of wristwatches can be traced back to the 16th century; Elizabeth I of England received an 'arm watch' from Robert Dudley in 1571.

During the 19th century wristwatches tended to be described as bracelets and were almost exclusively worn by ladies, with gentlemen preferring pocket watches until the 20th century.

In the late 19th century the British military was engaged in several overseas campaigns and it was during this period that British Officers first began to attach pocket watches to their wrists using leather cup straps. From 1885 this trend became more prevalent. By the end of the 19th century the use of precision timing to manage battlefield manoeuvres necessitated swift access to the correct time and this resulted in the increasingly widespread use of wristwatches amongst the military.

By the 20th century dedicated wristwatches capable of withstanding the rigours of warfare were being manufactured. These featured unbreakable glass, luminous dials (achieved using radium paint) and waterproof cases. The development in aviation at this time saw the demand for wristwatches expand to include military pilots in addition to ground troops.

By the end of WWI virtually all enlisted men wore a wristwatch and continued to do so when they returned to civilian life. The wider population quickly noted this and so it was that the wristwatch became the timepiece of choice for gentlemen. 

Picture: John Harrison

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