Ship Chronometer: A Brief History of Navigation

A marine chronometer is not just a device by which a cook can find out what time to serve lunch. Historically, this device carried a much more important function - without the help of a chronometer it was impossible to determine longitude, which means the exact location of the ship. In other words, navigation depended on time and - the life of sailors.

Chapter 1. The Sea of ​​Time

The fact is that latitude is an absolute value, that is, a fraction of the distance from the equator to the pole. But the longitude is “ephemeral”, it is reckoned from a certain meridian, and any point can be taken as zero (it’s interesting that different countries considered completely different meridians at zero at different times). When the ship is close to the shore indicated on the map, it is possible to determine longitude, but in the open sea this is a purely calculated value, when measured which there is nothing to push from anything else.

Method for determining longitude using a marine chronometer.

In 1530, the Dutch mathematician Frisius Renier Gemma proposed a relatively simple method for determining longitude using the angle of the Sun (day) or the North Star (night) above the horizon at a strictly defined time, for example, at noon or midnight. At the same time, the accuracy of measuring the angle was quite high, but an approximate understanding of the noon led to significant errors. Plus or minus a few temporary minutes could give several degrees of error - and when sailing long distances, this meant a deviation of tens and hundreds of miles! The problem was so significant that in 1714 the British Parliament established a special body - the Commission of Longitudes, whose sole purpose was to encourage inventions aimed at solving the problem.

The creation of an absolutely accurate marine watch rested on several issues. Firstly, high humidity, salt evaporation, pressure changes and so on led to mechanical changes in the elements of the mechanism. They were worn, deformed, broken. And secondly, and more significantly, an ordinary pendulum working due to gravity did not function very well in swimming: depending on the area of ​​navigation, the difference in gravitational forces acting on it could reach 0.2%. And, of course, the ship constantly rocked.

H1 John Harrison's first marine timepiece.

The first attempts to create a marine chronometer that works regardless of pitching and other factors were made at the end of the 17th century. Famous developments of Christian Huygens, William Derem and other scientists. But in the already mentioned 1714, the newly formed Longitude Commission established a prize of £ 10, 000 (subsequently raised to £ 20, 000) for the development of such watches - and ordinary watchmakers set to work. Judge for yourself: with our money it is from 2 to 4 million pounds!

As a result, the English self-taught watchmaker John Harrison succeeded. He and his brother James were experts in “clock cabinets, ” a large grandfather clock with long pendulums. Harrison took up the “tender” in 1730 at the age of 37, and demonstrated his first marine chronometer, now known as the H1, in 1736. In the same year, he made a test voyage from London to Lisbon on the Centurion sailboat and back on another Orford ship (due to the captain of the Centurion suddenly dying in Lisbon). Upon arrival, the time was drilled with a “model” specimen - the deviation still was, although not very large. Harrison realized that the work was not so simple, and the first attempt to resolve the issue would fail.

H2 and H3 The second and third model is the Harrison Chronometer.

Harrison developed the H2 model, which was planned to be tested while sailing across the ocean, but the tests were canceled due to the outbreak of war between England and Spain, and while the fighting was ongoing, the watchmaker began to build the H3 version, even more advanced. In it, for the first time in the history of watchmaking, he used bearings and bimetallic parts to compensate for thermal expansion.

We will not talk in detail about the future path of Harrison - more than one book has been written about this. We will only say that he finished the very famous H4 watch, which eventually solved the problem of marine timing, in 1761 at the age of 68, and a few years later showed the H5 model, which was officially recognized by the Longitude Commission as working. In 1772, the elderly Harrison finally received his prize, not counting more than 4000 pounds (with our money - about a million pounds) allocated to him over the years for development.

H4 The fourth Harrison model was no longer a desktop chronometer, but a kind of pocket watch.

Harrison watches spread around the world - they were on the ships of researchers, in particular, James Cook, and on military ships. Today, the originals of the work of Harrison and his heirs can be viewed at the Museum of Science and Technology in London, at the Greenwich Observatory and several other museums.

H5 The final construction of Harrison, for which he received the "prize fund" of the Commission of Longitudes.

There was only one “but”. Harrison's maritime watches were a complex and expensive movement. Only a few watchmakers were able to make such watches, and a very small percentage of shipbuilders equipped their ships with marine chronometers of similar accuracy. Until the middle of the 19th century, marine chronometers could hardly be called serial products - and there were a lot of them, especially when England was the first to issue a decree on the mandatory installation of these devices on all military and civilian vessels. It was then that Ulysses Nardan appeared.

Chapter 2. The politeness of kings

Leonard-Frederic Nardan was one of many Swiss watchmakers of the early 19th century. Switzerland then began to gain strength, becoming the leader in world production of timepieces and intercepting this banner from the dominant British. The main watch city of mainland Europe was Geneva. The growth rate of the Swiss was incredible. Compare: in 1800, Switzerland and England produced an equal amount of 200, 000 hours, and half a century later, in 1850, England produced the same 200, 000, and Switzerland produced 2, 200, 000 devices!

This was primarily due to the "serial revolution": the Swiss began to move away from the traditional principle of production, family affairs. Before that, watchmakers, of course, were united in trade unions, but they worked on their own, did everything alone - from the mechanism to painting the dial, taught the secrets of children's craftsmanship, and, in fact, were closer to jewelry than to mechanical production, where long ago the ball of artels and manufactories ruled. In the first half of the 19th century, Switzerland gradually switched to a manufacturing scheme of work, while not losing the highest quality that created the glory of their products.

Ulysse Nardin pocket watch of the mid-19th century.

Leonard-Frederick was a classic watchmaker. His work was personalized, and he transferred his skills to his son, Ulysses, who was born in Le Locle on January 22, 1823. Le Locle was not the watch capital of the world then (as already mentioned, it was more like Geneva), but a number of watchmakers worked there. In Switzerland, in principle, there was no town where at least a few watchmakers would not work. By the way, the watch industry in Le Locle to everything else was “hooked” by the Great French Revolution. Due to the border position of the town there were many sympathizers with the Jacobins, and the Swiss authorities pursued a repressive policy in order to avoid a revolution; a number of strong watchmakers emigrated to France, mainly to Besancon.

Manufacture on Jardin Street in Le Locle: Ulysse Nardin moved here in 1865.

But back to Ulysses Nardan and the marine chronometers. Ulysses continued the work of his father - but in a new way. In 1846, contrary to family traditions, he founded a manufactory with hired workers. He called her, as it should, his own name - Ulysse Nardin. The factory immediately began to work in two directions - pocket and sea watches. Pocket watches were always in demand and provided profit, while marine watches promised contracts with the army.

In 1860, Ulysses introduced a specific device - an astronomical calibrator of high accuracy, which made it possible to calibrate a pocket watch to tenths of a second. This device was invented at the beginning of the century by the “father of Swiss watches” Jacques-Frederic Urier, but it was practically not used for ordinary chronometers. We hasten to remind you that at that time the watch often did not even have a minute hand, and the answer “what time is it” was considered to be the correct answer “yes, somewhere around noon”.

The consequences were not long in coming. In 1862, at the World's Fair in London, Ulysse Nardin pocket watches received their first gold medal. It was the highest award in the industry at that time, as if the modern film received both the Oscars, the Golden Palm Branch and the Golden Bear. In 1865, the manufactory moved to Zharden Street (if translated - Sadovaya Street), where it is located to this day. Ulysses shared the leadership with his son, Paul 21, who had reached the age of 21.

At the same time, the production of marine chronometers developed. They have already gone far from the original construction of Harrison and were based both on the principles introduced by the English watchmaker, and on other, competing schemes that appeared in the late XVIII - early XIX centuries. By the way, Nardan began to use bimetals and other "know-how" of sea watches in ordinary models - practically no one did this before.

Ulysse Nardin marine chronometer.

The problem of marine chronometers was, as mentioned above, their inaccessibility. No manufacturer could quickly produce a series of, say, 50 marine chronometers to provide the fleet of a country with similar instruments. They continued to be piece goods. Having experience in the manufacture of watches of the highest quality, Nardan has developed a number of models of marine chronometers that provide perfect accuracy and at the same time are suitable for more or less mass production. Subsequently, this had a significant effect. For example - let's run ahead - in 1904, the company signed a contract with the Imperial Court of Japan on equipping the entire Japanese fleet with marine chronometers. She tried to sign a similar contract with Russia, but something did not work out with the papers, and as a result, the batch of Ulysse Nardin marine chronometers was acquired by the Russian fleet privately in a single transaction. A historical incident arose: during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, the ships of both belligerents were equipped with the same chronometers!

A Ulysse Nardin watch awarded a gold award at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

But Ulysses was not destined to see the success of his marine company - he died suddenly in 1876 at the age of 53 years. Two years later, at the World Exhibition in Paris, Ulysse Nardin received two gold medals at once - the second for a pocket watch and the first for marine chronometers. The company received the fourth such medal at the World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 - the very one where the electricity king, Nikola Tesla, shone. In general, since its inception, the company has received more than 4, 300 (!) Various industry awards.

Since the end of the 19th century, the company has protected a number of patents for “complications, ” that is, additional functions that increase accuracy or give the watch new features. Generally speaking, in the special literature, the type of watch the company specializes in today is called the grand complication watch - some of its branches directly emerged from professional instruments for measuring the time of the 19th century and today require exactly the same highest precision in manufacturing along with maintaining traditions. We will not dwell on the technical innovations of the early XX century. For example, let's say that in 1936 the company released a 24-inch pocket chronometer, the second hand of which measured tenths of a second - the first time in the industry.

Chapter 3. Sea Glory

Back to the marine chronometers. In 1975, the Neuchatel Observatory released an official almanac with statistics on the history of Swiss watchmaking. In accordance with it, out of 4504 quality certificates issued from 1846 to 1975 by the Swiss marine chronometers, 4324 (i.e. 95%) received Ulysse Nardin devices. The company's marine watches received 2411 industry awards (1069 of which were first prizes) and a total of 14 World Exhibition medals, 10 of them were gold.

Manufacture Ulysse Nardin. Manual assembly of watches.

At the same time, the value of marine chronometers gradually began to decline. At first, this was connected with the “quartz revolution”, that is, the advent of a new technology that uses a quartz crystal as an oscillating system in a watch. In Switzerland, this led, as you know, to the so-called “Quartz crisis”, when inexpensive and accurate Japanese watches massively arrived on the market. But this is a different story.

Marine chronometers began to move to quartz - but there was no revolution and crisis, because already in the 1980s, ships began to massively use satellite navigation to determine location. This made marine chronometers simply unnecessary - now the computer determined the longitude. However, any modern ship is necessarily equipped with a quartz high-precision chronometer in case of a GPS system failure. When everything is in order with the signal, this chronometer is corrected by checking world time through the same satellite.


In 1996, in memory of its navigational history, the company released the legendary 1846 Marine Chronometer model with the Perpetual Ludwig movement, named after the developer, watchmaker Ludwig Eschlin. As you might guess, it was a model with an eternal calendar, and she became the founder of the Marine collection, symbolizing the brand's close relationship with the sea. Later, in 1999, the GMT Perpetual model appeared, combining a perpetual calendar with several time zones - the company fully justified the glory of the developer of the grand complication watch class. To this day, the company annually receives patents for new mechanisms and presents models with ever-expanding capabilities, without changing the classic design traditions.

But what about Ulysse Nardin? The company successfully survived all the crises and in time left the market of marine chronometers that collapsed at one point. The question arose: what to do with numerous developments and traditions of one and a half centuries in this area? And the answer was not long in coming. The fact is that high-precision marine timing technologies are not outdated and have not become useless. They simply ceased to be necessary in a particular industry - in navigation. But this does not negate their incredible quality, endurance in any extreme conditions, complete independence from changes in temperature and humidity - and so on. Therefore, technology has finally moved into the area in which the company was already one of the world leaders, that is, in the production of high-quality watches.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur on the pages of Popular Mechanics

The latest masterpiece from the Ulysse Nardin Marine collection, directly related to maritime history and traditions, is the Marine Torpilleur model. The collection already included the Marine Grand Deck (“upper deck”) and Marine Regatta (“regatta”) watches, while torpilleur is translated as “torpedo boat”. This name emphasizes both the dynamics and functionality of the model (such boats were light and maneuverable), as well as the company's historical military ties - we talked about Japanese and Russian fleets above.

The heart of the model is the UN-118 caliber with automatic winding (with a power reserve of 60 hours) and silicon release. The diameter of the caliber is 31.6 mm, the thickness is 6.45 mm, it consists of 248 parts, it has the functions of indicating hours, minutes, seconds, power reserve and date with quick adjustment in any direction. First of all, the dial design speaks about the marine theme - Roman numerals, historical “marine” fonts, characteristic forms of hands. And, of course, the water resistance hints at the sea, which is very serious for such watches, up to 50 meters!

Calibor UN-118.

Marine Torpilleur with a diameter of 42 mm is presented in three models - from 18-carat rose gold with a white dial on a leather strap, and also from stainless steel with a white dial on a leather strap and with a blue dial on the bracelet.

Generally speaking, Ulysse Nardin is an example of a harmonious combination of historical traditions and high technologies of the 21st century. For example, in the 118th caliber, the descent is made of silicon and synthetic diamond, and this technology, known as DIAMonSIL, is a specific know-how, patented only a few years ago. On the other hand, Ulysse Nardin dials are made using traditional hand-made technology - we visited Donzé Cadrans in Le Locle and wrote an article about it.

Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur

And, of course, this is the sea. No wonder John Harrison invented the sea clock 250 years ago, and Ulysses Nardan brought it to perfection 150 years ago.

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