Harrison precision pendulum-clock x-ray

An x-ray of a wheel, in this case the great wheel, from John Harrison’s precision pendulum-clock No. 2, reveals some interesting details about its construction, and some hints as to Harrison’s roots as a joiner in a largely rural area. First, the movement is made almost entirely of oak. There are some small components made of lignum vitae, a very dense and waxy tropical hardwood from the West Indies and Central Amercia. Its waxiness means that it has a very slippery, smooth surface. Harrison used them for friction reduction without lubrication and he probably learned about this material from ship’s carpenters in Hull and on the Humber estuary.

The picture above shows the use of lignum vitae in the mechanism of a wooden ship, in this case a roller pinion used to help ease the steering linkages to the rudder. The ship is a copy of the VOC Batavia, moored in Zuider Zee, the Netherlands.

The construction of the wheels of the Harrison clock movement is very similar to the construction of the wooden wheels seen in the machinery of wind and water mills.

The grain of the wooden teeth is aligned radially, like sunbeams. For Harrison’s clock wheels and cogs this was done by gluing blanks of wood into a groove cut into the edge of the wheel, and then forming the teeth. If the wheel had been formed from one piece of wood, the teeth at the short grain parts of the wheels would have snapped off. Whilst there is no direct evidence that the Harrisons worked on windmills, the fact is Lincolnshire had hundreds of them, a good supply of wind readily available from the North Sea, to power the windmills that ground the wheat that grew in the flat lands of Lincolnshire. An interesting feature is that Harrison used very slow growing quartered oak for the main body of the wheels. The annual rings are very close together, so the wheel is both very stable and light. The wood for the teeth is, however, from fast growing oak. It is denser and therefore stronger, strength where it is needed. Harrison really knew his onions when it came to materials, an engineering approach to woodworking. My own tests comparing the weights of slow grown and fast grown oak show that the slow grown is a considerable 27% lighter than the fast grown oak. The picture below (picture credit Jeff Darken) is a cog from Harrison’s precision pendulum-clock No. 2. The inner construction is shown in the x-ray at the top of this blog entry. The roller pinions are of lignum vitae. There is an earlier blog entry about this clock, search under Conservation.

Picture by Jeff Darken

A BBC documentary on John Harrison is available on iPlayer until 24/05/2010


And a Yorkshire Post article




The Science Museum’s website included a section on Making the Modern World; the subject of navigation and the technologies developed to enable precise navigation and mapmaking features on the link below:


The Science Museum also has one of Harrison’s earliest clocks, before he began his longitude experiments:


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Are slow and fast growing oaks from different species or different growing conditions? Were they chosen for their strength after the trees were felled and seasoned?

    And are we just dealing with robur and petraea here?

    There's more to making wooden clock components than meets the eye.



  2. Ian says:

    It is not known exactly what species of oak he used, though they will of course be European oak. The difference between slow grown and fast grown oak will be down to the growing conditions. It is highly likely that the slow grown stuff will have been trees in the Baltic area, north Germany, something like that. It was where the best “wainscot” quality oak came from, because of its mild and even working properties, and fine, even figure. Most likely it was processed into boards in Rotterdam or Amsterdam and shipped to Hull, or Barrow Haven, where Harrison would have acquired it. The fast grown oak might have been local, but then maybe it was imported too. The softwood used for the case is definitely an import too. It shows signs of being processed in a sawmill and the first sawmills were not operating in Britain until the 1770s.


  3. Bryan says:

    The difference between fast and slow grown oak is whether it grew in a forest or in an open field, not so much the species. The oak in an open field will grow faster and be stronger and more dense.


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