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Reviving Forgotten Science to Build the World’s Most Accurate Pendulum Clock – The Atlantic
Building an Impossible Clock
The 18th-century horologist John Harrison claimed that he could make the world’s most accurate pendulum clock, but his methods were scorned for hundreds of years—until someone proved him right.
* * *As a rule, Donald Saff doesn’t collect clocks he can’t see inside of. It’s the harmonic entanglement of gears—and the skill needed to craft them—that first lured him to horology, the study of measuring time.In 2004, browsing through a tiny shop in midtown Manhattan, Saff saw a 55-inch clock sitting on the windowsill. He was immediately riveted—the clock was beautiful, he recalled, in a way that reminded him of Grace Kelly. Looking at its insides, visible through the dusty glass, he could tell that the clock was in poor condition. But he could also see that it was a technical tour de force.Examining the clock, Saff noticed something particularly remarkable: a grasshopper escapement. All pendulum clocks have an escapement, a swinging mechanism that pushes the pendulum at a steady rate over the seconds, minutes, and hours. The grasshopper escapement is a low-friction version invented by the clockmaker John Harrison in the early 18th century, and rarely used in modern clocks.
Actually, “rarely used” is something of an understatement—both 18th-century and contemporary horological communities have rejected Harrison’s pendulum designs. They were difficult to understand and seemed to contradict accepted knowledge about how to build clocks. Yet here was a fragment of Harrison’s design centuries later, an anachronism—and a seeming impossibility—preserved in steel.The owner of the store told Saff the clock was too damaged to ever be restored. But Saff was persuasive; he was sure he could fix it. He took home the clock that day—and unknowingly set the wheels in motion for a renaissance of Harrison’s clock-making science, dismissed and ignored for 300 years.