It's About Time: Prototyping and Intent

It's About Time: Prototyping and Intent is a text by Greg J. Smith. It's included in the e-book 'New Materials, New Methods' (2014).

It's About Time: Prototyping and Intent

The ‘Jeffreys’ watch, the first marine chronometer and the timepiece that won Harrison the Longitude Prize. Photograph taken at The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich by David Brossard.

And ‘mechaniking’ can crack the anticipated twitches of the twenty-first century because, there being nothing needed doing, there will be no need for timetables. But everybody likes a watch.” —George Danielsi

On June 24th 1737, a research consortium convened in London to inspect a curious prototype. Although formed some twenty-four years earlier, until that summer day, this board of commissioners had never had any reason to meet. Standing before this panel of distinguished astronomers, mathematicians, and naval officers was John Harrison, a 44-year-old carpenter and self-taught clockmaker who, while somewhat dishevelled compared to the scientific elite he had sought audience with, had been endorsed as possessing considerable mechanical expertise by the scholars at The Royal Society. Harrison presented a 35 kilogram cabinet-sized marine timekeeping device—a sea clock—and was warmly received by the board. He left the meeting with financial support to help him improve his design and develop the first marine chronometer, a clock accurate enough to be used as a portable time standard.

The board Harrison had met with had good reason to fund his design development. In 1714, British Parliament had tasked them with overseeing the solution of one of the greatest scientific problems of the era: finding a means to calculate the longitudinal position of a ship. While using a octant to measure the angle of the noon sun and consulting reference tables would reveal a vessel’s latitude, a tool or technique for reliably locating how far east or west a ship had travelled remained elusive, and navigators crudely estimated, logged, and updated positions based on compass readings, speed, and distance from known points. Between wind, currents, and the errors that would accumulate, this method of dead or deduced reckoning left much to be desired. The sea has little tolerance for imprecision, and shipwrecks that destroyed thousands of lives and countless tonnes of precious cargo occurred with alarming frequency.

Finding a means to calculate longitude was of vital importance to Britain, as making transoceanic travel less perilous would spur economic growth and facilitate empire expansion. At the time of Harrison’s meeting with the Longitude Board, the commissioners were charged with screening and evaluating proposed solutions with a ‘grand prize’ of £20,000 (€3.2M in 2014) to be awarded for a method that could determine longitude within 30 nautical miles (56 km). Consensus was that there were two methods worth investigating: lunar distanceii and precision timekeeping. Given that the world revolves 360° each day, for every 15° of longitude one travels west from a prime meridian (a 0° benchmark), local time moves back an hour. If you could keep ‘reference time’ at a prime meridian, then the difference between local time on a vessel and reference time could be used to calculate longitude. However, this was a daunting technical challenge, as even a clock that was 99.99% accurate would err by 8.64 seconds a day, which would compound and be about ten minutes off after two months at sea.iii Encouragingly, Harrison’s prototype had performed well enough in a preliminary sea test to appear to be within striking distance of the required accuracy.

Born in Yorkshire in the spring of 1693, Harrison took to music at a young age and played the viola, rang the bells, and served as choirmaster at his local church. Harrison grew to master the family trade of carpentry and taught himself clockmaking, fashioning his first pendulum clock (all wood, of course) in 1713. In 1720 he was commissioned to design a tower clock to sit atop a stable in Brocklesby Park in North Lincolnshire. Largely constructed from oak parts, the design cleverly deployed the self-lubricating hardwood lignum vitae and brass, yielding clockwork that required minimal maintenance. Furthermore, he implemented a low-friction ‘grasshopper’ escapement to regulate the pendulum clock’s movements. In 1725, Harrison refined his grasshopper escapement and invented a new type of pendulum while building a pair of grandfather clocks. Constructed with an assembly of alternating brass and steel vertical rods, the period (swing) of the pendulum was consistent regardless of changes in temperature as the metals had varying thermal expansion coefficients. This ‘gridiron’ pendulum’s steady performance despite heat and cold had dramatic implications for nautical timekeeping, as sea clocks were notorious for slowing down and speeding up during transit between northern and equatorial ports.

In January 1741, Harrison met with the Longitude Board and presented the second version of his sea clock design. Lightweight and compact compared to his original, it was also more accurate and less susceptible to temperature changes. Once again, Harrison received encouragement and financial support from the board. Then, something unexpected happened: it took Harrison two decades to complete his third sea clock. When the significantly more grey-haired tinkerer did emerge from his workshop with a new design, his progress was incremental. While this third clock featured further improvements in its component designiv, by the time it was complete Harrison had all but abandoned hope that a tabletop-sized sea clock would ever be stable or accurate enough for his needs. In 1753, spurned by this realization and advances in metallurgy, he began collaborating with the London watchmaker John Jeffreys to implement some of his innovations in a pocket watch.

On November 18th 1761, the first marine chronometer designed to Harrison’s specificationsv was sea-tested in a trip to the West Indies on the Deptford, and it arrived in Jamaica on January 19th. Incredibly, the pocket watch was only off by 5.1 seconds, yielding an error in longitude of one nautical mile. Harrison had done it: he had dedicated his life to revolutionizing timekeeping, and his investment paid off. Unfortunately, it took another decade for him to see any compensation for his breakthrough, as the Longitude Board was petty and uncooperative with subsequent testing and ‘approval’ of his timepiece. There was speculation that Harrison’s (lower) class played into how he was treated, and the fact that the board skewed towards boosterism for finding an astronomical solution rather than a ‘mechanical’ one also didn’t help. Despite these bureaucratic inefficiencies, the Longitude Prize had been a resounding success and catalyzed some serious made-to-order innovation. It was doubly successful, in fact, as the lunar distance method was proven effectivevi at about the same time that the chronometer was.

Approximately 250 years later, science writer Dava Sobel describes the Longitude Board as “the world’s first official research-and-development [R&D] agency,”vii and given its longitude calculation technique windfall, it would be hard to argue with her claim. What if we further pursued Sobel’s contemporary framing of the Longitude Prize as the birth of R&D though? What if we looked to the ‘reveal’ of another timepiece, by another entrepreneur, in another century—what might we learn in comparing cultures of innovation and the intent that drives them? Let’s try, and see.

On September 9th 2014, journalists and mobile industry power brokers convened in Cupertino, California to inspect several curious prototypes. Although this extended community met with some regularity, it had been approximately three months since the last Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Standing before this panel of media insiders was Tim Cook, a 53-year-old CEO who, while somewhat polished compared to the dishevelled journalists he had sought audience with, had been endorsed as possessing considerable keynote acumen by the technology sector. Cook presented a smartwatch to the assembled press and was warmly received. He left the event with the promise of future sales to help him improve his design and develop Apple’s first foray into wearable technology, a highly customizable watch accurate enough to be used as a portable time standard.

The media delegates Cook had presented to had good reason to laud the ever-increasing share value of AAPL. In 2009, Samsung launched the S9110 Watch Phone, a composite camera, FM radio, compass, and e-reading device that set out to solve one of the most banal problems of the era: providing phone-like functionality on a watch. Samsung’s smartwatch and others like it, made by established players like Sony and crowdfunding upstarts like the Pebble Technology Corporation, weren’t getting much traction beyond rabid gadget enthusiasts, and as of yet, no smartwatch had captured the wider public’s imagination. Between the battered economy and a growing technological malaise, devices offering yet more screen-based experiences were met with suspicion. The market has a limited tolerance for surprises, and product flops that destroyed dozens of careers and left countless tonnes of unsold inventory occurred on occasion.

Designing a product to justify an ‘above and beyond the smartphone’ consumer electronic purchase was of vital importance to Apple, as increasing user engagement would spur economic growth and facilitate ecosystem expansion. In Cook’s keynote, he repeatedly described the Apple Watch as “the most personal device we’ve ever created,” while a video voiceover by design lead Jony Ive extolled how “you can’t determine a boundary between the physical object and the software.”viii This description of seamlessness wasn’t complete hyperbole, as the Apple Watch cleverly rethought the traditional crown (dial) component as an input device, and this feature coupled with a pressure-sensitive touch display and haptic feedback yielded a tactile timepiece that serves up succinct blips of content and related microinteractions. Accurate to within 50 milliseconds the smartwatch bolsters its heart rate detecting photosensors by taking advantage of the accelerometer and GPS of the (required, of course) owner’s iPhone to track health data. Encouragingly, Cook’s keynote was well-executed enough to convince investors that AAPL would continue to rise in value in the coming weeks and months.

At first glance, a comparison of Harrison’s marine chronometer and the Apple Watch seems flippant. The first of our case study timepieces put advanced mechanical design to work to overcome various terrestrial and materials science challenges in order to deliver near infallible operation, and, in turn, reliable location data. The Apple Watch is no less sophisticated technically, it just lacks an underlying grand narrative—it does not offer a solution to a substantial problem. The thing is, what even constitutes a ‘big problem’ in the twenty-first century? What entities do we entrust to identify and frame issues, steer innovation, and catalyze the John Harrisons of today? While CERN was able to mobilize considerable resources and bequeath the global scientific community with the 27-kilometre particle accelerator that confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle in 2013, visionary collaborative ventures of that scale are few and far between. Ambitious projects aren’t just about funding, logistics, and labour though—they are about time. It took 24 years from the conceptionix of The Large Hadron Collider through to its being fired up for the first time in the fall of 2008. It took Harrison about four decades to complete his marine chronometer, and it will have taken about three years for Apple to bring their smartwatch to market. While diverse in scope and impact, each of these precedents was just a hunch, a hypothesis, or a crude schematic at a particular moment in time. Whether a continental research organization, a nation state, or a multinational corporation, an agenda was set and pursued. Speculative designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby describe this agency as targetting ‘preferable’ futures from a field of probable and plausible possibilities. Ever the critical designers, they pointedly ask: “what does preferable mean, for whom, and who decides?”x

Who does decide? This is one of the questions swirling around within David Graeber’s brilliant essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” which may be the most blunt assessment of consumer culture’s faded dreams to have been published in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. In it, he diagnoses our present milieu as suffering from a nasty twentieth-century hangover, where the West is awash in ‘virtualized’ products and handicapped by a hazy, uncertain vision of what lies ahead, and a sense of loss for all the mid-century visions of ‘the future’ that never materialized. Space colonization, the paperless office, a four-day workweek—all unrealized fantasies. Graeber invokes the old NASA joke that the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism, and underscores how neoliberalism has left us adrift in market-driven inertia where interlocked governments, universities, and private firms have all “adopted the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world.”xi In the twenty-first century we don’t dream of collective space exploration, we fawn over its privatization and read about commercial space ventures spearheaded by Richard Branson and Elon Musk in The Wall Street Journalxii

In 1765, after approximately fifty years of toiling as a clockmaker, the Longitude Board awarded John Harrison £10,000 for his work on the marine chronometer. Beyond acknowledging his craftsmanship, Harrison should be recognized as a patron saint of DIY innovation. He was self-taught, he was an underdog that beat scores of privileged aristocrats and he defied conventional wisdom to engage a problem on his terms. Given we live in a new age of abundance and have inexpensive manufacturing tools, artisanal microcontrollers and even homebrew synthetic biology labs at our fingertips, figures like Harrison are useful role models. We need protagonists, and looking to passionate outsiders for inspiration is probably more productive than lionizing CEOs with planned obsolescence policies. The fact we have access to newly democratized tools and distribution channels should not be confused with progress. Nor should minor market modulations be championed as ‘disruptive.’ Encouraging people to get their hands dirty and start making things is great, but creating frameworks for identifying and parsing preferable futures in order to catalyze related prototyping is a much more sustainable and rewarding endgame.


i George Daniels. “Watchmaking in the Twenty-First Century: The Renaissance of the Mechanic,” in The quest for longitude: the proceedings of the Longitude Symposium, ed. William J. H. Andrewes. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1993), 340.

ii The lunar distance method required a navigator to use an octant to measure the angle between the moon and another celestial body. Then, this distance would be located in a reference table to determine the exact time.

iii William J. H. Andrewes. “Introduction,” in The quest for longitude: the proceedings of the Longitude Symposium, ed. William J. H. Andrewes. (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1993), 5.

iv Harrison’s third sea clock included a new temperature fluctuation resistant bi-metallic strip (a streamlined version of his gridiron assembly) and low-friction caged roller bearings, both of which are still widely used in mechanical design.

vi Reference tables for the lunar distance method were disseminated in the Nautical Almanac and calculated by teams of human computers.

vii Dava Sobel and William J. H. Andrewes, The illustrated longitude. (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 66-67.

ix The Large Hadron Collider was initially proposed at the Large Hadron Collider in the LEP TunnelEFCA-CERN workshops in Lausanne and Geneva, March 21st-27th, 1984.

x Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), 4.

xi David Graeber. “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,”The Baffler, no. 19 (2012)

xii See Elon Musk’s audacious September 2014 profile in Aeon Magazine.

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