When we imagine cutting edge timekeeping, we think of fancy watches, atomic clocks, GPS, expensive jeweled Rolexes and complex Breitling “chronometers.” A conversation on historical timekeeping advancements usually includes the railroads and the need to synchronize schedules among towns previously separated by long horse rides.
The common images attest to the success of the various marketing campaigns, but they are piggy-backing on previous advances of the technology itself, which usually happens more quietly – at the real cutting edge. The following are the points in history where an advance in timekeeping significantly advanced what is possible for mankind.
1759, John Harrison’s H4 Pocket Watch Enables Navigation
Determining longitude for navigation at sea was practically impossible until timekeeping advanced to make it possible. Just pause to consider this. Without a watch, you know your latitude easily by the sun or stars, but you only know your longitude by dead reckoning, which is a fancy way of saying you’re guessing. Imagine if your GPS only told you how far north and south you are but did not know east / west. The navies and governments of the world knew what the this technology would mean and offered various rewards for it.
Until 1759, some clocks were accurate enough to be used for navigation, but clocks with pendulums can only function on stable ground, not a ship. In 1759, clock maker John Harrison was the first to design a watch accurate enough to navigate at sea.
1927, Warren Marrison’s Quartz Frequency Standard for Bell Labs