J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Newport Watch

Last month the Newport Historical Society announced that Rory McEvoy, the curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, had identified a pocket watch in its collections as an important timepiece from the 1770s.
Mr. McEvoy verified that the pocket watch was made by John Arnold of London and is #4 in a series of marine watches circa 1772. John Arnold was one of several men competing for the Board of Longitude prize to produce a chronometer that would ensure safe and accurate navigation. Only a few of these paradigm-shifting time pieces from this period of technological development are known and in public hands, and the discovery of Arnold’s #4 adds significantly to the scientific record. Arnold’s #3 is in the collections at the British Museum; #1, 2 and 5 in the series are missing.
Readers of Dava Sobel’s bestseller Longitude will recall that John Harrison (1693-1776) received a grudging award from the Board of Longitude for producing the first accurate method of calculating longitude at sea. George III had to intervene to get the aging inventor the bulk of his money.

John Arnold (1736-1799) was from the next generation of watchmakers. He introduced some new ideas and improved on others’ while making “see-saw escapement timekeepers.” Capt. James Cook took one of his watches on his 1772-75 cruise. Arnold made the #4 watch during that testing, using a “pivoted detent escapement.” He received £300 from the Board of Longitude for general good work.

In 1792 the Newport merchant Peleg Clarke bought the watch, probably during a trip to London. His descendants donated it to the Newport Historical Society 205 years later.

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