My interest in chronometers and chronometer makers was aroused by a two part article written by Charles Aked on the subject of “Longitude and the Marine Chronometer” in the June and September 1974 issues of Antiquarian Horology. Mr Aked, a very knowledgeable writer on many different aspects of horology, explained in a very simple and easily understandable way how longitude was calculated using accurate timekeepers at sea.
Charles then proceeded to point out how each of the early chronometer makers contributed to the production of more and more accurate timekeepers which could be used under the many different conditions experienced at sea. I am sure that anyone interested in chronometers and watches would benefit from reading both parts of this article, which is now possible due to the diligence and dedication of members of the Antiquarian Horological Society who have made articles in past issues of the society’s magazine available on their website (www.ahsoc.org).
I talk about several Chronometer makers in my new book Early Clockmakers and Watchmakers of the Blacksmiths' Company.
It was not until the end of the 18th century that we find chronometer makers in the Blacksmiths’ Company. They were primarily watchmakers who branched out into chronometer making.
James Hatton junior, son of James, was trained as a watchmaker by his father in the Blacksmiths’ Company and freed about 1770; he did not bind his first apprentice until 1793 and worked until 1815. He must have died in 1815 because his widow Sarah and Clement Harris, another freeman of the BC, sent a memorial to the Directors of the East India Company in 1816 asking to be permitted to continue as chronometer makers to the Company. This new partnership continued until 1825 when Clement Harris was trading alone until 1840.
Edward John Dent was another chronometer maker trained through the BC although he was first apprenticed to his grandfather, John Dent who was a tallow chandler, from about 1804. Edward lodged with a distant cousin Mary Calame (ne Dent) and her nephew Richard Rippon who had been trained as a watchmaker by Mary’s husband David Calame.
Richard Rippon was the son of William Rippon who had been trained as a blacksmith by Thomas Liddington in the BC and freed about 1763. William Rippon married Ann Dent the daughter of John Dent and sister of Mary Dent in 1765 and their son Richard was born in 1766. William Rippon and his wife Ann decided to emigrate to America about 1775 and left their son Richard with his Aunt Mary and her husband David Calame. David trained Richard as a watchmaker. After his training Richard worked for his uncle as a journeyman and was able to take his freedom of the BC by patrimony at the age of 21 because his father was a freeman of that company. When David Calame died Richard took over the watchmaking business and continued to live with his aunt Mary.
When Edward Dent came to lodge with Mary and Richard he was so fascinated watching Richard taking the watches to pieces and repairing them that he decided that he wanted to be trained as a watchmaker. In 1807 Edward was turned over to Edward Gaudin, a watchmaker who had been trained in the BC by Thomas Gibson, to complete his apprenticeship as a watchmaker. In 1811 when he completed his apprenticeship Edward Dent worked as a journeyman to Richard Rippon until 1814 when he started his own business.
Dent continued to live with Richard Rippon, even after Mary Calame’s death. Richard Rippon at the age of 40 in 1807 had married Elizabeth Davis, a young girl of 18 years. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls. The boys William Frederick and Richard were trained as watchmakers by Edward Dent. Richard senior died in 1824 and Edward married his widow Elizabeth.
Edward Dent was in partnership with the chronometer maker John Roger Arnold from 1830-1840 as Arnold and Dent but made chronometers and turret clocks after that date. He is probably more widely known for making the Westminster (Big Ben) clock but he died in 1853 and the clock was completed by his step-son Frederick (Rippon) Dent.
Big Ben, the Westminster clock, was designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, Lord Grimthorpe and built by E. Dent and Company. Lord Grimthorpe has also been credited with inventing the gravity escapement used in the clock. However a much earlier claim for the invention was made by Isaac Jackson of Wylam, Northumberland, who made a longcase clock for the vicar of Ovingham (also on the river Tyne) which has a double three-legged gravity escapement; the back plate of the movement is inscribed with the date 1816. Isaac Jackson was born in 1796 and died in 1862. His gravestone in Ovingham churchyard has a plaque attached with the inscription “Original inventor of the double-legged gravity escapement”.
Isaac Jackson was not a clockmaker by trade but worked most of his life as a colliery engineman, looking after the lifts taking the miners down to the coal seam. In his spare time Isaac made clocks and other inventions including a reversing system for locomotives. He made a clock for George Stevenson (also from Wylam) in 1857 which was in the Darlington Museum and at least three brass skeleton clocks with gravity escapement.
The chronometer maker James Moore French may also have been trained in the BC but his master has not been identified. However he too seems to have had a connection with Roger Arnold and Edward Dent and had a workshop near the Arnold workshop. French also supplied turret clocks under the name of Santiago Moore French. A turret clock with his name on it has been discovered in Ecuador, South America. French also had nine chronometers on the first voyage of the “Beagle” but only one chronometer on the second voyage with Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin on board when the ship returned to South America. French sold other chronometers to the Chilean Navy when they were surveying the seas around their coast in the 19th century.
If you would like to find out more about these and other chronometer makers who trained in the Blacksmiths' Company, please check out Early Clock and Watchmakers of the Blacksmiths' Company.
If you have any information on Clocks, Watches or Chronometers made by British clockmakers which have found their way to South America, please let me know.
Keith Bates is an amateur horologist who has been researching clocks, watches and chronometers and their makers for over 30 years.