On October 22, 1707, a British naval fleet under the command of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell was returning from Gibraltar to port in Cornwall, in Southwestern Great Britain.
Due to inclement weather and navigational limitations of that period, several ships ran aground on the Isles of Scilly, a small archipelago southwest of Land’s End.
Four ships were completely destroyed and between 1400 and 2000 souls were lost.
This tragedy underscored “The Longitude Problem” – the inability of the period’s technology to accurately measure longitudinal position on the earth’s surface.
In July 1714, the Longitude Act was passed by Parliament. This act offered a series of cash prizes to anyone who could develop a simple, practical and reliable solution.
Academics and scientists of the period were stumped. But John Harrison, a clock maker, felt like he knew the answer.
In 1727, he released Precision Pendulum Clock #2. The clock claimed an accuracy of +/- 1 second per month, over 50 times better than anything else then available.
In 1772, after 45 years of additional research and testing, he released the H4, a pocket-watch sized device adapted for reliable marine service. One of the first users of this device was Captain James Cook.
Cook referred to the H4 as “Our Never Failing Friend.”
Harrison’s work has saved the lives of countless thousands of mariners over the years. Today, we know his device as “The Marine Chronometer.”
At age 80, Mr. Harrison finally received partial compensation for his work when King George III demanded that he be recognized. He died 3 years later.
For leaders, Mr. Harrison’s story reminds us of five important principles.
First, our efforts may not bear immediate fruit. Thus, it is important to keep the long view in mind and not get discouraged.
This is true any time we are involved in pioneering work. It also applies as our leadership takes us to higher levels in our organization.
A senior leader, for example, won’t always get immediate or near-term results or satisfaction for their work. It might take years to come to fruition. Keeping your “eye on the prize” becomes an essential skill for success.
Second, stick to your guns. Mr. Harrison knew he could solve the problem. It took most of his life, but he never gave up. He was surrounded by skeptics, but ignored them and focused all his creative energy on the solution.
Third, significant problems always present significant opportunity. The best leaders know this. They seek out and tackle the toughest problems head on, and add significant value and lasting benefit in the process.
Fourth, the best leaders aren’t always in the spotlight. This is counter to our culture’s obsession with views, likes, impressions, and generally being visible. Mr. Harrison and his team worked quietly in a modest workshop, but the impact of their work lives on 300 years later.
Fifth, our magnum opus can only become reality when our passion, preparation and purpose all align to propel us to the greatest heights possible. Mr. Harrison’s life illustrates this well.
His passion? Impeccable timekeeping.
His preparation? Years perfecting his craft as a clock maker and designer.
His purpose? Solving the most significant navigational and marine safety issue of his time.
What are you creating today that will ultimately become your masterpiece?
As a footnote, Mr. Harrison’s correlation between precise timekeeping and longitude is actually the basis of today’s GPS navigational networks.
And, the Precision Pendulum Clock #2 that he introduced in 1727 is still in operation today.
It was – quite literally – the clock that changed the world.
Pictured above is John Harrison’s H4, the timepiece that Captain Cook tested with his fleet.