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Book Review, NRJ 59.1

February 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development

Rupert T. Gould

The successful development of the marine chronometer in the mid-eighteenth century revolutionized navigation, since it allowed for simple computation of longitude through the comparison of the difference in time between one’s location and a fixed point. Whereas other methods required complex mathematical calculations using data from celestial observations, determining longitude needed only an accurate timepiece.

This, of course, was the rub, since clock errors would have potentially catastrophic consequences. The Antique Collectors’ Club new edition of Rupert Gould’s classic treatise on the topic presents an exhaustive analysis of the entire process of the development of marine chronometers from the earliest efforts in the first part of the sixteenth century to their final versions some 450 years later. The author lays out this story in clear language that thoroughly explains not only the technological developments in design and materials but also the processes for evaluation and adoptions.

This is not only reproduction of the original astonishingly comprehensive study but also includes a new brief introduction that extends its scope beyond Gould’s death, and adds a very informative picture gallery that surveys the chronometer’s development. As one might expect from the publisher, this is a truly handsome presentation. Practically every page contains images—drawings, diagrams, period illustrations, and photographs of extant examples—all crisply reproduced on high-quality paper. Even the endpapers are works of art! Collectors and researchers will find this a treasure trove of information. 

Zeit auf See is geared to a very different audience, since it was issued originally in conjunction with an exhibit at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven. Nevertheless, it does an excellent job in presenting a concise history of the development of the marine chronometer through a series of twenty-four very short chapters. The text is fully bilingual (German and English) and is integrated with superb full-color photographs of examples from the museum’s collection. Although its brevity necessarily means that many topics receive only limited attention, it brings the story right up to date, with sections covering modern testing methods, radio location finding, and global positioning satellite systems.

Whereas Gould’s monumental work is very markedly Anglocentric, Zeit auf See is more inclusive and presents a fair selection of timepieces from Continental Europe as well. Its physical appearance belies its paperback status and low cost; the color reproduction is excellent and the paper if high quality.

These two books take very different approaches to their subject but both succeed admirably in their goals. The specialist inevitably will choose Gould but those with less interest in details will find Zeit auf See very satisfying indeed. 

  • Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Antique Collectors’ Club, 2013
  • 8” x 10-1/2”, hardcover, lv + xvi + 287 pages
  • Photographs, diagrams, appendices, notes, indices. $125.00
  • ISBN: 9781851493654 
  • Zeit auf See: Chronometer und ihre Schöpfer High-Tech aus drei Jahrhunderten (Time at Sea: Chronometers and their Creators: Three Centuries of Cutting Edge Technology)
  • Bremerhaven: Oceanum Verlag, 2012
  • 8-1/4” x 8-1/4”, softcover, 136 pages
  • German-English text, photographs, diagrams. €19.90

Reviewed by Christopher Voss, San Francisco, California

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