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Its About Time! Naval and Nautical Chronometer Collecting

The notion or the idea of time, or at least the measurement of it, has played a significant role in man’s history. The application of time measuring that has played the most impactful role, in my opinion, is in providing the ability to determine one’s geographic location.

“And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet.”  (translates to “Time and tide wait for no man.”) -  St. Marher, 1225

The ability to determine where you are on terra firma is relatively easy to do, and relative to the visibly discernible and recognizable landmarks that surround you, and your proximity to them. But how does one determine their precise location on the open ocean, surrounded by 360-degree views that are free of fixed landmarks? At present, we have the luxury of decades-old technology that uses digital signals by way of triangulation between several points, most of which are man-made structures orbiting the globe at speeds of nearly 17,000 miles per hour.

Prior to 1773, sailors were forced to use a number of inaccurate methods that under perfect conditions, could leave mariners hundreds of miles off-course with one miscalculation. Nautical navigators understood the relationship between time, distance and position (using latitude and longitude) for pinpointing precise location on the globe. In order to perform this task, the imperative information needed was the time of day… exactly. Armed with this information (the time on the clock which would have been set to Greenwich Mean Time), mariners would measure the angle of the sun or other heavenly bodies using a sextant to determine their longitudinal distance from the Prime Meridian — an imaginary vertical line that stretched from the north to the south pole and passed through Greenwich, England.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” ― William Penn

Globe-Longitude Lines

Without the ability to precisely measure time, mariners were almost guessing at their longitudinal position on the globe. Harrison’s Sea Clock made open-ocean navigation a precise science.

Without an accurate clock, determining longitudinal position was difficult. Leading up to 1773, clocks were abhorrently inaccurate due to the pitching and rolling movements of the ship as well as the environmental conditions (humidity, moisture, heat, cold, etc.) imposing destructive forces upon their delicate mechanical movements and workings. Enter John Harrison, an English carpenter and clockmaker who became interested in solving the navigation challenge and capturing the lofty Longitude Prize offered by England’s Board of Longitude, which he did with his Sea Clock.

Timepieces have fascinated people since their inception, spawning perhaps one of the largest segments of collectors. Within the realm of militaria, clocks and watch collecting tends to have more of a contextual aspect. What I mean by this is that militaria collectors seek authentic and period-exact time pieces to enhance a display or grouping in order to provide an accurate visual representative setting. This is not to say that there aren’t clock collectors who focus solely on military timepieces – there are plenty of people who specialize in this area.

“You may delay, but time will not.” ― Benjamin Franklin

I have watched, from a distance, the sale of many naval chronometers over the past several years; clocks ranging in age from the World War II-era to modern day. My interest in these works is probably due to spending hundreds of hours of plotting fixes on nautical charts and providing time-oriented position data to the commanding officer (such as in the Eight O’clock Reports) at various intervals. These chronometers (which are not simple clocks) are usually highly accurate time-measuring devices that seldom operated advanced or retarded from their set time, although we did manage to discover that some were not quite sailor-proof and were subsequently useless in keeping time. As with most collectible items, the older and more intricate the design of the nautical chronometer is, so goes the value and collectibility. Some of these pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are so finely appointed with ornate caseworks and boxes that values can be pushed well into five figures.

Current-issue Chelsea Clock

The current clocks made by Chelsea, though plainly appointed, are highly desirable (source: Chelsea Clock).

Vintage car collectors are familiar with the term “barn find”, locating a rare car that has been stashed away, relatively untouched in a barn, and are always hopeful that they will be on the receiving end of such a fortuitous experience. For militaria collectors, barn finds sometimes walk through their doors. One such moment played out on the “reality” television show, Pawn Stars, when a vintage maritime clock was featured on a segment of the program (episode 2, season 2: Sharks and Cobras). The man, seeking to sell his inherited clock had an idea that his clock was valuable and wanted to cash in by selling it to the pawn shop. The star of the show (and owner of the Silver and Gold Pawn Shop), Rick Harrison (no relation to the aforementioned, John) observed the inoperable state of the antique timepiece.

Armed with the knowledge of the collectibility of these clocks, Harrison made a low-ball offer and after a few moments of dramatic counter offers, the two reached an agreement and the clock changed hands without the seemingly-requisite expert appraisal by one of Harrison’s many “friends”. Later in the show, a clock expert examines the chronometer, commenting on the aesthetic condition as he removes the inner workings from the case. Flipping the movement over, he simply withdraws two cork pieces that had been inserted years ago to protect the mechanism during storage and transport.

“Time is an illusion.” ― Albert Einstein

Now fully functional, Rick Harrison can sell the clock for several thousands of dollars earning considerable profit over the low-dollar investment (which included a $50 repair fee from the clock expert).

For more on clock collecting, see: National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors

[Pawn Stars, HISTORY and the History “H” logo are the trademarks of AEN. Collectors Quest is a partner of AEN.]


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