Promoter: British Government
Prize amount: £20,000 (Today's value £2,080,000)
Winner: John Harrison
In 1714, Britain heavily relied on its naval superiority to enforce its influence across the world. However, without an accurate method for determining longitude, her Navy was blighted by accidents, including off the Isle of Scilly in 1707 when upwards of 1,400 sailors died.
In response to this tragedy, the Longitude Act called for a portable, practical solution to the problem. Enter John Harrison; the son of a carpenter, Harrison began repairing clocks as a child and made his first at 20. He spent much of his early career being commissioned to build elaborate timepieces for the gentry.
Harrison’s marine chronometer was the most successful submission to the Longitude Committee, eventually securing a £10,000 reward. In 1772, Captain Cook took a version of Harrison’s device on his second, three year voyage, returning to prove that Harrison’s innovative design had finally conquered one of the perils of the high seas.
He continued to make clocks and refine his chronometer design right up to his death, on his 83rd birthday. His skills and impact are remembered to this day – both through his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey and by iconic sitcom Only Fools and Horses, when a lost Harrison watch found in their garage finally makes Del and Rodney millionaires.