Richard Upham Marsters:
the first Chronometer Maker in North America
Randall C. Brooks
Ret’d, Canada Science & Technology Museums Corp., Ottawa, Canada
and Research Associate, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, NS
Thirty years ago the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (MMA) in Halifax, NS acquired a marine chronometer signed “Richd U Marsters / Halifax Nova Scotia / No. 765”. Marsters was previously known as a jeweller and chronometer maker from newspaper ads and surviving examples of his silver work. A short piece in an 1832 New York newspaper states he was the first person in the USA to make a chronometer. No other examples of his chronometers have since been located to serve witness to his mechanical abilities. This paper is an update to previous documentation gathered on Marsters by MacKay, Brooks and Topham and compares the existing example to chronometers made by Earnshaw and other leading makers to determine Marsters’ influences and to verify he was the maker.
Setting the stage
Donald C. MacKay had found and published information known about Marsters in his Silversmiths and related craftsmen of Atlantic Provinces (ref. 1). Subsequently, a paper by the current author resulted in a paper that appeared in the NS Historical Review in 1986 with additional information (ref. 2). William Topham, a watch collector from Brighton, Ontario, picked up the ball publishing in the North American Watch and Clock Collectors Bulletin in 1987 (ref. 3). Bill was able to add some new material, perhaps most importantly establishing a possible link between Marsters and the London maker, Thomas Earnshaw. With 25 years now past and the resources of the web and new contacts, a fresh look at this instrument and its maker is appropriate.
The images below show the silvered face and gimbal ring which is probably a replacement since it should be brass not copper. The hands though, appear to be of his workmanship as a fully trained jeweller. The outer case is missing and the case for the works has over the years been modified with holes added and the gimbal mounts also probably replaced or moved. A mass of solder has been added to the original mass at the bottom of the case and has upset the balance of the case. The instrument has had a tough life in some respects though it still functions.
During the nineteenth century, the amount of shipping tonnage under Nova Scotian registry increased to twenty per cent of the world’s total, making the province the third greatest maritime power after Britain and the United States. With so many vessels sailing from their ports, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick jewellers and watchmakers began adjusting, repairing and, in the case of a few, selling and even assembling items required for navigation. This substantial demand was a natural expansion of their business, since jewellers had the requisite skills and tools for working with precision equipment to make repairs and even assemble and finish some types of instruments. Old directories show the names of numerous jewellers in the Maritime provinces of Canada who repaired and adjusted octants, sextants, compasses and even chronometers. But only a few may have attempted their actual fabrication and any that were assembled in Canada until the late 19th century were undoubtedly assembled using components purchased from the main instrument centres in the UK. This was undoubtedly done to decrease costs by bypassing customs duties levied on assembled instruments.
The Marsters Family
Following the fall of Fortress Louisbourg at the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Cape Breton Island and Québec during the Seven Years War, Richard’s grandfather Jonathan Marsters (b 1734, d Jan. 1804) came to Falmouth, NS in 1760. He came with his brother Abraham and their families from Salem, MA on their own ship. A year later, they received their official land grants (dated 21 July 1761) in Falmouth. Richard’s father, Nathaniel (b 6 June 1758), moved to Onslow, NS in 1784 where he became a business man and where he married in 1787. His wife, Sarah Upham, was the daughter of Richard Upham, a member of the Nova Scotia legislature (MLA). They had 2 children, Richard Upham (b 1787) and Robert Knowlton Marsters but Sarah died 29 Nov. 1789. Richard’s father remarried taking Lydia Lynds as his wife (b ca. 1778, m 5 Nov. 1798). Nathaniel and Lydia had 3 children, Sarah Ann (b 1774 – d 2 June, 1830); Jonathan (b? – d >1852, a barrister though not listed as a lawyer in 1864 so presumably had he died); and Thomas (b c1799 – d 30 Dec. 1820). Nathaniel later also became a provincial MLA (1806-1818), a Magistrate in Onslow for 30 years & then a coroner (1820-1843) until his death on 19 July 1843; Lydia had died 30 March 1830. Richard U. Marsters married Ann McKay (1819), a widow from Dornoch, Scotland. They had two daughters, Ruth and Sarah Ann. Ann was last known to be in the US when Richard advertised (June 1838) that he would not be responsible for her debts (ref. 4). Richard died in 1845 in Falmouth where he had returned but his burial location has not been found (ref. 5). His estate was left to his daughter Ruth but she was not located.
What were Marsters’ motives?
Richard Upham Marsters was apprenticed in 1801 to David Page a jeweller in Onslow, NS but no indenture has been found (ref. 6). The then standard 7 year apprenticeship would have made him free in 1808 at the age of 21. Subsequently Richard was briefly noted as a horse-back mail carrier between Truro and Pictou in 1813 (ref. 7).
However, by 1817, MacKay, quoting the 31st May issue of the Halifax newspaper, the Acadian Recorder, says Marsters “Commenced business C[lock] and W[achmaker] in Halifax in the house of Mr. George Innes, No. 2 Sackville St., opposite Richard Tremain and Co. . . . many years practical experience in the business.” MacKay speculated that Richard had probably been working in Falmouth near his grandfahter’s former home (ref. 8). By 1819 Richard advertised himself in Halifax as the inventor of a type of steamship propellor and as a jeweller with his own business (ref. 9).
Halifax was the main British naval port in the Americas until 1818 when Bermuda became the winter headquarters of the Royal Navy during the remainder of the 19th century. As a result there were a large number of Royal Navy vessels coming and going from Halifax and, by the time of the War of 1812-14, many naval captains had their own chronometers. These needed regular rating (i.e. testing to determine if the instrument was running systematically fast or slow), cleaning and repairs. There is evidence that an observatory was established in the Halifax Dockyard possibly about this time for the purpose of maintaining time by measurement of stellar meridian transits (ref. 10) as well as to determine the longitude with greater precision.
With the move in 1825 of the Royal Navy to issue chronometers to their ships (ref. 11), Marsters obviously foresaw a business opportunity and sought to improve his knowledge of the technical requirements to repair and even construct a chronometer. He approached the NS Legislature in Feb. 1826 to help him acquire the tools to both rate chronometers and improve their design. The fact that the Legislature granted Marsters’ a very substantial sum, £98, suggests they had both confidence in his abilities but must also have agreed that there was an opportunity to support the Royal Navy’s Halifax operations in this way though it was not stated explicitly in the report on Marsters’ petition.
According to newspaper reports and ads (reproduced in an appendix at the end of this paper) including testimonials, Marsters began to construct marine chronometers (ref. 12). This was certainly a significant accomplishment demonstrating his considerable mechanical and scientific skills, since chronometers were the most complex and delicate instruments being made at the time. Marsters must have been ingenious, for he claimed to have incorporated improvements of his own design, and he reportedly handed details of these improvements to British government officials ca. 1825 though no records have been found to indicate to whom or when (ref. 13). He may have been hoping for an award from the Board of Longitude whose mandate it was to reward discoveries and improvements which aided navigation. Unfortunately, it still has not been possible to trace the nature and details of these recommendations though the BofL records have now been digitized in full.
About the same period, Marsters made a trip to London, which was funded in part by the £98 grant from the Nova Scotia government. The grant was also to assist in the purchase of instruments for rating chronometers (ref. 14). Among the instruments purchased were an astronomical transit telescope and a regulator clock, i.e. one which was well compensated for temperature changes and which would allow time to be accurately maintained over long periods by regular comparison with astronomical transit observations. Each chronometer being rated had to have its rate determined prior to voyages, so that discrepancies could be confidently corrected in the computations to find longitude while at sea. Prior to this time, ships’ officers carried their own instruments – if they could afford them – but from this time the Navy would issue two chronometers to a ship, if the master also carried his own (ref. 15). Also, by this period, larger commercial vessels were carrying chronometers which required similar regular rating services.
In 1828, Marsters erected a temporary transit observatory in Halifax to house the above instruments, and from which he could make the astronomical observations necessary to rate chronometers (ref. 16).
By 1831, Halifax newspapers were featuring ads with endorsements from mariners, testifying to the quality of Marster’s instruments (ref. 17). Edward Potter, R.N., master of the government brig Cbebucto, reported that his Marsters chronometer did not alter its rate while on a three-week voyage to Bermuda, and D.W. Watson, Lieutenant, R.N., reported on the performance of a small chronometer (presumably a pocket model) used on four voyages across the Atlantic in the period 1825-30. This chronometer, number 20, had been determined to have errors of sixteen seconds of time, or four minutes of arc, in longitude. Although not stated, but assuming that this error was accumulated on a one-way passage and assuming a two-week passage, the error would have been on the order of one second of time per day. By comparison, British and French chronometers rated between 1821 and 1828 by William Bond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had an average daily error of 0.99 seconds for 225 ratings and individual chronometer ratings ranged from 0 to 5.3 seconds (ref. 18). On the basis of the testimonials by Potter and Watson, it appears that Marsters’s chronometers thus gave very acceptable performance.
The New York newspaper, The Constellation, noted in 1832 that Marsters was the first to manufacture chronometers in the United States. This statement was made on the basis of the model Marsters exhibited at a fair in New York in October 1832 (Ref. 19). However, William C. Bond, who later to become first director of the Harvard College Observatory, is currently recognized as having made the first chronometer in the United States during the War of 1812. At that time, an embargo was placed on shipment of the required critical components for chronometers from England to the United States, and thus Bond attempted to make a chronometer but using a falling weight as the driving force which, of course, did not work. It is illustrated at timeandnavigation.si.edu/multimedia-asset/marine-timekeeper-made-by-william- cranch-bond-1812-1818. Hence, the claim for Bond as the first “successful” US chronometer maker is suspect. After a couple of years in New York, Marsters returned to Falmouth, NS where he continued to make chronometers (ref. 20).
The Marsters chronometer acquired by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic MMA signed “Richard U. Marsters, Halifax, N.S.” bears the serial number 765 on the face plate but number 65 on the works. The serial number on the dial, 765, did not reflect the actual number of chronometers made by Marsters but reflects a common practice among chronometer makers to use large numbers to suggest large production to potential customers. Indeed even 65 probably does not reflect his true production. For comparison, Arnold and Dent, a large London firm, produced only twelve box chronometers annually in the 1820s and sixty per year in the 1830s. In the 1820s, Arnold and Dent employed some 43 component makers and it took over a year to accumulate the hundreds of parts necessary to make a chronometer (ref. 21)! Production costs would not have been trivial especially for Marsters who must have been importing critical components like balance springs.
As is well recognized, more than just the ability required to construct the critical components, the ability of a skillful chronometer-maker lay in his ability to assemble and then adjust the instrument to perform to exceedingly high standards. Thus we begin to appreciate the achievement of Marsters.
Evidence for the influence of Thomas Earnshaw and others
The MMA’s instrument has several distinctive features some of which mimic those found on Thomas Earnshaw chronometers. Although we don’t have any direct evidence that Marsters had access to Earnshaw chronometers, it is fairly likely since his chronometers were relatively widely available by 1815 when he retired as they were more moderately priced compared to his competitors. It is on this basis as well as the fact design elements of the one existing Marsters chronometer are very similar to Earnshaw’s, that we might suspect Marsters consulted with Earnshaw in London in the early 1820s though, since Thomas had retired, it is possible it was his son (also Thomas) who Marsters met.
First, let’s consider typical Earnshaw instruments. The examples in Fig. 5 are both Earnshaws – first example is a box chronometer and below that is a pocket chronometer that is in a case hallmarked for 1799. One should note the common layout for positions of winding key shaft; the shape of the weights on the compensation balance, the length of the arms of the balance, the fusee chain (just visible at 2 o’clock) and the gear on the drum of the mainspring housing (just visible at 10 o’clock), and even the positions of the screws and plate supporting pillars with pins (visible at 12 and 8 o’clock). The one on the left dates from ca. 1795-1805. Earnshaw’s serial number practice was to engrave one (in this case 509 and 429) for the complete chronometer while the second numbers (2853 and 2660) are for the specific compensation balance and escapement components which were immediately under and attached to the balance. The escapement provided impulse in one direction only. He routinely provided these to other makers so the numbers reflect the greater production of the compensation spring/balanceNote the similarities between the Marsters chronometer and Earnshaw’s in Fig. 5 a, b. Two main differences are the mainspring detent has been moved to the back plate (as was J.R. Arnold’s (fig. 8) and E.J. Dent’s practice ) and Marsters has added two extra weights to the compensation balance. Perhaps this was Marsters’ “improvement”. He has also lengthened the balance ring arms though others had also begun to do this ca. 1820.
The following illustration, taken from Rupert Gould’s, The Marine Chronometer (ref. 22) shows Earnshaw’s key innovations – the spring detent and compensation balance along side the versions that became the standard for first rate chronometers. The spring detent is not seen in the chronometer images being under the back plates of the instruments.
Comparison to other prominent makers
Comparison with other chronometers of the first half of the 19th century illustrate the changing characteristics of the technology and styles. The following images are intended to illustrate Marster’s influences and to confirm the MMA instrument is consistent with the assumed period of manufacture, i.e. ca. 1825-1832.
The first instrument by John R. Arnold, whose father, John Arnold (d. 1799), may be argued as the most important 18th century innovator after John Harrison, is held by the British Museum. It is believed to date from ca. 1805 and incorporates an Earnshaw type balance wheel.
The next example by Hatton and Harris was made during their partnership in London from 1816-1824. Serial # 477 is not an indication of their real production as has been discussed above. They too were employing an Earnshaw compensation balance but they had the mainspring and fusee on the bottom of the works, not between the face and back plate as did Earnshaw and Marsters.
The Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823) chronometer is a beautifully finished piece with Breguet’s 2 independently wound spring detents (essentially of Earnshaw’s design) and a variation of Earnshaw’s spring detent (not visible in this image). As was common, French makers’ practice was influenced by their country’s predecessors like Ferdinand Berthoud Pierre Leroy but was also guided adopting proven technology. Made in Paris about 1818, Marsters probably did not have much opportunity to examine such chronometers in Halifax and there are no obvious similarities. Although Breguet was a maker to the French Navy, visits of French ships to Halifax in the 1820s were probably fairly rare.
A further change in chronometer finish was introduced ca. the mid-1830s. This was adding a guilloché texture (i.e. engine turned) to the flat surfaces of the chronometer works (Ref. 23). At first this was very subtle, but by the late 1840s, it became standard practice to enhance the finish. The Richard Hornby chronometer below dates from ca. 1840 and the guilloché is seen on all the back surfaces as a pattern of very light circles. As you will see, Hornby was still using Earnshaw’s compensation balance and trapezoidal style of weights while many makers, like E.J. Dent had changed to using round weights which were more easily and quickly made on a lathe rather than by filing.
As stated at the beginning, the purpose of this paper was to review and update what is known about Richard Upham Marsters and his production of marine chronometers. In addition to reviewing archival records, use of the web has provided the means to verify some information, confirm whether new records related to Marsters and his innovations have been found, and finally, to help verify the example held by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is consistent with the assumed period of production.
Comparison with numerous examples of chronometers (most not illustrated) by Earnshaw and other makers’ show sufficient similarities and differences from Thomas Earnshaw’s instruments to conclude that Marsters had direct access to Earnshaw chronometers to copy and perhaps had an opportunity to meet with him or his son to improve his own designs. However, the nature of the chronometer business and the number and technical requirements of the components makes it almost certain Marsters was importing key components like the compensation balance spring. But the finish of the balance wheel suggests it is very likely of his own manufacture as are the dial hands.
Other imported pieces he imported may have been the he mainspring, the fusee chain and perhaps the silvered face. Marsters, like a few very early 19th century English makers included Arabic numbers (5, 10, 15 etc.) outside, then inside, the Roman numerals. These appear to have been phased out by most makers by the 1820s. But as that change was occurring, the rings around the winding dial were increasing. The earliest had none or only one as on the Marsters. By 1820 many makers were adding more circles for decorative purposes to delineate the outer edge and create a space within which the numerals – hours or days – were engraved.
There is obviously more detailed comparisons that might be made but it would be eased by having another example by Marsters to add to the study.
Ref. 1 Donald MacKay, Silversmiths and related craftsmen of Atlantic Provinces (1973), p. 76.
Ref. 2 Randall C. Brooks, “Nautical Instrument Makers in Atlantic Canada”, Nova Scotia Historical Review, 6 (1986), pp. 36-54.
Ref. 3 William R. Topham, “Rediscovered Chronometer Maker: Richard U. Marsters”, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 249: August 1987, pp. 267-275.
Ref. 4 Nova Scotian, (Halifax) June 14, 1838.
Ref. 5 All Windsor, NS and West Hants County cemetery lists have been searched. It is possible that he was buried in a family plot in Falmouth.
Ref. 6 Ibid., Ref. 1
Ref. 7 Roland Sherwood, Pictou pioneers: A story of the first hundred years in the history of Pictou town, Lancelot Press, Windsor, NS, 1973. Also noted in Thomas Miller, Historical and Genealogical Record of the First Settlers of Colchester, A. & W. MacKindlay, Halifax, N.S., p. 387.
Ref. 8 Ibid., Ref. 1.
Ref. 9 J.B. Duncanson, Falmouth — A New England Township in Nova Scotia (Belleville, Ont., 1983), p. 321; R.H. Sherwood, Pictou Pioneers (Windsor, N.S., 1973), p. 80; ad in the Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 10 April 1819, p. 3. The Alphabetical Index of Patentees of British Inventions (1617-1852) unfortunately has no entries for Marsters as a patentee nor is he listed in the US Name Index (1790-1847). No details of the propellor design have been found.
Ref. 10 Julian Gwyn, Frigates and Foremasts: The North American Squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745-1815, Vancouver, BC: UBC Press (2004). Gwyn’s book is the most authoritative source on the Dockyard structures at the time of the War of 1812 -1814. The plan is labelled “Plan of Her Majesty’s Careening Yard at Halifax, N. Scotia Established in 1759. Surveyed by John G. Toler (or possibly Joler) in May 1815. Copied by James McKenzie 1839.” This map has been regarded as a mere reproduction date but an original of the 1815 has not been located. Joel Zemel (private communication) also feels it is an updated plan showing an observatory built in the 1830s (see www.halifaxexplosion.net/observatory.html). A Lieu. John Jones was directed to go to Halifax in 1828-29 by “The Lord High Admiral, Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Ogle, Bt. Commander-in-Chief” to take astronomical observations; the dockyard observatory may date from this period (Randall C. Brooks, “Time, Longitude Determination and Early Observatories in the Maritimes”, in Profiles of Science and Society in the Maritimes before 1914, ed. by Paul Bogaard), 1990, pp. 162-192 (see specifically pp. 177-180). A paper by Brooks and Zemel on this subject is being prepared for publication which will update the early history of the Halifax Dockyard Observatory.
Ref. 11 W.E. May, “How the Chronometer Went to Sea,” in Antiquarian Horology, 9 (1976), 638-663.
Ref. 12 Randall Brooks, Index of Scientific Instrument Makers (unpublished).
Ref. 13 The Board of Longitude Papers are now on-line but there is no mention of Marsters communicating with them. Dr. Gloria Clifton (private communication and retired curator at the Royal Obs., Greenwich) says that Marsters is not listed in any British Censuses of the period though they do not provide information on individuals until 1841; Gloria says the period around 1820 is especially poor for identifying apprenticeships as the apprentice indenture tax had been abolished in 1811.
Ref. 14 Petition of R.U. Marsters, 25 Feb. 1826. RG5, Series P, Vol. 51, PANS.
Ref. 15 Ibid., Ref. 11.
Ref. 16 Nova Scotian (Halifax), 7 Feb. 1828, p. 43.
Ref. 17 See, for example, Halifax Journal, 1 May 1831, p. 9.
Ref. 18 Randall C. Brooks, “Magnetic Influence on Chronometers, 1798-1834: A Case Study”, Annals of Science, 44 (1987), 245-264 which is based in large part on W.C. Bond, “Observations on the Comparative Rates of Marine Chronometers,” in Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, New Series, 1 (1833), 84-90.
Ref. 19 Halifax Journal, 10 Dec. 1832, p. 3.
Ref. 20 Silvio Bedini, Thinkers and Tinkers, Early American Men of Science (New York, 1975), p. 353.
Ref. 21 Alun C. Davies, “The Life and Death of a Scientific Instrument: The Marine Chronometer 1770-1920”, in Annals of Science, 35 (1978), 509-525.
Ref. 22 Rupert Gould, The Marine Chronometer, its history and development (London, 1923).
Ref. 23 This involves a technique of engine turning or guilloché named after the 18th century French turner Guillot who apparently invented a type of lathe with rotating pivot that allowed fine patterns to be drawn on surfaces (Maurice Daumas, A History of Technology & Invention: The first stages of mechanization, New York: Crown Publishers, 1970. Daumas (p. 271) describes the technique as “….. [it] permitted the tracing of intertwining curves, with symmetrical volutes, suitable for ornamentation, as for example the shallow engraving of cases for watches and clockmakers’ and goldsmiths’ work.”).
Appendix A: R.U. Marsters’ ads
The following ads have been obtained from the publications indicated and held at the Nova Scotia Archives (www.novascotia.ca/nsarm/ )
Appendix B: Marsters’ Petition to the Nova Scotia Legislature, 25. Feb., 1826 and the official response
The petition submitted to the NS Government in 1826 and their response are held at the Nova Scotia Archives (www.novascotia.ca/nsarm/ )
Page 2 ……
Page 3 ……
The official Nova Scotia Government’s response to Marsters.