Internet Horology Club 185
A CHRONOMETER: The story of where it came from.

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March 24, 2007, 20:55
Moses Gingerich
A CHRONOMETER: The story of where it came from.
The Pike Family Chronometer
Julian M. Pike
September 2006

The "Pyke" ancestors originated in England, and in 1690 came to Newfoundland, settling at Carbonear, over on Conception Bay and becoming seafaring people. Robert Francis Pike, my great grandfather, was born in 1831. Perhaps 150 years ago, the family fleet burned to the waterline and the family left the sea. Robert Francis moved to Kingston, Ontario where my grandfather Robert Gasgon was born. The ship's chronometer was in the family and my Dad eventually fell heir to it. It didn't run, but I found a way to get it repaired and got to see it run again. The family decided that it would be a great thing to send the old chronometer back to its origins, and so made arrangements to place it in the Marine Museum in St. John's, Newfoundland. There are still Pikes around Carbonear; Dad had some correspondence with a distant cousin years ago. Here is a picture of the old chronometer which I took before we sent it to the museum in 1990. It makes a ticking sound peculiar to the “spring detent movement” of chronometers. I have a recording of the sound.

Additional Details on the Chronometer

In 1690, Lt. Gilbert "Pyke", an Englishman sailing toward North America, encountered a pirate ship and found people on board whose ship had been robbed. He took them on his ship. One of the ladies was an Irish Princess by the name of Sheila Nagira, who had been on her way to France. Gilbert and Sheila fell in love. They suffered shipwreck on the coast of Newfoundland, and after they landed, Gilbert and the Princess were married and settled at Carbonear on Conception Bay. The Pike families are their descendents.

Three generations later, Robert Thistle Pike became captain of his own ship at the age of 18. His son, Robert Francis Pike, my great grandfather, was born in 1831 at Carbonear. The Pikes were seafaring people. Sometime around the middle 1800s, the Pike family fleet burned to the waterline and the family left the sea. Robert Francis migrated to Kingston, Ontario where my grandfather Robert Gasgon Pike was born in 1861. He married Mary A. Smith who was born in London, England, in 1863.

Captain Robert Francis kept possession of his Marine Chronometer. This is a clock of special design for keeping highly accurate time at sea for purposes of navigation. In 1714, the British government offered an award of 20,000 pounds for a timekeeper which would enable longitude to be determined within an accuracy of 1/2 degree at the end of a voyage to the West Indies. John Harrison constructed a large watch which was tested by 1762, showing an error of only 5 seconds on arrival in Jamaica. He claimed the award, but was not paid until 1773. Harrison's watch was complicated, delicate and costly. By around 1785, others began making chronometers scarcely distinguishable from the chronometers of today.

The chronometer has a specially designed escapement which scarcely touches the balance wheel in contrast to the older lever escapements which created much more friction. The balance wheel trips a lock on the escapement which releases an instantaneous strike on the balance wheel to keep it swinging back and forth keeping time. The mechanism is called a spring detent movement. It makes a unique sound in which a faint tick occurs at the unlocking point, then a louder tick when the balance wheel is struck.

My grandfather Robert Gasgon fell heir to the chronometer. At some point, he felt that the chronometer was not keeping time as it should. He took it to a repairman. When he called for it, the repairman told him he couldn't fix it. After it had been in his possession, the chronometer didn't run at all.

We were in Seattle when I was a small child and my Dad asked grandpa what had become of the chronometer. He said, "It's right here. Would you like to have it?" Dad replied that he wasn't asking for it, but Grandpa said "I'll give it to you." So, Dad, even
though he was the youngest son among the eight children, received the chronometer and brought it to our home in Portland.

Dad took the chronometer over to Dillen Rogers, a jeweler, to see if it might be fixed. He estimated that it would cost $10. It was in the depression and Dad just didn't have money to spend on it. I can remember playing with it when I was small. The clock was mounted on gimbals so that it would face straight up even though the ship was rolling in the waves. I remember looking closely at it and wishing it would run again. On the face of the clock was engraved "Charles Shepherd Maker to the Royal Navy. 53 Leadenhall Strt London. 1129." I came to understand that this was the 1129th clock made by Shepherd. I could not find a date when the chronometer was made.

After we moved to Corvallis in 1953, we were friends with Hazel Pague and Stephanie Holec at The Oaks near Scio, Oregon. They knew a clockmaker in Lebanon by the name of Rex Peery. I took the chronometer to him. I worked with him, getting information on the movement, but the repairman of decades before had done considerable damage and Rex determined that he could not fix it. When Dad moved to Wilmore, Kentucky in 1956, he took the chronometer with him.

In 1958, we moved to Wilmore where I began teaching Physics at Asbury College. I was still interested in finding a way to get the chronometer repaired. I wrote the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. and asked for help. They replied and said that they did not do that kind of work. I wrote back and asked them if they could recommend a clockmaker who was skilled with chronometers. They gave me the name of Hamilton Pease in Providence, Rhode Island. I wrote to him, described the chronometer, and asked what it might cost to have it repaired. He said that it might cost around $75 and that he would be glad to do the work. He gave me directions on how to remove the balance wheel, pack it separately, and ship it to him.

After he got the chronometer, I received a letter from him. He said that the chronometer was in the worst condition he had ever seen. The spring detent was broken, pivots were bent, and jeweled bearings were pushed out and missing. He told me it would likely cost double what he had quoted me. I wrote him back and told him to proceed. He found a spring detent which was similar enough to the original that he could adapt it and make it work. He replaced pivots and bearings and in due time, shipped it back. I carefully opened the case, replaced the balance wheel, and wound it up. Soon it was ticking. What a thrill, and the dream of a lifetime had been fulfilled.

I ran it for a fair period and checked it against WWV. It kept very good time. I eventually took it to my brother Vic so he could enjoy it. Since we were kids, there was always the question as to who would get the clock. I said that since I had seen to its repair, I should get it. Dad decreed that the chronometer would be mine for my lifetime, and it would then go to Jeff, Vic's son. He had not grown up with it. Our kids had not really had much interest in it. Neither of us really liked the arrangement. We did find that the chronometer might bring 2 or 3 thousand dollars if we were to sell it.

In 1990, I came on an idea. I found that there was a Marine Museum in St. John's,
Newfoundland. If we sent the chronometer back to its origins, giving it to the Museum, then it could be enjoyed by many, and all Pikes could know where they could go to see it. Dad and Vic agreed, and we made plans to do that. Before we shipped it off, I took four pictures of it, and recorded the sound of the spring detent movement in action. I have the pictures on my computer and can bring them up with the face of the clock nearly full size. I have done a Photo Story with the pictures and a picture of St. John's. The photos are narrated as they appear, and the sound of the chronometer ticking is heard in the background. It is almost as though the old chronometer comes alive again.

Dr. Julian Pike also gave me a Video File with photos and the sound of the chronometer running. I will see if I can upload it someplace so you can enjoy that.