The life of Larcum Kendall, the renowned marine chronometer maker

Posted on 20 November 2015
The life of Larcum Kendall, the renowned marine chronometer maker

Born in Charlbury, Oxfordshire in 1719, Larcum Kendall was perhaps best known for being commissioned to produce cheaper duplicates of John Harrison’s marine chronometers for navigation purposes, which were devised to solve the Longitude Problem.

Following his apprenticeship with London watchmaker John Jeffreys, Kendall set up his own business in 1742, working with Thomas Mudge to make watches and also working for the renowned watch and clock maker George Graham. In 1765, he was one of just six experts who were selected by the Board of Longitude to witness the operation of John Harrison’s H4 marine chronometer, the most accurate at the time.

Following this invitation, he was also asked to duplicate Harrison’s H4 at a lower cost, reducing the funds needed for world exploration, by removing any elements deemed unnecessary, and he presented his version, the K1 to the Board of Longitude in 1770. K1 was then tested out by James Cook and William Wales on Cook’s second South Seas journey, with the two being full of praise for the chronometer despite their initial scepticism. Resembling a watch in structure, the chronometer had a 13cm diameter and weighed 1.45 kilograms.

The chronometer was also used once again by Cook for his third voyage, though while out at sea, the balance spring broke, and it was then sent back to Kendall for repairs. It was then used by several navigators and captains on many sea voyages, including Admiral Sir John Jervis’ journey to the West Indies and the Mediterranean in 1793, and was even on board the HMS Victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, before being “pensioned off” to Greenwich in 1802. Today, K1 is kept in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum.

K1, however, was not Kendall’s only contribution to the history of marine chronometers, as he was instructed to produce additional replicas of H4 for half the price of K1. K2, his second marine chronometer, was completed in 1772, and was given to Constantine Phipps for its expedition in the search of a Northwest passage, later being assigned to North America. Due to the compromises made by Kendall to save costs, however, K2 was less accurate than its predecessor, with a daily inaccuracy recorded of between 1.1 and 3 seconds.

It also attained fame by being involved in the mutiny on the Bounty, and was taken by the mutineers following the loss of the Bounty. K2 eventually returned to England in 1840, when it was gifted to the British Museum, after being in the possession of multiple owners throughout the Americas. Today, K2 can also be found in Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum.

K3, Kendall’s final Harrison replica, was an even more simplified version of the K1, though again it lacked the required accuracy which was promised by K1. It was used by James Cook on board his third voyage on the HMS Discovery in 1776-79, George Vancouver’s voyages of the south-west of Australia and the coast of North America, and by Matthew Flinders, who charted Australia’s Wreck Reef. After being brought back to England, it now resides in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Following the end of his contract to produce duplicates of the H4 marine chronometer, Kendall then built chronometers to the design of John Arnold. He passed away on 22 November, 1790, and was buried in the Quaker burial ground in Kingston. Kendall was survived by his brother Moses, who auctioned off his personal effects and the contents of his workshop with Christie’s. A plaque in his honour was also mounted in Charlbury Museum, near his childhood home, in 2014 (shown above).

Image: Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, available under Creative Commons

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