Friday, 26 April 2013

John Whitehurst - clockmaker, scientist, geologist

Those of you who have followed my 'blogland' journey for a while will be well aware that my roots are in Derbyshire, and that I have a fascination for the enlightenment period that took place there in the 18th century. In pursuit of that interest I now bring you Lunar Society member and clockmaker extraordinaire - John Whitehurst.
via BBC paintings
John Whitehurst - 1713 - 1788 - painted by Joseph Wright of Derby
It is exactly three hundred years ago this month that John Whitehurst was born in Congleton, Cheshire, close to the Derbyshire border, the son of a clockmaker. He received only a slight formal education and was taught clock-making by his father; his father also encouraged and fostered his pursuit of geology whilst they took long walks in the Derbyshire Peak District.
He moved to live in Derby in 1736 where he became one of the foremost scientists of his day, father of modern geology and founder member of the Lunar Society along with Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, the painter Joseph Wright  and others.
In Derby he established a very successful business not only making clocks, but fine scientific instruments. He made thermometers, barometers, and philosophical instruments. He was consulted on almost every undertaking in Derbyshire and neighbouring counties in which skills in mechanics, pneumatics and hydraulics were required.
Whitehurst pioneered the method of using a single source material to construct the workings of a timepiece. This helps reduce variations in performance caused by temperature and humidity. It was so successful that it has never been bettered. This technique may have come about following a challenge he was presented with by the founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin asked him to design a clock that used fewer materials as there was a drastic shortage of raw resources at that time across the Atlantic. Whitehurst met Franklin's  challenge, and in due course Franklin signed the documents that founded the United States of America as Whitehurst's clock ticked gently away in the background. 
In 1774 Whitehurst moved to London to take up a post at the Royal Mint. London is where he spent the rest of his life exploring different avenues of science and where in 1779 he was elected a member of the Royal Society.
In 1783 he was sent to examine the Giant's Causeway and other volcanic remains in the north of Ireland.
He had already published his theory on geological strata in 'An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth'. This eventually facilitated the discovery of valuable minerals beneath the earth's surface. 
It is thought that Whitehurst was the model for Joseph Wright's famous painting of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.
 Derby Art Gallery - via BBC paintings
Whitehurst placed such heavy demands on his commitment to learning and research that he tired himself out and impaired his health. Even so, he lived to be 75 years old - a good age for that period. He was married but there were no surviving children to carry on in his footsteps.

70 comments:

  1. Fascinating information Rosemary. I have never heard of Whitehurst but am familiar with Wright's painting. The Enlightenment was a very interesting time, a prelude to the modern age perhaps. One of our sons is something of a descendant of people like Whitehurst; he is an engineer employed to 'invent' and develop new products for an international company. Most of the time he won't tell what he is doing 'otherwise he would have to kill us'!!!

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    1. Dear Patricia - I was interested to learn about your son - the one in Australia or the one in Canada?
      Sadly one of the things in todays society is the lack of inventive Engineers - my H is always bemoaning the fact.
      The painting is one that I grew up with as a school girl visiting my local art gallery in Derby. It captivated me then and still does today.

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  2. Very interesting Rosemary! Thanks for the effort of publishing a post like this one

    Marina

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    1. Thanks Marina - as it is exactly 300 years since his birth I thought that it was a ‟timely" moment to bring him to the blogosphere - one way or another we are all indebted to him.

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  3. Yes, a brilliant painting indeed. Our engineer son is closest to home, and lives here in Brisbane. He travels annually to various northern hemisphere countries to work. It is our daughter who lives in Canada, and our other son is in Sydney. We are widespread, unfortunately for Mum!

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    1. Here is another Mum who feels the same, but Norway is only a short flight and my other son is a 2½ hour car journey away.

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  4. A man who had found his passion! Although he tired himself out - to me finding one's ardor is a gift! Thanks for this interesting post, Rosemary! Christa

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    1. Dear Christa - you are so right - how many of us find that ardour? - he must have had a profound satisfaction in his achievements.

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  5. Dear Rosemary ,you show us a great man who dedicated his life to the different sciences! Very interesting post!

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    1. Dear Olympia - he must have been an extraordinary man to have pursued so many different aspects of the science world especially when you consider how few resources were available then, and also his limited education as a boy.

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  6. Hello Rosemary, Enlightenment people impress me in the way they combine intellectual curiosity with creativity and talent. I also like the fact that that age did not take itself too seriously--what immediately springs to mind are plays like Thomas Shadwell's 'The Virtuoso', in which an affected amateur scientist is roundly ridiculed.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Hello Jim - the enlightenment was an incredible period of our history and discovery especially when you realise that so many intellectual men happened to be living in the same vicinity at the same period of time. You are right they would have been considered eccentric by the standards of the day - poking around rocks, investigating hedgerows (like Gilbert White the Selborne naturalist and vicar) and Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was already developing theories of evolution. He also invented a duplicating machine, and was a physician/surgeon too. Remarkable men.

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  7. Very interesting. I love learning about history and you present it in such a great way. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thank you. If I conveyed the essence of the man and some of his many achievements in this short post then I am happy.

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  8. Dear Rosemary - Thank you for introducing us to another member of the Lunar Society (I am slowly but surely getting a well-rounded understanding of that group. Wouldn't it have been a treat to have been a fly on the wall and listened in on them? I wonder if they had structured meetings, themed nights, conversations over dinner? Do you know if there's ever been a book written exclusively about the Lunar Society?

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    1. Dear Mark - you are pretty well spot on in your assumptions. The Lunar Society was a dinner club and informal society for the prominent figures in the Midlands. It included industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals who met regularly between 1765 - 1813. It was called the Lunar Society because they would meet during the full moon. The reason being that it would make their journey home much easier and safer in the absence of street lighting. They cheerfully called themselves the ″lunarticks" a pun on lunatics. They would meet in Erasmus Darwin's home (grandfather of Charles) and Matthew Boulton's home (Steam Engineer).
      There is a good book written by Jenny Uglow called The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, published by Faber & Faber (UK) or Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA)

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    2. Thanks, Rosemary — I will look for that book. I've always been interested in those moments of history when there have been confluences of great minds.

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    3. It is available on Amazon here quite cheaply - hope you can find it on your Amazon. I think that I will purchase it myself too.

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  9. Dear Rosemary,
    Thank you for this fascinating post! I love reading about the gentlemen philosophers of this period-- wouldn't it have been wonderful to be a part of the very birth of scientific inquiry?! People like John Whitehurst inspire me to spend the time I have on this earth wisely, and in the pursuit of worthwhile projects...
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Dear Erika - As I grew up in the county where so many of these men lived, worked, and carried out their discoveries it is something that has always held a fascination for me. I started to take an interest in them quite early when I first saw the Wright of Derby painting in the local art gallery. The next stepping stone was discovering that my paternal Grandmother had an aunt who had married into a branch of the Darwin family from whom my grandmother received an inheritance plus several Darwin artefacts.
      Their lives are an inspiration.

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  10. Amazing what he did with a slight education. I went to a medical school graduation recently where the speaker gave the graduates some good advice. GO FORTH AND REPRODUCE!.....

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    1. ‟Go forth and reproduce″ does seem to be a strange piece of advise. However, on reflection, many intellectuals do not have a family these days, whereas the least well off members of society often have large families. We do need highly educated people to contribute to the next generation. There are so many problems that they will have to deal with.

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  11. You can make everything interesting, Rosemary! I love your blogposts.

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    1. I am delighted that you enjoyed reading it Lise - thank you.

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  12. Another fascinating post which will send me off to look at the painting in the Derby Art Gallery! Sad that John Whitehurst had no surviving children although he left a legacy in other ways.

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    1. Dear Linda - please do go to the art gallery and see the painting. It is one of the great paintings of the world, I am not exaggerating.
      I did a post about Joseph wright and you might find it of interest to read if you do make a visit to Derby -
      http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/joseph-wright-of-derby-1734-1797.html
      There is actually a legacy from John Whitehurst in the form of Smiths of Derby, clockmakers. John Smith became an apprentice to Whitehurst and the firm continues today making clocks which are sent all around the world.
      Incidentally Derby is celebrating the 300 year anniversary of Whitehursts birth with several events during the year.

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    2. Thank you for the link on the post about Joseph Wright and I shall definitely find out about the Derby events to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Whitehurst's birth and make a date to go into Derby when we next visit family.

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    3. Hope that you enjoy the visit.

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  13. The light in Joseph Wrights painting is mesmerising Rosemary.
    I may be imagining it but did you tell us that the last painting is one that you would view whilst waiting for your bus as a child?
    Maybe the spring sunshine has gone to my head.
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    Paul

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    1. No Paul, you don't have spring fever, your memory is perfect. On many occasions whilst waiting to catch the bus home from school, I would go into the gallery just to look at it.

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  14. Clocks can be very fascinating, have you see the special version in Prague and Lier?

    Greetings,
    Filip

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    1. I have seen the wonderful clock in Prague but not the one in Lier.

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  15. Hi Rosemary, the clock is a magnificent piece. Too bad he had no children. I read your previous post and the house and gardens are beautiful. I have been missing here because I have been in my flowers beds. Have a great weekend, Olive

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    1. Hello Olive - glad that you are fine - flower beds can be very demanding at this time of year. Glad you enjoyed the post on Tintinhull garden and house.

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  16. Such a fascinating and informative post, Rosemary. Never having heard of either Whitehurst or Wright (oh, my ignorance!) I learnt so much from this. Whitehurst really was a very skilled and learned man and from a very ordinary background. Really inspirational.

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    1. Dear Perpetua - the Midlands Enlightenment period during the mid 18th century was an extraordinary moment in time. I am fascinated by the fact that so many talented men happened to be living in a relatively small area of the country and whose intellect would go on to have such a profound effect on the world as we know it today.

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  17. When I can read a blog, be entertained and LEARN something I'm a happy woman!
    Now that I've been to Derbyshire and stayed and walked in the Peak District I am always interested to read any bit of history having to do with the area.

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    1. The fact that you know the area will, I am sure, make you realise what an extraordinary thing happened at that particular time in the mid 18th century. The members of the Lunar Society were the founders and pioneers of so many things we take for granted today. Most of them had several strings to their bows - i.e Medical doctor, botanist, chemist, geologist.
      If you are interested in a little more about Derbyshire you might like to read my post on the painter Joseph Wright of Derby.
      http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/joseph-wright-of-derby-1734-1797.html

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  18. Wonderful post
    Congratulations and a big hug

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    1. You are always so generous with your comments Antonio - thank you.

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  19. How fascinating. I had never heard of Whitehurst but the portrait of him is a wonderful one, and I'm sure captures the essence of him. I don't know enough about Joseph Wright of Derby either, and it hadn't occurred to me what an intellectual powerhouse the area was at the time. In fact, scientifically, so much was happening then - it must have been thrilling to be scientifically inclined. "Enlightenment" is the right word for it. Thanks for this thought provoking post. (Wonderful photo of the Giants Causeway too)

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    1. Dear Jenny - thank you, and I am pleased that you enjoyed the post. As it is exactly 300 years since Whitehurst was born I thought it was time to give him a post. As you can probably imagine he is being celebrated in Derby during this year.
      If you are interested in knowing a little more about Wright of Derby, the painter, I did a post which you might like to see.
      http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/joseph-wright-of-derby-1734-1797.html
      We visited Northern Ireland last autumn and were thrilled to see the Giants Causeway - I do not know why it took us so long to go and see it.

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  20. Thank you - another very interesting post.

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    1. I am pleased that you found it of interest - thank you.

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  21. The Giant's causeway fascinated me from the photos you took on your trip to Ireland. looking at the image now, it still does. I just cannot fathom how the stones can be so precisely square set upon one another. I would love to have known what Whitehurst first thought when he saw the volcanic remains...they are truly unique.
    I know nothing about Whitehursts..but I do remember often hearing his name mentioned. My eldest son for sure will know about him. He has a great watch collection.
    Joseph Wright's painting truly shows the intelligence in Whitehursts eyes.. What an accomplished man indeed.
    Amazing that one of Whitehursts clocks was on the wall when Benjamin Franklin signed the declaration.
    The Lunar society must have had some fantastic phylisophical and engineering ideas.
    I do know Dear Rosemary, that you love the painting of Joseph Wright- of a philospher lecturing on the Orrery.
    Fascinating post once again ..
    Thank you.
    val

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    1. Dear Val - you are right about the painting - I love it because it is the first painting I saw in our local art gallery as a young school girl, and it made such an impact on me. I could not imagine how anyone could create such a wonderful image out of a brush and paints. My love of art stems from that time too.
      You should try and visit Northern Ireland and see the Giants Causeway - it is an unforgettable sight and so different from the vision you probably carry in your minds eye.
      It would be interesting to know if your son does know about Whitehurst. He was one, of a most remarkable collection of men, who congregated in the Midlands area during the mid 18th century.

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  22. Like many of your readers I find the period of the Enlightenment fascinating & exciting (although sometimes I think we are fast becoming the opposite of enlightened!) I wonder if you know William Smith, 1769 - 1839, credited with creating the first geological map of England and Wales? Simon Winchester has written an account of his often tragic and frustrating life in "The Map That Changed The World."

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    1. Dear Nilly - yes, I do know the book, although it is quite a while since I read it. Another incredible man - whom I seem to remember was educated to elementary level only, and the son of a village blacksmith. I recall that he was looked down upon by the establishment but finally received recognition late in life when he received the first ever Wollaston Medal.

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  23. I do love the fact that a small area in the midlands was so important for the development of science art and ideas.
    Clocks are fascinating. I know little about them, but was thrilled to discover a late 18th century longcase clock in our local antique centre, made by Yorkshire clockmaker John Pattison ....my husband is a Pattison, (although we dont think he is connected to the clockmaker). Needless to say, we had to have it....it is now in our house in France ! We love it.

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    1. Dear Janice - I think the Midlands Enlightenment was an unusual time our history - strange that so many intellectual and motivated men should be around and together at the same time - most of whom were responsible for the science that we build on today.
      It would be interesting you know more about your 18th century longcase clock - have you done any research into it. It would be particularly good if you could link your husband to the name on the clock.
      I remember visiting the antique fair in Birmingham with a group when we lived in Hertfordshire. One of the group was descended from an old established jewellers in the town where we lived which also sold fine art and clocks. At one of the stalls she came across a grandfather clock which bore the name of her family jewellers and correct town. Although it cost a lot of money she bought it there and then and was over the moon.

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    2. I have done a little research into our clock Rosemary. It was built in 1783 by John Pattison, a well known Halifax clockmaker. The antique centre where I discovered it, was 8 miles from Halifax, so I dont think it had travelled far in its life. We feel a little guilty that we have transported it to the south of France, but it looks perfect in the house in Caunes.....and our little modern Hebden Bridge house does not have a ceiling tall enough to cope with it ! Mark's Pattison family comes from the north east, but probably,both the Yorkshire Pattison's and those from Durham and Northumberland originated in Scotland. Jx

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    3. A lovely clock to own Janice - who knows where it might end up in the next two hundred years!!!

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  24. A cup of tea, toast and honey. Pefect for a visit to Madrid, Somerset and Derbyshire via your posts. All your posts reflected leaving something for future generations. I hope we can learn and emulate.

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    1. Love to join you in a cup of tea with toast and honey Susan.
      Yours is a very interesting and observant comment.
      I shall now be pondering what I am leaving behind for future generations as I sip my cup of tea.

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  25. What a fascinating man! Sometimes I think people are too niche focused in our modern age. I'm all over the map with interests in writing, art and science. I'd say I was born in the wrong century except that the Enlightenment was so enlightened about women.

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    1. Most of the members of the Lunar Society had many strings to their bow - poet, botanist, scientist to geologist.
      You are much better off in our society today with your manifold interests than being a women during the enlightenment. If you had been around then perhaps you could have changed attitudes!

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  26. An interesting post. I enjoyed learning more about this man. It always amazes me when something, like his clock, is still so efficient it can't be improved upon.

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    1. He was an extraordinary man and his talents were many - thanks for your comment.

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  27. Rosemary:
    I found it very interesting all this historical information in your blog. "Living and Learning" Whats the Very Good!
    Abraço,
    Léah

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    1. Thank you for your visit Minhas and for becoming a follower - I am happy that you found the post interesting - look forward to seeing you again.

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  28. Such a fascinating man and a great reminder of how curious and smart we humans can be :) I love the connection to Benjamin Franklin.

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    1. The group of friends during the mid 18th century Midlands Enlightenment period were an extraordinary group of men who changed the future for us all.

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  29. What a great story Rosemary....thanks for sharing. I've always been fascinated by the Giant's Causeway but sadly never had a chance to visit - some day perhaps! BUT, I have been to Congleton, and seen some of the beautiful Peak District - my brother had a house there for a while, many years ago before moving to London, and now the south of France! Time moves on, clocks prove it!!!!!

    Fondly, Mary

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    1. Dear Mary - I visited the Giants Causeway last autumn for the first time - it is much more impressive than I ever imagined it to be. In fact Northern Ireland itself is well worth visiting.
      Glad you enjoyed the post about John Whitehurst, he along with other members of the Lunar Society was a remarkable man.

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  30. Bardzo lubię Twój blog, bo umieszczasz w nim ciekawe informacje o wielkich ludziach. Ten post bardo mi sie podobał. Pozdrawiam.
    I really like your blog, because you put in the interesting facts about great people. This post Bardo I loved it. Yours.

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    1. Dziękuję Giga dla samego komentarza rodzaju. Cieszę się, że Twoje korzystają post. Życzę bardzo szczęśliwe wakacje i czekamy na swoje posty w zeznaniu.

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  31. Derbyshire has reminded me of you, rosemary, and Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley by association. From now on, it will remind me of John Whitehurst, too.

    Yoko

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    1. Dear Yoko - I am happy that all these connections have been made for you, you have an excellent recollection of my previous posts.

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  32. John sounds a remarkable man and I found your post so interesting. It is incredible that it he invented something that has not been improved since despite all the technology we now have available to us.
    Sarah x

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    1. Dear Sarah - his zest for discovery was unusual but not amongst that group of Lunar Society friends. They must have enthused each other with their endeavours - it was a remarkable period. Glad you found it interesting.

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