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.