Henry Sully (1679-1728) – in progress

Last updated on August 6, 2020

In the marvellous book “It’s About Time” (published shortly after his death by his widow Margaret), Major Paul Chamberlain wrote a short biography of our subject which starts with the words “Henry Sully is a figure that stirs the imagination”. Chamberlain goes on to tell the highlights of Sully’s life in three and a half short but revealing pages, which could be expanded considerably if one consulted the original source materials, or if one were to dig deeper into historical archives for details about this man’s fascinating and ultimately tragic life. Indeed, one’s imagination cannot help but try to fill in some of the blanks surrounding the interesting facts of Sully’s life, his accomplishments, the famous people he interacted with, and the historical events of which he was an active player.

In a recent book titled “Marine Chronometers at Greenwich”, published in 2017, author and Curator Emeritus Jonathan Betts starts his section on Sully with these words: “Very few professional clockmakers displayed the courage and enterprise to devote themselves to designing longitude timekeepers before John Harrison made his pioneering breakthroughs. Henry Sully was one such man.” Indeed, when one studies the interesting and eventful path of Sully’s life, after moving to London from his birthplace in a backwater village in Somerset (to study horology as an apprentice to the respected Charles Gretton), a dogged, hopeful and confident determination to find a solution to the longitude problem always remained his steadfast and primary focus. Even though other initiatives were to occupy him during some periods, in hindsight they can be seen to at least indirectly support the ambitious mission he had set for himself in life. The tragedy of Henry Sully’s life is not that he came up short in his attempts to deliver a reliable longitude timekeeper, but that he died suddenly soon after his last failed attempt, robbing the horological world of one of its great visionaries and communicators. His untimely death also left behind a widow and their children to an uncertain future, which is a personal tragedy that can never be fully understood.

Henry Sully Signature on Legal Document July 1722
Henry Sully signature on legal document – Paris July 1722

I aim to produce a more fulsome text on Sully’s life, expanding on Chamberlain’s summary, and adding additional information I have been able to gather from contemporary sources, and recent historical texts dealing with the fascinating period of early 18th century France. Also, I will translate and include in my text some interesting sections of Sully’s groundbreaking book “Règle artificielle du temps”, first published in 1714, then 1717, and finally, in a revised and augmented edition in 1737 (from the pen of the great French horloger Julien LeRoy, who happened to be a close friend to Sully).

In Tardy’s reference book entitled “Bibliographie générale de la mesure du temps” (general bibliography of time measurement), published in 1947, are listed these works published by Henry Sully.

  • 1711, Leiden: Abrégé de quelques règles pour faire un bon usage des montres
  • 1714, Wien: Règle artificielle du temps. Publié sous nom de “H.S. de Londres”, dédié au duc d’Arenberg, suivi des remarques de Leibnitz et d’observations du père Kresa
  • 1716, Paris: Description d’une montre de nouvelle construction présentée à l’Académie royale des Sciences
  • 1716, Paris: Montre pour la Mer et Manière d’éviter les frottements dans les échappements des montres (Gallon)
  • 1717, Paris: Méthode pour régler les montres et les pendules
  • 1717, Paris: Règle artificielle du temps. Traité de la division naturelle et artificielle du temps des horloges et des montres de diverses constructions de la manière de les construire et de les régler de justesse (114 p., 2 pl.). Second edition of the work originally published in Wien in 1714.
  • 1724, Paris: Horloge inventée et exécutée pour une plus juste mesure du temps en mer (Mémoires de l’Académie royale des Sciences)
  • 1727, Paris: Description abrégée d’une horloge de nouvelle invention pour la juste mesure du temps en mer avec le jugement de l’Académie des Sciences sur cette invention et une dissertation sur la nature des tentatives pour la découverte des Longitudes dans la navigation et sur l’usage des horloges pour la mesure du temps en mer (48 p., 3 pl.)
  • 1737, Paris: Règle artificielle du temps. (433 p., 3 pl.). This is the final version, re-edited by the publisher Dupuis with the assistance of Julien LeRoy, who also contributed many of his memoirs and writings in the second half of the book (including a most interesting first-hand telling of Sully’s life story in Paris).
Tardy and Baillie Horological Bibliographies

In Baillie’s “Clocks & Watches, a Historical Bibliography“, published in 1951, some of the above publications are listed, and this additional item:

  • 1724, Versailles: Letter from Sully to George Graham (10 p. and a drawing), probably accompanying his marine timepiece, now in the Library of the Clockmaker’s Company in London. The letter concludes with the following words: “have the goodness to inspect and try what I send you now.” It is signed: “Sully. Versailles. June 29, 1724”

August 2020 – I sent a letter to the Editor of Antiquarian Horology, which will be published in the next issue. It introduces my Henry Sully project, and solicits insights and information on Sully from interested readers of AH.

I also submitted an article for the Editor’s consideration, dealing with the interesting story of “A watch of new construction”, described from the perspectives of both horologists who participated in its design, Henry Sully and Julien LeRoy. Their stories of this watch, which was presented by Sully to the Académie Royale des Sciences with great success in June 1716, are contained in the 1737 edition of Sully’s “Règle artificielle du temps”, which was edited by LeRoy and augmented by many of his own memoirs and texts.

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