Henry Sully’s Life Story – Prologue

Last updated on August 11, 2022

In Southern England in 1728, there were six consecutive days of fog in September.  The winter there would be severe, with snow from mid-December to the end of January.  In France, the winter was said to have been one of the harshest ones in several years.  On possibly a cold day in mid-October, an older English clockmaker spent several hours unsuccessfully – he had been given the wrong address – looking for someone in the large neighborhood of St. Marceau, in Paris.  By the time he got home to his wife and five children (a daughter aged 21, two late teenagers, and a couple of younger children), he was chilled to the bone and starting to feel ill. 

Possibly, he had not been feeling well for some time, and the long walk in the cold forced him to bed, where he quickly got progressively worse.  By the time a doctor was called for a few days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and not given long to live.  The parish priest of St. Sulpice, where the old clockmaker had, only a few days before, been working on the meridian line that he had been tasked to install, sat to comfort the ailing man and eventually convinced him to convert to Catholicism, which would allow him to be buried with proper honours in his church. 

As he lay in bed, surrounded by his family, labouring for breath and feeling energies slip away from him, the clockmaker looked back on his life, so full of interesting events and famous people met and befriended.  He had failed at some of his more ambitious initiatives, but had made valiant attempts to advance the art of horology at a critical juncture of this discipline, especially in France, where he had spent most of his adult life.  A few friends came to visit and wish him well, including one of the most famous Parisian watchmakers, who later told the story of his friend’s death, which he said came only four or five days after the ill-fated walk in St. Marceau.

Three months later, a Parisian woman wrote to her brother, at the time working in St. Petersburg, to inform him of the passing of the clockmaker, with whom he had been acquainted.  She said it was felt that the grief of being pursued by creditors was the cause of his death, which had left his wife and five children “in extreme misery”.  But she added that the parish priest “looked after them all”.

This is the story of Henry Sully, this English clockmaker, as best can be determined from his published works, writings of some of his contemporaries, and extensive research in online archives and in various periodicals and books that have mentioned him over the ensuing three centuries.  Though it ended prematurely and sadly, there is much to celebrate and venerate about Sully’s amazing life journey. I wrote and will publish this monograph online in different chapters, in an attempt to more fully describe his life than ever has before.

(An earlier introduction to this research project)

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.”  – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958.

In the marvelous book “It’s About Time” (published shortly after his death by his widow Margaret, and now sadly long out of print), 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, and 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.

The author is attempting to produce a more fulsome text on Sully’s life, expanding on Chamberlain’s summary, and adding additional information gathered from contemporary sources, and recent historical texts dealing with the fascinating period of early 18th century France. Also, text from some interesting sections of Sully’s groundbreaking book “Règle artificielle du temps” have been translated into English and included within the text of this document, and as appendices.  This book, first published in 1714, then 1717, was revised and augmented into the final edition in 1737 (from the pen of the great French horloger Julien LeRoy, who knew Sully well for many years).

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 of his life, in hindsight they can be seen to at least indirectly support the ambitious mission he had set for himself as a young man barely out of apprenticeship.

When trying to piece together someone’s life (in this case, a clockmaker who died almost 300 years ago), the temptation always exists to extrapolate. Even with the few records and historical writings and artifacts that one can find, the puzzle that is someone else’s life remains mostly incomplete, with only a few groupings of pieces here and there. It can never tell of the daily struggles, the joys and tribulations, the family events, the routine of the days that make up most of a man’s life. And piecing out the daily life of someone like Sully requires immersing oneself in historical details about those times and places, which is a sizeable task in itself.

(Note that this document refers to “clockmaker”, which should not be interpreted as solely makers of clocks.  Most clockmakers would also make and/or sell watches, but using the simple “clockmaker” term simplifies having to refer to them as “watch/clockmaker” or “watchmaker”, depending on the context.  In France, the more encompassing term “horloger” is used to describe these craftsmen, which simplifies matters insofar as nomenclature is concerned.)

For an eighteenth century horologist like Sully, there is a good deal to work with (notably, the few timepieces and several horological writings he has left behind for posterity), and a good approach when writing such tales, is to stick to the facts as much as possible, and being clear when some kind of apocryphal story is introduced for a bit of colour.  The author has used this approach in his articles published in the NAWCC Bulletin (André-Charles Caron; and Pierre-François Le Roy, Julien’s little-known brother), and in Antiquarian Horology (Henry Sully and Julien Le Roy).

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 measured or understood.

Robert St-Louis, Ottawa, Canada, August 2022

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