The Sully Pages

The articles in these pages deal with the English horologist Henry Sully (Born in Bicknoller, Somerset 1680 – Died in Paris 1728). The individual articles deal with specific subjects related to this influential but largely unknown eighteenth century horologist, aiming to eventually document as much as this writer has been able to uncover and understand about Sully’s very interesting life, times, and works.

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).