“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 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 hereby publish this monograph online in different chapters, in an attempt to more fully describe his life than ever has before.
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. The documents below have expanded the story of Sully's life considerably, as a result of consulting the original source materials, and by digging deeper into historical archives for details about this man’s fascinating and ultimately tragic life. This has yielded many interesting facts of Sully’s life, his accomplishments, the famous people he interacted with, and the historical events in which he was an active participant.
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.
--Robert St-Louis, 2020-23