The flotsam and jetsam of history are continually being washed up in the auction rooms. Many objects, in themselves often quite ordinary, take on greater significance if their connection with a historical event or figure can be established. Usually such claims for an object's historicity amount to nothing more than unsubstantitated popular legends. But sometimes patient digging into records reveals genuine historical value.
A marine chronometer that appeared in a recent auction at Christie's in London was just such an object.
On the surface, this chronometer appeared to be much like any other. But on the brass-bound rosewood case of this one was an ivory plaque inscribed with the maker's name, a serial number, and a government mark.
The marks indicated that the instrument had once been government property and that its history would be recorded in the archive of The Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Sure enough, Chronometer 2169 by James Muirhead of Glasgow turned out to have had a very interesting history. It was the very instrument that was used to plot the 49th Parallel.
The records of Chronometer 2169 began in 1857, the year it was submitted for the annual chronometer trials at the Royal Observatory. During an exacting 29-week examination, the accuracy of each instrument was thoroughly tested. Only the best would be purchased by the government for military use. Number 2169 rated second place in 1857 and was bought for 45. It did not sit on the shelf for long before being pressed into service.
The western half of the border between the United States and the then-British territory of Canada had, until the middle of the 19th century, been somewhat indeterminate. But the development of the west and the discovery of gold deposits there created an urgent need for a clearly defined boundary in the face of a growing number of territorial disputes.
In 1846, Britain and America had signed the Boundary (Oregon) Treaty, which established the 49th Parallel as the new demarcation between the two countries. But 12 years elapsed before a party of Royal Engineers was dispatched from Britain to plot the boundary.
Known as the Oregon Expedition, the party was led by Colonel J. S. Hawkins, to whom Chronometer 2169 was issued from The Royal Observatory on March 26, 1858. The expedition arrived on Vancouver Island on July 12.
The chronometer was allocated to Captain R. W. Haig of the Royal Artillery, the chief astronomer of the party, who used it to plot the latitude and longitude of a number of the stations along the 49th Parallel, including those at Lake Osoyoos, Ashrolow, and Inshirointium. The task took almost four years to complete, excluding the winter months, and took the party into areas where man had probably never before set foot. Clearing had to be cut through the forests and often it was necessary to travel on foot or by canoe. The job completed, the party left Esqimalt in May 1862, and Chronometer 2169 was checked back into The Royal Observatory on Aug. 11.
Although its use on the Oregon Expedition is its main claim to fame, Chronometer 2169 was used again many times, most notably when a new expedition was set up to observe the Transit of Venus in 1874. A number of stations around the world were used by astronomers to measure the distance of the sun from the Earth. This could only be done when the sun, Venus, and the Earth are all in a straight line, which occurs every eight years. Chronometer 2169 was one of 30 used at the head station in Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands. The chronometer was again returned to The Royal Observatory in November 1875.
The historical significance of an object can easily be lost or overlooked, but few items have such thorough documentation as Chronometer 2169. But this has not prevented its being lost in obscurity on at least two occasions. In 1921, the authorities of The Royal Observatory sold Number 2169 to the Clan Line Shipping Company, presumably in an effort to clear their shelves of redundant instruments. Even when it appeared again in May 1980 at another London auction, it went unrecognized and sold for 780, a n average amount for a good chronometer. Christie's research paid off handsomely by raising the price to 5,400 and Chronometer 2169 has, at last, found permanent and honorable retirement in the British Columbia Provincial Museum of Victoria, Canada.