Jason Clarke Antiques

Early Victorian Cased Maritime Artificial Horizon by George Dollond of London


For sale an early Victorian cased maritime artificial horizon by George Dollond, 59 St Paul’s Churchyard, London.

This top quality instrument is comprised of a mahogany hinged case with original lock and key and additional hook and eye fixings to the front. Contained within the box a black painted metal tray and triangular lid (signed to Dollond) with a two paned glass top to enable viewing and to protect it from the elements aboard ship. The box also contains its original turned boxwood circular case for the safe storage of mercury.

Inside the lid, there are two trade labels, the first to George Dollond, a descendant of one of the most famous British instrument making families. The label states, “G Dollond, Optical, Mathematical and philosophical Instrument Maker, To Her Majesty, 59 St Paul’s churchyard, London”.

The second label is for the reseller, George Lee & Son. Their label states, “George Lee & Son, Manufacturers of Mathematical, Optical & Nautical Instruments, to the honourable Corporation of the Trinity House & the Admiralty, Ordnance Row, The Hard, Portsea & 3 Palmerston Road, Southsea”.

The history of the artificial horizon can be traced back to the sixteenth century but developments were largely popularised in the eighteenth century by John Hadley, John Elton and by the famous instrument maker, George Adams, the latter of whom is merited in 1738 with inventing the mercury trough of which this is an example. It was devised as a means of navigation when the horizon was obscured by darkness or through the effect of inclement weather.

Its principle was based upon the first law of optics, that the angle of reflection from a mirror is equal to the angle of incidence, therefore a sextant would be employed to measure the angle between the sun or the stars and their reflection on the mercury contained in the metal trough. Although the instrument was dogged by criticism relating to the tremoring of the mercury when excessive movement was involved, it must have proved popular enough owing to its continuing manufacture by leading instrument makers such as George Dollond.

The Dollond family dynasty begins in the UK with the migration of Jean Dollond, a Huguenot weaver fleeing religious persecution in France. His son John (1706 – 1761) was also brought up a silk weaver but was took an avid interest in the science of optics and quickly gained huge respect amongst amateurs and professionals for his knowledge and writings on the subject.

Peter, his son having grown up surrounded by his Father’s interests was perhaps an unwilling apprentice silk weaver. It is assumed that he completed his training but his inherited passion for science, culminated in 1750 with him opening a small optical business in Vine Street, Spitalfields which ran for two years before his father could no longer resist the temptation to join his son’s enterprise. The partnership between John and Peter was formed in 1752 and the premises was moved to Exeter Exchange off The Strand.

As Dollond and Son and with John Dollond’s focus solely on the business of instrument making, he first improved the design of the Savery’s heliometer calling it a “divided object glass micrometer” which allowed accurate measurement of the distance of the sun. It proved a huge success and was used by Captain James Cook on his Australia voyage. He followed up that success with his work on chromatic aberration in refracting telescopes and his invention of the achromatic lens brought the company even greater success following the successful patenting of the invention. For his efforts, John was also awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society and was later elected a Fellow. A Royal Appointment to George III quickly followed but sadly, John was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labour for long, he died in 1761 at the age of 55 from a stroke.

Following John’s death, his son Peter now trading alone was faced with a trade hungry to take advantage of his father’s patent. Rumours were circulating that John Dollond had used some initial work by a barrister and a gifted amateur scientist Chester Moor Hall for his invention and numerous Freemen of the Spectacle Maker’s Company petitioned George III in 1764 for the annulment of the patent. In this endeavour they failed and in turn Peter was to successfully sue a number of his competitors for damages relating to their copying of the invention. This also included Francis Watkins, a former business partner employed to help manage the volume of demand.

The smear on the Dollond name in relation to the achromatic lens seems not to have affected the family business and the premises moved in 1766 to the larger and more famous address at 59 St Paul’s Churchyard. This move also coincided with his brother John joining the business, their sister Sarah had also married the equally famous instrument maker, Jesse Ramsden with Susan marrying a hatter named William Huggins whose son John Huggins became apprenticed to the Dollond Brother’s company in 1778 as did his younger brother George after the death of their father.

By 1790, both Peter and John had both served as Master of the Spectacle Makers Company and Peter had been elected to the Royal Society. John died in 1804 from complications arising from surgery and with both Peter and John leaving no male heirs, the decision was taken to allow George Huggins (son of Susan Dollond) to take his Uncle John’s place in the business. For this accolade the agreement was made that George would change his surname by deed poll from Huggins to Dollond.

In the same year, the now George Dollond received the freedom of the Spectacle Makers Company  and was elected Renter Warden and like his uncles went on to become Master in 1811. An astute businessman, George looked after all of Dollond’s investments and finances, living in Camberwell, he is noted to have been, “driven daily to St Pauls Churchyard in an old yellow carriage by a liveries coachman and footman”. In 1812, he patented, “improved lighting for ship’s binnacles” and finally went on to succeed his uncle upon Peter’s retirement in 1817. By 1819, George could also call himself, Optician to King George III & George IV, was also an elected member of The Royal Society and a founder member of both the Royal Astronomical Society and The Royal Geographical Society. His abilities and connections also led him to receive commissions from both the Board of Longitude and the Board of Customs and numerous observatories across the globe and numerous patents were lodged. His final creation, the atmospheric recorder, was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for which he received a Council medal but with his health in decline, the childless George, like his predecessors relinquished the family business to his nephew George, the son of his brother, John Huggins.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison of the Royal Geographical Society wrote the following:

“George was well known to many to many of those whom I am now addressing both for his character as an honourable man and for his reputation as an efficient mechanician. From the year 1805 until his death Dollond maintained his position with ability and punctuality; in the course of his career he was honoured with the personal friendship of many of the most illustrious philosophers of the age”.

George Huggins followed his predecessor by also changing his name to Dollond and the business continued to gain success with commissions from the RNLI for barometers, telescopes and binoculars. George (the younger) was also to gain the same positions as Master of the Spectacle Makers Company and Fellow of the Royal Society as well becoming optician to Queen Victoria.

George Dollond (the younger) died in 1866 whereupon the business was handed to his son, William who had apprenticed with his father in 1847. William through ill health was forced to retire shortly after in 1871. His son Alfred was too young to inherit the business so it was sold firstly to JR Chant whose father had worked for the company and continued under the name until 1927 when it was bought out by Aitchison & Co to become Dollond & Aitchison.

The combined firm continued to trade successfully until it was itself bought out by Boots in 2009.

The other trade card within the lid of the artificial horizon is to George Lee & Son who would have bought this piece in second hand for resale. The family were a prosperous instrument maker firm based at The Hard in Portsea and in Southsea from 1847 until 1912. They were known to have undertaken work for the Admiralty, Trinity House and The Royal Naval College.

A rare and early example of a nautical artificial horizon by one of the most distinguished makers of the early nineteenth century.

Circa 1840

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