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Time RestoredThe Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew (almost) everything$

Jonathan Betts

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780198568025

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198568025.001.0001

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Introduction: Rupert T. Gould

Introduction: Rupert T. Gould

(p.1) Introduction: Rupert T. Gould
Time Restored

Jonathan Betts

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter presents a background on Rupert T. Gould. Gould possessed an exceptional mind; he was a veritable polymath, and his extraordinary knowledge and his dissemination of it in his books and radio broadcasts made him a household name in his day. Of all the subjects he became expert in, it was Horology — the study of clock making and timekeeping — where he made his greatest contribution: he had an all consuming obsession with the subject and was one of the 20th century's finest antiquarian horologists.

Keywords:   clocks, horologists, polymath

On a summer morning in 1949, Muriel Gould invited her children for a picnic in the village of Ashtead in Surrey. Cecil, now 31, and Jocelyne a year younger, had started lives of their own well before the war, but both son and daughter kept in regular touch with their mother and there was nothing unusual about the invitation. The picnic itself, however, was unusual because of the venue Muriel had chosen for the lunch. The family met that day in Ashtead churchyard, the blanket laid out by the grave of Muriel’s late husband, Rupert. Lead capital letters, inlaid into the top of the large, horizontal white marble slab read: ‘RUPERT THOMAS GOULD, LIEUTENANT COMMANDER, ROYAL NAVY, HOROLOGIST, AUTHOR AND BROADCASTER, BORN SOUTHSEA 1890, DIED CANTERBURY 1948′. The funeral had taken place 10 months before, but of the family, only Rupert’s son Cecil had been there among a small handful of mourners. It was also Cecil who had chosen the epitaph on the tombstone, and the emphasis on Gould’s professional achievement and the absence of any memorial to a ‘father’ or ‘husband’ was not an oversight. 22 years before, Rupert and Muriel had undergone a bitter judicial separation and had hardly met thereafter.

So the picnic, which finally brought together these two diverse and conflicting aspects of their father’s life, his career and his family, was always a bit of a my stery for the children. Their mother never did explain what it had been about; in later years Cecil supposed it might have been a case of his mother, in her own particular way, saying farewell to her husband, reconciling and resolving a 10 year-partnership which had, after all, originally been loving. But the separation had been disastrous for Rupert, who lost his wife, his home, his closest friends, his job and custody of his children.

By the time of his death at just 57 years old, Rupert Gould was enjoying celebrity status; he was nationally famous for a multitude of achievements and Cecil’s epitaph characterized his father’s public image well. But there was another very different side to this curious life: severe depressions, crippling bouts of overwork and the emotional struggles he faced during his short span, witnessed by his family but unknown to his public audience, directed the course of his life at every turn.

(p.2) Ironically, Lieutenant Commander Gould’s role as a Navy Officer, the title of which he carried with him all his adult life, was the least successful of his contributions. Rupert Gould was however possessed of an exceptional mind; he was a veritable polymath, and his extraordinary knowledge and his dissemination of it in his books and radio broadcasts was what made him a household name in his day. Of all the subjects he became expert in, it was Horology, the study of clock making and timekeeping, where he made his greatest contribution: he had an all-consuming obsession with the subject and was one of the twentieth century’s finest antiquarian horologists.

Gould’s fascination for clocks and watches began in childhood and, with an interest already present, it is no surprise that when the young naval officer, studying navigation at Greenwich, encountered that indispensable horological instrument, the marine chronometer, he should do so much more than simply learn how to use it. In just 4 years, beginning at the age of 29, Gould prepared and wrote the definitive history of the instrument. The Marine Chronometer, Its History and Development, first published in 1923 and reprinted many times since, was so beautifully written and so thoroughly researched it still has no equal on the subject in the twenty-first century. We tend to associate accessible books on technical subjects as very much a recent phenomenon and in this sense Gould was a long way ahead of his time.

In studying the subject it was Gould who rediscovered the great marine timekeepers of John Harrison, corroding in store at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. These incredibly complex and intricate machines were the prototypes which led to the successful marine chronometer and are of monumental importance in the history of science. In fact, as Dava Sobel reminds us in her best-seller Longitude (Walker/4th Estate, 1995), Harrison’s fourth timekeeper ‘H4’ proved to be the first of all precision watches, winning for him the famed £20,000 Longitude prize money, and marking him out as one of the eighteenth century’s greatest scientific achievers. Although famous in his day, Harrison’s life had virtually been consigned to history until Rupert Gould retold his extraordinary story in 1923. Not only did he see Harrison’s greatness recognized once again, Gould then dedicated over fifteen years of his life to restoring the timekeepers to their former glorious working condition. The first three large machines were the greatest challenge, with H3, the most complex of all, having over 700 parts needing restoration. Every stage of the work was recorded by him (p.3) in eighteen meticulously detailed notebook/diaries and his work has not only preserved these timekeepers for posterity, but has enabled us to understand them in every aspect. What is even more remarkable is that these Herculean tasks were all done, to use Gould’s own words, as a labour of love, and carried out in his own time; he would only accept repayment of expenses. For his contribution to horology alone the name of Rupert Gould should be remembered in perpetuity.

But Gould was much more than simply an horologist. Blessed with an almost photographic memory and an insatiable appetite for knowledge, in the course of his life he became an expert in many other fields, accumulating a truly astonishing breadth of learning. He was the epitome of the popular philosophers and ‘men of knowledge’ who were a feature of the mid-twentieth century, revered by the public for their knowledge and encouraged by establishment bodies such as the BBC as examples of intellects to be admired and emulated. And the fact that Gould was essentially an amateur, albeit a consummate one, made his broad knowledge all the more remarkable. Always the strictest of academics, he nevertheless appeared to be the typical gentleman dilettante in the many things he did. He had no formal academic degrees and on the only occasion when he entered a profession, his first career as a Navy officer, he was obliged to bow out, being quite unsuitable emotionally and psychologically to cope with the rigours of wartime.

He may have appeared to play the role of dilettante, but anything he took an interest in was studied in extraordinary detail. Had he not been well recognized as a polymath, he could easily have been remembered independently by small, specialist-interest groups. He was a pioneer in, for example, the study of tennis, of clocks, typewriters and on unsolved scientific mysteries such as the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon, of which, as will be seen, he wrote the first systematic study. These same wide interests led to Gould being asked to give a weekly wireless broadcast on The Children’s Hour, the BBC’s programme for younger ‘listeners in’. Gould was billed as ‘The Stargazer’, though astronomy was only one of many subjects he chose to talk about. Few whose childhoods included listening to The Children’s Hour forgot the talks given by ‘the man who knew everything’. And in the 1940s it was inevitable he would be invited to join that select coterie who broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service as The Brains Trust, the celebrated panel of experts answering questions of all kinds from listeners. Gould was notable as the welcome foil to the famous Professor of Philosophy, Cyril (‘it all depends what you mean (p.4) by …’) Joad. Brains Trust producer Howard Thomas remarked that Gould was the only member of the panel never, in the history of the programme, to have been contradicted.

Only in exceptional men and women does one find a brain that combines a profound scientific understanding with the vivid imagination and artistic talent necessary to write and illustrate with the skill demonstrated by Rupert Gould. His published works are notable for their engaging style and characterful clear illustrations. There is no doubt then that he was exceptional, yet in many ways he was Everyman, subject to the times in which he lived. It is a cliché to say that the personalities of talented people often contain a mass of contradictions, but it is certainly true in this case. Gould was handsome and very large in stature, standing 6 ft 4½ in. tall without his size 13½ shoes. Being intellectually strong and socially confident, with something of a commanding presence, an acquaintance might have expected him to possess a tough and rugged mentality. But his depressions and overwork led to a complex and emotionally chaotic life, punctuated by four severe nervous breakdowns. And it was not only overwork which kept Rupert from the marital home. A mind like his needed regular intellectual stimulation, something which, in spite of many fine qualities, his wife was unable to provide in large measure. The Sette of Odd Volumes, a literary dining club founded by the noted antiquarian bookseller, Bernard Quaritch in the 1870s, was ideally suited to Gould’s needs and regular meetings of the Sette provided another forum for his intellectual pursuits.

Had fate served him different opportunities who knows what one might have been able to say about R.T. Gould. Had his academic schooling continued on conventional lines it seems certain he would have excelled, probably resulting in a University professorship, a perfect role for a personality like his. In fact, if the Harrison timekeepers hadn’t stolen his heart in 1920, Gould was considering studying for the Bar which, with his great memory and pungent wit, would have been another magnificently appropriate career for him. The reality however, though important and productive in its own way, was not to be so straightforward.

In the early twenty-first century, over fifty years after Gould’s death, studies in the history of Science and Technology are increasingly teaching us to appreciate and commemorate the vital role played by the backroom boys of technological history: the ones who preserve and (p.5) record the evidence. In conserving, illustrating and interpreting the scientific and technical evidence left behind, men such as Gould are now beginning to take their proper place alongside the great inventors and scientists; they are just as important in our understanding of the advances that were made.

Gould’s was certainly not an ordinary life, but from whatever aspect one considers it, his was an interesting and important contribution. He knew the value of his achievement but he also knew he’d made many mistakes along the way; Cecil recalled that at the end of his father’s short span, when dying in Canterbury Hospital Rupert talked about the many triumphs and disasters that had brought him to that end. One wonders whether, that day in Ashtead churchyard one year after his death, his family were also reflecting on his extraordinary life. That however, almost sixty years later, is the simple aim of this book.