As a clockmaker Henry Hindley can be compared with the most eminent London clockmakers of his day. His production of many fine turret clocks to grace prestigious buildings and of domestic clocks for the elite homes of York and Yorkshire earned him a justified reputation as a leading maker of quality timepieces. Yet while this was his main sphere of activity and source of livelihood, Hindley possessed an enquiring mind and an inventive prowess that led him to break the bounds of conventional clockmaking and enter the arena of scientific and mechanical instrument making.

Within a decade of establishing a thriving clock business in York Hindley was inventing a series of machine tools and instruments including a screw cutting lathe, fusee cutting engine and an advanced and highly accurate ‘dividing engine’ for cutting wheels with any number of divisions or teeth and for dividing angular scales. This engine eliminated the tedious task of cutting gear wheels by hand but more importantly could be turned to the very precise task of cutting instrument arcs and wheels for telescopes and theodolites. In this age characterised by constant new developments in science and technology there was a pressing need for the ability to measure ever more accurate angular scales, in the fields of navigation, surveying, and astronomy.

Hindley’s work on these tools clearly helped him improve the precision with which he created his own clocks, but beyond his own personal realm his instruments generated interest and discussion amongst clockmakers and engineers around the country. Hindley’s interests also encompassed the development of steam engines, bringing him to the attention of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham who recognised his expertise and engaged him as a supplier of tools. Given Hindley’s inventive ingenuity it is unsurprising that he chose to take on and succeed in an even greater challenge, the design of the first equatorially-mounted telescope. This achievement firmly established his reputation, and that of his dividing engine.

John Smeaton, engineer, surveyor, mathematical instrument maker and close friend of Hindley, wrote ‘Hindley then showed me an instrument intended for astronomical purposes, which must have been produced from the engine, and which of itself must have taken some time in making… his instrument was of the equatorial kind; the wheel parallel to the equator, the quadrant of latitude, and semi-circle of declination, being all furnished with screws containing fifteen threads each, framed and moved in the same manner as that of the engine; the whole of which instrument was already framed, and the telescope tube in its place, which was intended to be of the inverting refracting kind’.

Sadly Hindley’s profusion of ideas and advanced thinking did not result in him gaining greatly either financially or in social status. Whilst as a clockmaker he had built a thriving business, it would seem that his pursuit of new technology and inventions led him to continually seek new projects and lines of enquiry rather than following through his latest design to commercial success. Smeaton believed that ‘especially in his latter days, he got into many schemes, that appear to me to be much more cost to him than worship’. Nevertheless Smeaton was a keen and loyal supporter of Hindley, and in a 47-page address to the Royal Society in 1785 he sought to bring posthumous recognition to this man of ‘fertile genius’ for his numerous achievements.

(From Keeping Time a temporary exhibition at Fairfax House, 5th October-31st December 2012)

Name: Hannah Phillip

Title: Director

Source: Keeping Time (Fairfax House, 2013)