JOHN WHITEHURST, 10 April 1713 – 18 February 1788, Fellow of the Royal Society.
John Whitehurst was born in Congleton, Cheshire, to a clockmaker, John Whitehurst
the elder. Receiving only a basic formal education, Whitehurst Junior was taught
clockmaking by his father, who also encouraged the boy's pursuit of knowledge. At
the age of twenty-one, the son visited Dublin to inspect a clock of curious construction
of which he had heard.
About 1736 Whitehurst entered into business for himself at Derby, where he soon obtained
considerable employment, distinguishing himself by constructing several ingenious
pieces of mechanism. Besides other works he made the clock for the town-hall, and
in reward was enrolled as a burgess on 6 September 1737. He also made thermometers,
barometers, and other philosophical instruments, and interested himself in contriving
waterworks. He was consulted in almost every undertaking in Derbyshire and in the
neighbouring counties in which skill in mechanics, pneumatics, and hydraulics was
Whitehurst made the movement of the Sidereal Clock produced at Soho in 1771 incorporating
some of the principles developed by John Harrison for his marine chronometer in 1764.
The mechanism of the clock shows how the sun and stars move in relation to the earth.
This clock failed to sell at Christie’s and by 1796, desperate to sell the piece,
Boulton shipped it to St Petersburg with the hope of selling it to the Empress Catherine
the Great. It was returned, unsold, some years later and remained in the Boulton
family. It is now on regular display at Soho House, but has been taken into the Birmingham
Museum and Art Gallery’s Boulton Bicentennial Exhibition.
In 1774, Whitehurst obtained a post at the Royal Mint in London. In 1775, on the
passage of the act for the better regulation oí the gold coinage, without any solicitation
on his part he was appointed stamper of the money-weights on the recommendation of
the Duke of Newcastle. Whitehurst moved to London, where the rest of his life was
passed in scientific pursuits, and where his house in Colt Court, Fleet Street, formerly
the abode of James Ferguson (1710-1770), was visited by men of science.
In 1778 Whitehurst published his theory on geological strata in ‘An Inquiry into
the Original State and Formation of the Earth.’ The original object of this work,
which he began to prepare while living at Derby, was to facilitate the discovery
of valuable minerals beneath the earth's surface. He pursued his researches with
so much ardour that the exposure he incurred tended to impair his health.
On 13 May 1779 Whitehurst was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1783
he was sent to examine the Giant's Causeway and the volcanic remains in the north
of Ireland, embodying his observations in the second edition of his Inquiry. About
1784 he contrived a system of ventilation for St. Thomas's Hospital, and in 1787
he published ‘An Attempt towards obtaining invariable Measures of Length, Capacity,
and Weight, from the Mensuration of Time.’ He obtained data from which the true lengths
of pendulums, the spaces through which heavy bodies fall in a given time, and many
other particulars relating to the force of gravitation and the true figure of the
earth, could be deduced.
On 9 January 1745 Whitehurst married Elizabeth Gretton, daughter of George Gretton,
rector of Trusley and Dalbury in Derbyshire. After Whitehurst died in 1788 at his
house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, he was buried beside his wife in St. Andrew's
burying-ground in Gray's Inn Road. There were no surviving children.