Georgian Surveying Compass & Sundial by William Harris & Co London

Georgian Surveying Compass & Sundial by William Harris & Co London


Georgian Surveying Compass & Sundial by William Harris & Co London


H: 4 x W: 17.5 x D: 16cms




William Harris & Co

Country of manufacture

UK and Ireland

Categories: Timekeeping, Scientific, Technology, Surveying Instruments & Mining, Portable Sundials, Office Antiques


For sale, a complex Georgian surveyor’s sundial and compass set by William Harris & Co of 50 Holborn, London.

Comprised of a hinged mahogany case fitted with a five inch split level, silvered and engraved compass dial to the base. The upper level providing the degree scale and the lower central section with compass bearings and a superbly engraved star motif.

Above the compass glass is provided a removable sundial chapter ring with two arcs attached to the inner circumference supporting a hinged gnomon which can be folded flat for transit. The dial is engraved with Roman numerals and the maker’s name of Harris & Co, 50 Holborn London.

The case lid is fitted with original green baize filled inserts to accommodate the gnomon and the there is a further section which contains two brass sights which can be removed and slotted into the base at the North and South points of the compass dial. One sight and slot is engraved with the numeral “1” to denote which sight is placed where.

For transit the lid closes onto a small pinpoint on the base which automatically locks the compass needle in place. The lid is secured with two hook and eye type fasteners.

A rare and uncommon form by a renowned London instrument maker.

William Harris was the son of the London optician Richard Harris but was apprenticed in 1788 to a Joseph Robinson who is described as a motion maker. With a seven year apprenticeship it is likely that Harris would have earnt his freedom by 1795 although he does not appear in the records until 1800 where he is listed as trading from his premises at 50 High Holborn.

His capabilities must have brought him early success, by 1809 it is known that Sir David Brewster had commissioned Harris to construct a goniometer after his designs. Brewster relates that,

“On the 3rd of February 1809, I gave direction to Mr Harris to construct for me a goniometer for measuring by reflection the angle which one line forms with another, or the angle formed by two reflecting surfaces, by observing their relative position to any straight line. I shewed this goniometer to several of my friends in London, during the months of February and March; to Dr Clarke and Mr Woodhouse at Cambridge, on the 22nd of March; and , in the beginning of April, it was exhibited to the mathematical class of this University by Professor Leslie. At this time I got an addition made to the instrument by Mr Adie”.

The relationship evidently flourished as two years later on the 21st of May 1811, a patent for, “Optical instruments for measuring angles; telescopes and other instruments” was lodged at the Patent Office by both Brewster and William Harris. That Brewster shared the patent with Harris is proof of the latter’s growing wealth as it would have consumed significant cost and time to complete the process. Brewster was never a man of great financial means according to his biographers and that William Harris was responsible for the administration is clearly stated in the patent itself. “And be it remembered that on the thirteenth day of July, in this year of our Lord 1811, the aforesaid William Harris came before our said Lord the King in his Chancery, and acknowledged the specification aforesaid”.

It is unlikely given the existing rarity of the instruments from this long patent application that many were produced and his early foray into commercialising his inventions was largely overshadowed in 1817 when Brewster’s invention of the kaleidoscope was revealed.

That Harris seems not to have been involved in either the patent application or advertised as one of the licensed retailers alongside such famous cotemporaries as the Dollonds. Robert Brettell Bate, Matthew Berge and Thomas Jones (amongst others) suggests that their relationship had run its course. Brewster was known to have been a somewhat difficult character so we may assume that the relationship has broken down by then. It is also asserted that Harris by his exclusion from the above list may have been the responsible party for having shown the invention to other scientific manufacturers at the early stages of the instruments conception but rare examples of kaleidoscopes by Harris certainly exist.

Rumours of Harris’s inattention to secrecy seem not to have affected his business, he is listed as having satellite premises in both Liverpool and Hamburg by 1820, at which point the business name was adjusted to William Harris & Co and supplied instruments to the JA Lloyd survey of Panama during the 1820’s. Under this new title, his son Richard Joshua Harris would also have started his apprenticeship and been latterly introduced to his Father’s business, the firm however did not change to William Harris & Son until 1840 after the satellite businesses and associated partnerships were dissolved.

Harris’s trade cards of the period are often marked with the words, “by his Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent” which was almost certainly a useful hangover from his earlier partnership with Sir David Brewster. The telescope for which he received this accolade was the only patent that Harris ever applied for which is interesting given that his portable compensating barometers were all variously marked with the word “patent”. The process was perhaps less well policed in the Nineteenth Century and Harris was not the only maker to take advantage or exaggerate his entitlement.

The company continued to trade into the early part of the Victorian period and were listed amongst the exhibitors of The Great Exhibition. The catalogue showcasing products such as Compensating Portable Barometers for measuring the height of mountains, Self Registering Thermometers and Patent Micrometrical & Double Image Telescopes. It is interesting to note that Brewster was also an exhibitor and juror at The Exhibition. 

Harris & Son continued to trade until 1855 where after the business seems to have been taken over by Keyzor & Bendon. The reason for the transition is not known but it may be assumed that the founder had retired or was deceased by this time.

Circa 1820

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