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Sailing to production

Saar Drimer

"Harrison's Chronometer H5" by Racklever at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Original uploader was Racklever at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG

"Harrison's Chronometer H5" by Racklever at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Original uploader was Racklever at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Harrison%27s_Chronometer_H5.JPG

In 1714, the British took a very contemporary approach to solving the long-standing 'longitude problem' by offering a lucrative prize, through an Act of Parliament and administered by a special Board. Whilst the goal was worthy, the criteria for winning was not defined well enough to eliminate the influence of opinion, egos, and politics from a competition that was predominately about a scientific achievement.

John Harrison, a clockmaker and a prime contender for the prize, dedicated years to the problem. In a series of watches, each smaller and better than its predecessors, he pretty much reached the goals of the contest with the 'H4'. The Board, however, realised that a working 'prototype' isn't quite achieving the spirit of the prize -- a replicable, open, and, most importantly, scalable solution to the problem. Harrison was denied the prize despite meeting its technical criteria. Reluctantly, Harrison facilitated the replication by other watchmakers.

Harrison, now quite old, continued to work on H5, and being frustrated with the Board, went directly to the King to test the new device. The King was pleased and leaned on the Board; Harrison finally got a big chunk of money, but not the prize itself, or been officially the 'winner'.

That's a short summary of events, glossing over some details for brevity.

Taking something 'to production' -- yes, cue pretty much all hardware ukulele-themed Kickstarter campaigns -- is still a struggle 300 years on. Firstly, manufacturing something at scale requires very different skills than those required for prototyping. Secondly, prototyping can be very misleading because of how easy it is these days. This is why so many hardware crowdfunding campaigns fail to deliver, even if they are aware of the issues ahead.

Harrison was driven by finding a solution to a burning problem, not by manufacturing it at scale. He was probably naive about keeping the inner-workings a secret whilst still getting 'funding', although in some respects he was treated unfairly by the Board. Taking it 'to production' should probably have been a different prize altogether, as it required different skills than those possessed by a technical innovator.

Today, however, there should be no excuses. When you go Kickstartering and over-promise 5,000 working units to 3,000 people, you better be damn prepared, and deliver! This is one of the wrongs we're done by Kickstarter and their relatives. We're creating a development culture that's unprepared, sloppy, and ultimately disappointing. This doesn't affect only those who don't deliver, it rubs off on all of us in hardware development, who are trying to go about it more reasonably and realistically. It's hard as it is.