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Edward John Dent

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1856. Big Ben or the Great Westminster Clock. Completed by Frederick Dent.
1856. A notice inscribed on the clock reads : "This clock was made in the year of Our Lord 1854 by Frederick Dent of the Strand and of the Royal Exchange from the designs of Ed. Beckett Denison Esq."

Edward John Dent (1790-1853) was a famous English watchmaker noted for his highly accurate clocks and marine chronometers. He traded as E. J. Dent and Co

1790 Born son of John Dent and his wife, Elizabeth. Baptised at St Clement Danes, Westminster[1]

1804 Apprenticed to his grandfather John Wright Dent, a tallow chandler.

He learned about watch and clockmaking whilst lodging with his cousin Richard Rippon

1807 Apprenticed to Edward Gaudin, watchmaker in Clerkenwell

Returned to live with Rippon.

During 1815–29, he established a reputation as a builder of accurate chronometers.

His reputation for precision eventually brought requests from the Admiralty and the East India Company.

Dent confirmed his expertise by creating in 1829 a chronometer action that incorporated an improved method of reducing the timing errors caused by fluctuations in temperature.

1833 Edward John Dent of 84 Strand, a Chronometer maker, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[2]

From 1830 until 1840 he was the partner of John Roger Arnold in the manufacturing of first-rate clocks and watches and traded as Arnold and Dent.

Afterwards as the proprietor of three clock shops in London (61 Strand, 33 Cockspur Street, and 34 Royal Exchange), Dent won the esteem of Sir George Airy, the astronomer royal, who recommended him as the maker of a large clock for the tower of the new Royal Exchange. Dent established a workshop in the Savoy to produce this excellent timepiece, which was installed in 1844.

1843 Dent married Elizabeth Rippon, widow of his cousin Richard Rippon and her 2 sons (Frederick William and Richard) became his stepsons.

1849 of 30 Cockspur Street, London.[3]

In 1852 Dent won the commission to make the great clock - better known now as Big Ben - for the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, but he died in 1853 before completing the project.

His stepsons, Frederick and Richard, succeeded to his business. Edward John Dent had divided his business interests between Richard, who inherited the Cockspur Street premises but died, intestate, of a brain disease in 1856, and Frederick, who inherited the businesses in The Strand and the Royal Exchange. They were required by Edward's will to take the Dent surname.

Frederick completed the work on the Big Ben clock in 1854.


1854 Obituary [4]

Edward John Dent was born in London on the 19th of August, 1790; he was originally intended for a very ordinary business, but feeling an inclination for mechanical pursuits he entered the workshops of the Brothers Callame, in Castle-street, Long Acre, then justly celebrated as makers of repeating motions, where he had the advantage of the instruction of the late Mr. Rippon.

He soon became a very expert workman; from 1815 to 1829, he was constantly employed by Vulliamy and Son and Barrauds and Son, acquiring from the latter considerable practical knowledge of chronometers.

He was also at times engaged by Messrs. McCabe, Murray, and other principal houses in the trade.

Following the example of Earnshaw, he had the good sense to feel that a reputation for practical skill in his art was essential, so he laboured assiduously and with success; his name became known, he was soon intrusted with work, on his own account, by the Admiralty, the Honourable East India Company, and for the Royal Observatory, at Greenwich, where he was employed to remove, from the transit dock, the escapement originally supplied by Hardy, and to substitute a Graham’s escapement.

In 1829 he sent for public trial, the chronometer "Dent 114," which by its superior rate of going, confirmed his reputation; and he shortly afterwards (in 1830) entered into partnership with the late John Arnold, and in a few years the firm of Arnold and Dent attained a very high character for its productions.

Whilst Mr. Arnold chiefly resided in the country, always engaged in chronometric investigations and experiments, Mr. Dent was actively engaged in the direction of the workshops, in prosecuting numerous experiments of which he subsequently published accounts; among which must be particularly mentioned those on balance springs made of steel, gold, and palladium, as also with reference to the small compensation required by the glass springs, invented by Mr. Scrimgeour of Glasgow, in 1828.

These were communicated to the British Association in 1833; and in 1838 he also laid before that body, an account of the adaptation of a cast iron jar to the mercurial pendulum invented by Mr. Jones, of Charing Cross, and which had been successfully applied by Mr. B. L. Vulliamy in 1832, to the astronomical clock, in the transit room at Dr. Lee’s Observatory, at Hartwell, so excellently described in Captain Smyth’s Aedes Hartwellianae.'

He also followed up the investigations, on the additional compensation required for the pendulum spring, alluded to by Daniel Bernouilli in 1747: and established by Berthoud in 1773, on which Mr. Loseby based his additional compensation.

On these and other horological subjects Mr. Dent read lectures, and gave illustrations, before the Royal Institution, and the United Service Institution, and published papers and descriptions in the Transactions of the Royal Astronomical Society, and he received the thanks of the Royal Irish Academy for the assistance he rendered in determining the longitude of Dublin and of Armagh; and when he visited Russia, in 1843, he was presented with a gold medal, by order of the Emperor, for the services rendered by his chronometers.

In the year 1840, when the connexion with Mr. Arnold was dissolved, Mr. Dent took premises very near to the old establishment in the Strand, and continued to exercise a very lucrative business, which was ultimately extended to two other depots, in Cockspur Street and in the City.

The success of his chronometer, in 1829, induced the devotion of much time and attention to that delicate branch of horology; and Mr. Dent was very successful in the investigation of the causes of the tendency of chronometers to gain at mean temperature, when the compensation has been adjusted for extremes: this had been still observed, after other errors were reduced by improved workmanship, and led to the introduction of a secondary compensation, for correcting this error, and the correctness of his views on this point have been recently fully corroborated. His paper on this subject was published in the Nautical Magazine in 1833.

By his mechanical contrivances and the employment of a better class of self-acting tools, he materially diminished the cost of chronometers; and a short time before his decease he invented and registered an ingenious and simple method of simultaneously effecting both the primary and secondary compensations, within any ordinary range of temperature, but not adapted for the excessive and artificial range to which the chronometers are now exposed at Greenwich.

In 1843 he entered into another branch of business - the manufacture of turret clocks, almost under compulsion; for being selected, in a limited competition, for the construction of a clock for the Royal Exchange, which was required to satisfy certain conditions, laid down by the Astronomer Royal, the co-operation he relied on in this country, being refused to him by the regular turret clock makers, who are very limited in number, he had recourse to the counsel and assistance of M. Wagner, and other celebrated horologists in Paris, intending that the former should co-operate with him in the construction; but subsequently he was constrained to rescind the order on account of some difficulties at the Custom-house.

He therefore erected machinery of a very complete nature, and produced the present clock at the Royal Exchange, of which a very high character has been pronounced by the Astronomer Royal, and although the chimes have not yet been attached, and there has been a considerable extra expenditure, these arise from causes apart from the mechanical design of the clock, and for an account of which, reference may be made to the Papers, published on the subject which are deposited in the Library of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

With an establishment thus formed, Mr. Dent proceeded to introduce many modifications of the arrangement of large clocks and of the style of workmanship, having a tendency to reduce their cost, and to place them more on a level with the clocks made in Paris, which previously had been considered superior in design. In these labours he was assisted by Mr. Denison, who although a Barrister, has devoted much time to the study of Horology, and is the author of a popular work on the art.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Council Medal Class XB. was awarded to Mr. Dent, for a 'large turret clock, on account of the combination of strength and of accuracy of time-keeping attained in it, which are also accomplished by a cheaper mode of construction, than in other turret clocks of high character.'

In the year 1852 the order for the great clock for the New Palace at Westminster was intrusted to him, and he just lived to see the successful trial of a new gravity escapement, invented by Mr. Denison, in which 'the pendulum, weighing 6 cwt. is kept going by a scape wheel, weighing little more than a quartermof an ounce.' The reasons for the great delay in giving this order, are detailed in the Parliamentary Papers on the subject, which are collected and placed in the Library of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

An Exhibition Prize Medal was also awarded, for his successful attempt to construct a Compass that should not be disturbed, by the motion of the ship at sea, nor by the firing of guns on board. These compasses have since been extensively adopted, and are employed on board Her Majesty’s yachts, &c.

He introduced many other ingenious instruments, of which he published descriptions; and in fact few men have led such an active life and have kept their inventive faculties so constantly on the stretch. He was a Member of several, and was a constant attendant, or visitor at most of the Meetings of the Scientific Societies of the Metropolis, and was admitted to intimate communication with many of the first men of his time, from whom he received very efficient aid and valuable advice, which he always acknowledged with gratitude.

In the latter part of his career he was engaged in some unfortunate discussions which gave him pain, as he possessed naturally a cheerful, and even convivial temperament, and would willingly have avoided the contests into which he was forced by circumstances. He had profited much by the scientific society into which he had been introduced, and readily adapting theory to his practical skill, obtained excellent results.

He was fortunate in his worldly affairs, leaving to his successors, very flourishing establishments, with ample capital for carrying them on.

He joined the Institution of Civil Engineers, as an Associate, in the year 1833, and was a frequent attendant at the meetings. During his latter years he suffered considerably from illness, and at length being attacked by bronchitis, he had not strength to contend against it, and sank under it on the 8th of March, 1853, in the sixty-third year of his age, deeply regretted by a large circle of friends. ---

See Also

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Sources of Information

  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Biography of Edward John Dent, ODNB