John Whitehurst

Not Just a Clockmaker

John Whitehurst, born April 10th 1713 was born and raised in Congleton, Cheshire; however, he is seen by many as a son of Derby because of the fourty-four years he spent in the city during his adulthood and his illustrious career as a clockmaker, geologist and much more. There were many strings to Whitehurst’s bow, more of which emerged the older he got, and is be said to have all began when he moved to the city, aged just 23, to start his first business.

John Whitehurst Blue Plaque

John Whitehurst Blue Plaque

John Whitehurst the clockmaker.
John began his business in 1726 and one of his first projects was the turret clock for Derby’s guildhall. During his time as a clock maker, Whitehurst was responsible for a number of key inventions that would shape contemporary practices, such as the creation of the round dial, long case clock and the ability to create components with very high tolerances, but it was a challenge issued by Benjamin Franklin that really helped to make his name. Franklin required a clock with a design based around as few raw materials as possible – resources being hard to come by in the newly emerging America – and this led to a successful creation and a standardisation of parts. Other notable achievements within this field included the sundial on Eyam church and a sidereal clock from 1772 that depicts the movement of the sun in relation to the stars.

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 The importance and influence of the Lunar Society.
This influential encounter with Benjamin Franklin came about from the pair’s involvement in the Lunar Society, a group of like-minded individuals, scientists and intellectuals that would meet to discuss a range of different subjects. During his time in this exclusive club, Whitehurst become acquainted with a number of other successful peers such as Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood and the leading local artist, Joseph Wright. In fact, it is believed by many that Whitehurst was the likely study for Wright’s painting of a philosopher lecturing on the orrery. These meetings were clearly important for his career as a clockmaker – something that can also be seen in his collaborations with Matthew Boulton’s Soho works – but they also played a big part in developing his interests and his work away from his clocks.

Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby of John Whitehurst.

John Whitehurst

Whitehurst’s other works, hobbies and important achievements.

When he wasn’t working on clocks, compasses, barometers, thermometers or plumbing systems – many of which were inspired by a growing love of meteorology – Whitehurst dedicated a lot of his time to geology. It was a hobby that had stuck with him from childhood days when he went to the Peak District with his father and he returned to the region in his adult years to discover fossilised bones. In 1763 he become involved in mineral extraction schemes and plans for the Grand Trunk Canal, in 1778 he published An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth and in 1783 he was sent on an expedition to the Giant’s Causeway. John made many findings and observations, many of which caused him some difficulties due to his faith, but he never lost his thirst for knowledge on the subject and he continued to write down his ideas.

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Aside from geological pursuits and his other creations, Whitehurst was able to add some other impressive achievements to his name. From 1761 until 1762 he worked as the Church Warden of All Saints, in 1772 he invented a water raising device called the “pulsation engine”, in 1779 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1780 he was named Stamper of the Money Weights at the Royal Mint.

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Death and Remembrance.

John’s long, diverse and fruitful life came to an end on February 18th 1788 at his home in Fleet Street, possibly due to further complications with his health that had begun with all that exposure to raw minerals. With no surviving children and his wife having already passed on, Whitehurst was burried by her side at St Andrew’s burying ground and his property and business was inherited by his nephew. On December 11th 2013, the local council will be unveiling another of their blue plaques in his honour at the site of his old premises, 24 Iron Gate – a fitting tribute to a man fondly remembered 300 years after his birth. There may not have been many blood relations to continue his work but his innovations and new standards for clockmaking were continued long after his death and his influence is sure to linger in Derby for a long time to come.