Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Chronometers and Questions


What is a chronometer? And why does it have my uncle's name engraved on it? If my cousin had shown me that little device housed in its cabinet when I was a child, perhaps those would be my questions. But I hadn't seen it at the lake house during school's summer break; my cousin showed me that little Eggert family treasure only a couple years ago. At the time, I hadn't the faintest idea what a chronometer actually was.

Silly me. I should have known, with this family at home both on the water and in the air, the device would have had something to do with navigation. What I didn't know from experience—or even thanks to conjecture—I made up for upon my return home from that recent family visit, with a little help from the search engine at my fingertips.

Marine chronometers have had a long history of development, most of which—for this month's exploration, at least—centered around the expanding British empire's development and implementation of this ingenious navigating device. Once the invention crossed the ocean from Europe to America, several entrepreneurs in New York City picked up on the opportunity to introduce it to a new market. Somewhere along that journey, my uncle's Eggert ancestors saw a way to capitalize on that development.

Consider the marine chronometer to be the precision timepiece of its era that looked to the stars to determine a ship's position. Although navigation equipment has evolved far from those developments of the time, it is fairly easy to search for the term "Eggert chronometer" and find several examples which were recently offered for sale as collectibles. In fact, according to the Catalogue of the Exhibit of the U.S. Navy Department World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, the Eggert Marine Chronometer 106 was the first American chronometer purchased by the government, on September 4, 1839. The current equivalent of the price paid at that time—$300—would be $9613.29. (To see the catalog's listing, courtesy Google Books, manually scroll to item "N. 2575" at the bottom of page 67, as the site's search sequence does not locate that entry.)

Though the marine chronometer my cousin showed me was engraved with the name "D. Eggert," unfortunately the "D" did not stand for the name I expected—that of my uncle DeMilt. And tracing that Eggert line back through the generations to about 1850 brought me to a name which in no way began with a "D."

However, along with the chronometer and its obvious connection to the family's surname, there was a family oral tradition. Whether that story passed down through the generations holds, now that we can check the documentation, that will be our research quest for the remainder of this month.

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