About this image
John Whitehurst was born in Congleton, Cheshire in 1713, the son of a watch and clockmaker. He was apprenticed to his father who also took him for walks in the Peak District, encouraging his interest in geology. He set up in Derby about 1736 where he presented a turret clock to the corporation for installation in the new 1731 Guildhall thus gaining his freedom to trade as a burgess.
His home in Iron Gate still stands. He moved in 1764 to a house in Queen Street rebuilt for him by Pickford, which had once been the home of John Flamstead and which later became the home of Joseph Wright. He married Elizabeth Gretton in 1745 and worked as Church Warden of All Saints in 1761-62.
From 1770 he made clocks for Matthew Boulton whose Soho works mounted Whitehurst's movements. One of the most outstanding was a sidereal clock of 1772 which showed the movement of the sun in relation to the fixed stars. Whitehurst was interested in meteorology and worked as a mechanical and hydraulic engineer, making compasses, timers for pottery kilns, pyrometers and barometers. He contributed to steam engine development and designed water- raising systems for country houses, installing plumbing, heating systems and kitchen ranges for the Duke of Newcastle at Clumber Hall in Nottinghamshire.
He lived and worked in Derby for over forty years before leaving for London in 1779. His skill enabled him to obtain the post of Keeper of the Duplicates or Copies of the Standard Weights at the Royal Mint in London in 1774. Living in London enabled Whitehurst to continue his investigations, publish and secure election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1779.
Whitehurst was also a geologist and was involved in mineral extraction schemes. Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood were collaborators in geological investigation. Wedgwood also involved him in planning the Grand Trunk Canal. In 1763 Whitehurst had sent Franklin an outline of his theory on the origin and formation of the earth published as An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth in 1778. He propounded a theory to enable geologists predict which rocks might exist beneath those close to the surface, including detailed section diagrams through the strata in Derbyshire as part of his evidence. Whitehurst also described the fossils of sea creatures and speculated on their age.
He was a Christian who had intellectual difficulties reconciling the findings of geology with his faith. Whitehurst's last published work was An attempt towards invariable measures of length, capacity and weight from the mensuration of Time (1787), which aimed to rationalise by decimalisation all forms of measurement. Whitehurst introduced Joseph Wright of Derby to the Lunar circle. (The portrait seen here is engraved from an original portrait by Joseph Wright). The latter painted intricate landscapes showing an understanding of geology, closely observed scientific experiments and portraits of several of the Lunar men. His death in 1788 robbed the Lunar Society of a scholar, investigator and engineer. He left his property and clock making business to his nephew John Whitehurst 11, son of his brother James who had succeeded to his father's firm in Congleton.
This image is one of a collection by the famous local antiquarian, Thomas Bateman, of Middleton by Youlgreave. (1821-1861). Bateman organized his collection by inserting them into a 4 volume copy of Lysons Magna Britannia, Derbyshire, creating a fascinating and unique illustrated record of the county. The purchase of the collection for Derbyshire Libraries was made possible by the generous bequest of Miss Frances Webb of Whaley Bridge, well known local historian, who died in December 2006.