A watch owned by A. A. C. Eliot Merlin

Letter to the Editor, from Mr Steve Wyn-Harris


I am a sheep and beef farmer in New Zealand, but I was born in Chiswick. My father was a London policeman, and having married my New-Zealand-born mother, we emigrated here in 1962 when I was three.

After my grandparents died in the late 1970s, I inherited a pocket watch in a wooden box. The watch and the box are both beautifully made. I was always intrigued by the inscriptions on the back of the watch and the insert on the top of the box, but knew nothing about these. Finally, a couple of years ago, I used the investigative powers of the Internet to do some research on this small treasure.


The watch, face-up, in a hinged wooden box


The inscriptions on the back of the watch say that it was made by Paul Ditisheim. He was a Swiss watchmaker, inventor, and industrialist. Ditisheim developed a new generation of chronometers, improving them through his studies on the impact of atmospheric pressure and magnetic fields. He invented the affix balance. By 1903, his watches were awarded prizes by the Kew and Neuchâtel Observatories contests. In 1912, he won the world’s chronometric record of the Royal Kew Observatory. He also worked closely with Physics Nobel prize winner Charles-Édouard Guillaume and has been considered ‘the father of the modern chronometers’. According to Prof M. Andrade of the Besançon Astronomical Observatory in France, Ditisheim’s work ‘constitutes the most important progress of modern chronometry’. Other inscriptions mention the Grand Prix in Paris, 1900, and several other prizes his watches won at various observatory contests for accurate timekeeping. So, whoever the original owner was must have wanted or needed an accurate timekeeper. I then searched for A. A. C. Eliot Merlin, having no idea what this name might mean.

I found an article written by Dr Richard McKim of the BAA,1 which told me who Eliot Merlin was, and what he had achieved. I contacted Richard, and of course he was extremely interested in this matter because of the BAA’s award of the Merlin Medal & Gift. Merlin would have required an accurate watch for his timekeeping and observations from Greece in the early part of the 20th century, and would often have used this watch. I have no idea how it came into my family’s possession, and have asked London-based cousins, who have helped by suggesting a couple of possibilities.

My grandfather was Sir Percy Wyn-Harris, who was in the colonial service in Africa. With Merlin’s work for the British government, it is possible they knew each other that way. Percy grew up in Acton, just a few miles from the Merlins in Ealing. Percy would have been 17 when Merlin moved there in 1920. They may have known each other through the Ealing Scientific Society. My grandfather was a mountaineer and got within 900 feet of the summit of Everest in 1933, so he possibly needed an accurate timepiece for that expedition. He was also a round-the-world sailor and would have needed an accurate timepiece to plot his position. We do have two lovely ship clocks in the family which he would have used for that purpose, but a back-up might have been useful.

My grandmother, Lady Moata Wyn-Harris, lived for many years in Chiswick, also not far from the Merlins, from the 1950s until the early 1970s when she emigrated out here to Waipukurau to be near her only child and grandchildren. (She too had been born in New Zealand but left to marry my English grandfather in the late 1920s.) Perhaps she purchased the watch from an antique shop.

I have always been fascinated by the heavens and have been a very amateur astronomer for most of my life. I have a Celestron telescope, and because I live in an isolated part of rural New Zealand, I enjoy some of the most transparent skies that you could wish for. I likely take this for granted, but I can tell you that these clear southern skies are a marvellous experience, and that we are truly fortunate down here. I hope I have not made readers too envious, but perhaps I could organise a tour for anyone wanting to experience this wonder for themselves.



1    McKim R. J., ‘A. A. C. Eliot Merlin: a brief biography’, J. Br. Astron. Assoc., 127(1), 25–32 (2017)

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