Burgess was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, between 1944 and 1949, where he was a member of Farfield. His exact contemporaries at Farfield included Robert Aagaard, later a furniture maker and conservator who founded the youth movement Cathedral Camps.
Burgess's memories of Gresham's during the freezing months of January to March 1947, the coldest British winter on record, are quoted at length in I Will Plant Me a Tree: an Illustrated History of Gresham's School (2002). Not only was the winter icy cold, but because of fuel-shortages the school was unheated. Burgess recalls that "Periods were held in full overcoats and scarves and gloves. If it happened now the School would be closed, but such a step was not even thought of then. In any case, the roads were blocked... One day the School was called out to dig out a farm, or was it a small village? Hurrah! No periods! In the afternoon everyone prayed there would be periods, it was so cold. A man had died."
After a first career as a restorer of Egyptian antiquities, Burgess turned to horology and clock-making and has specialized in building innovative and gigantic clocks, often with a detached escapement.
Burgess coined the term sculptural horology in the 1960s.
Burgess’s Sculptural Clock with Bells has the dimensions 8 ft (2.4 m) high, 54 1⁄2 in (1,380 mm) wide, and 18 1⁄2 in (470 mm) deep, and is now in the Former Time Museum of Rockford, Illinois.
His magnificent Second Sculptural Clock, made in 1965, is now owned by the American graphic artist Donald Saff. The clock (which appeared on the cover of the Horological Journal for August 2001) has a massive compound pendulum which beats at 2.5 seconds and an escape wheel which turns in five minutes. A limited edition of thirty-five half-size replicas, known as ‘'Concord clocks'’, Harrison style with grasshopper escapement and compound pendulum, was made by E. Dent and has the dimensions 30 in (760 mm) high, 14 in (360 mm) wide, 11 in (280 mm) deep.
His Gurney Clock was given to the people of Norwich by Barclays Bank to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of what is now Barclays by the Gurney family in Norwich in 1775. The clock is in the shape of a golden lion automaton in a golden castle (the lion and castle are two of the heraldic symbols of Norwich) and has a weight-driven precision clock movement based closely on one designed in the 1740s by John Harrison. On the hour, bronze balls are taken by the lion and travel down a track to a set of scales (a symbol of Barclay’s Bank) and on into the castle. The clock took eleven years to build and was housed in a public park, but by 1992 it had been badly vandalised. After a long campaign by the Norwich Society, it was then restored and installed in the Castle Mall, Norwich, inside a massive glass and metal case.
A second, nearly identical clock movement, Clock B, was built to test John Harrison's claim that his clock designs were capable of maintaining time to within 1 second over 100 days. This was an improvement on the state of the art for land-based clocks almost as dramatic as his seagoing designs. Indeed, it was only reached at the beginning of the 20th century with evacuated pendulum clocks such as the Riefler and Shortt.
Clock B lay incomplete in Burgess' workshop until 2009, when Donald Saff acquired the unfinished movement and arranged for it to be completed (with much input from Burgess) by Charles Frodsham and Company.
In March 2014, the clock was moved to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich for testing and further adjustments were made during 2014. Finally, in a 100-day test between January 6 and April 16, 2015, it lost 5/8 of a second to claim the title of the most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.
- The Mail-maker's Technique in The Antiquaries Journal Vol 33 (1953) 48-55
- Further Research into the Construction of Mail Garments in The Antiquaries Journal Vol 33 (1953) 193-202
- The Mail Shirt From Sinigaglia in The Antiquaries Journal Vol 37 (1957) 199-205
- A Mail Shirt From The Hearst Collection in The Antiquaries Journal
- A Habergeon of Westwale by William Reid and E. Martin Burgess in The Antiquaries Journal
- The Grasshopper Escapement, its Geometry and its Properties in Antiquarian Horology, Volume 7, part 5 (1970)
- Principles and Objectives, in Conservation of Clocks and Watches (ed. Peter B. Wills, British Horological Institute)
- How Greenwich Observatory Lost the Harrison Regulators (in Horological Journal, November 1974)
- The Harrison Regulator for the Gurney Clock (in Horological Journal, July 1987)
- Looking forward to the Harrison Seminar (in Horological Journal, July 1988)
- Reply to Mr Greene from Martin Burgess (in Horological Journal, April 1990)
- Questioning Airy (in Horological Journal, July 1990)
- Harrison & H4 (in Horological Journal, November 1993)
- Quest for Longitude (in Horological Journal, April 1997)
The documentary Clock-maker (1971), directed and produced by Richard Gayer, is a profile of Burgess. It focuses on the building of one of his gigantic clocks, an open mechanism eighteen feet high, driven by weights and weighing some 350 kilograms, or 760 pounds avoirdupois.
- Old Greshamian Club Book (Cromer, Cheverton & Son Ltd, 1998), p. 17
- 'AAGAARD, Robert', in Who Was Who, A. & C. Black, 1920–2007; online edition by Oxford University Press, December 2007: AAGAARD, Robert (subscription required), accessed 10 August 2008
- Benson, Steve, I Will Plant Me a Tree: an Illustrated History of Gresham's School (2002) 85-86
- "Sculpture for Norwich: Gurney Clock".
- Harrison, John (1775). A Description concerning such Mechanism as will afford a nice, or true Mensuration of Time; together with Some Account of the Attempts for the Discovery of the Longitude by the Moon; and also An Account of the Discovery of the Scale of Musick (PDF). London. pp. 25–41.
- Dalziel, John (August 25, 2014). "Decoding Harrison". The Computus Engine. Retrieved 2015-04-29.
- "Martin Burgess, Regulator ‘B’". Charles Frodsham and Co. Ltd. Retrieved 2015-04-29.
- Connor, Steve (19 April 2015). "John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record – 300 years on". The Independent.
- van Baak, Tom. "Harrison / Burgess Clock B". leapsecond.com. Retrieved 2015-04-23.