Chrono Cross

Chrono Cross
Chrono Cross

Watch That Clock!

Copyright (c) 2009 Mike Bond

I wonder what size book you’d end up with if you wrote a detailed history of clock and watch making? I don’t think I’ll try it. Just a tiny, few hundred words overview for the moment.

Probably the greatest horologist of them all was Abraham-Louis Breguet. He was born on the 10th. January 1747 at Neuchatel in Switzerland, and died on the 17th. of September 1823. Among his many accomplishments was his invention of the Tourbillon. It’s French for ‘whirlwind,’ but its action is rather far from that phenomenon!

In the 18th. and early 19th. centuries, gravity was considered to affect timepieces adversely, causing them to lose or gain an unacceptable amount. Bregeut’s invention put a cage around the whole escapement of the watch or clock and was geared to turn once every 60 seconds. It may have made a positive difference then. I think it’s arguable.

The main problems they faced were inferior steels, and the fact that gears and pinions had to be cut by hand. Just think about it. You’re faced with a brass disc, in which you must cut, say, 120 teeth. By hand. With a piercing saw. It requires incredible skill. Mind you, in those days and well into the early 20th. century, clock and watch making was very compartmentalized.

There was the man who made the movement plates, between which ran the gear train(s). The man who made the wheels and pinions. The escapement maker. The hand maker. There was the man who ‘crossed out’ the wheels and hands.

Indeed, years ago, I knew an old man, pretty much the last of his kind. He was 85 years old and still worked a bit on the side. He’d been employed by the same clockmaking firm in London for 59 years as a ‘piercer,’ the man who cut out the spokes in the wheel and made the decorative hands. He was quite amazing. If I have to cut out spokes in a wheel, I have to mark everything out and cut to the lines. Not him! He never marked anything out. He had this knack of cutting not only dead straight lines and beautiful curves, but of polishing the surfaces as he cut. Please don’t ask me how! The result was that none of the wheels nor hands had to be touched with a polishing file at all.

So that was the way they used to work. Each individual highly skilled at his particular craft. The great Breguet was a master of it all.

Remember, too, that they couldn’t simply sit down in front of a lathe and turn a switch. They had lathes, yes, but they had to be operated either with treadles or bows; the bow string passed in a single coil over a pulley and was pulled back and forth. With this method, the only time you could cut was when the bow was pushed away from you, causing the work to spin anti-clockwise, into your cutting tool.

Another of the problems was that since the wheels had to be cut by hand, including the escape wheel, making the escapement ‘isochronos’ was a decided problem. Yes. Terrifying word, isn’t it? Not really, though. Straight from the Greek. ‘Iso’, meaning equal, and of course ‘chronos’, time. It’s vital that the power from the mainspring, housed in the Great Wheel, is allowed to escape at an equal rate. In other words, the escape wheel teeth must be exactly the same distance apart. Imagine doing this by hand!

Breguet produced the most incredible pieces, not least the self-winding watch. It came with a clock, and when the wealthy wearer staggered home from a night in the taverns, reeking of booze, and cheap perfume from his dalliances with the ladies of the evening, he’d simply fumble for his watch, which of course he carried in a fob on a chain, and hooked it on to a special fixture on the clock. When he arose in the morning, the watch would be fully wound again.

Now, although the French and English were the masters of horology in those days, let’s not forget the Americans. The French, with Pierre Le Roy, Achille Brocot and of course Breguet. The English, with such luminaries as Thomas Tompion, John Harrison, (of chronometer fame), and John Arnold, could make truly magnificent clocks and watches for the crowned heads of Europe and those with pockets lined with gold, it was the Americans and they alone who made the clock available to the masses. The English sniffed and huffed and puffed about what they called the ‘kitchen clock’, said it would never work and was a pile of junk.

I’m an Englishman myself, but not too proud to admit that the old lion received a hearty kick in the teeth. The Americans cornered the market, and England was eclipsed for many years to come.

I’m indebted to Wikipedia for some of the facts for this article

About the Author

Probably the greatest horologist of them all was Abraham-Louis Breguet. He was born on the 10th. January 1747 at Neuchatel in Switzerland, and died on the 17th. September 1823. Among his many accomplishments was his invention of the Tourbillon.
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