Thursday, 14 May 2009

Watch that Clock!

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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