1600 – 1800: The ‘Golden Age’ of British Watchmaking
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of British watchmaking. The 1600s produced a plethora of highly skilled watchmakers, such as Thomas Tompion, George Graham and John Harrison, while the 1700s witnessed the fruits of their labour radicalise timekeeping on a global scale and welcomed another great British horologist to the fold in the form of Thomas Mudge.
Combined with the scientific and technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy at the time, these great minds would quickly lead Britain to be the greatest watchmaking nation in the world. Indeed, to this day, the most influential and enduring mechanical escapements are all of British design, with approximately two-thirds of accompanying innovations also stemming from Britain.
But where did the nation’s horological ingenuity all begin?
1660s – The Pocket Watch, the Waistcoat and the Merry Monarch
The rise of the pocket watch began during the reign of Charles II with the introduction of the waistcoat. On 7 October 1666, diarist Samuel Pepys noted: “The King hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how, but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
During the Restoration of the British Royal family, the Merry Monarch introduced the waistcoat into ‘proper dress’ in a bid to simplify royal fashion and distance his household from the flamboyant styles of French nobility.
On the outside of the garment was a small pocket designed to hold a personal timepiece, which sat flat against the body, and any watch that was to fit inside it would have to do the same.
Although pocket watches had existed for at least a century prior, they were bulky objects often worn around the neck like a pendant - to fit inside the waistcoat’s pocket, the watch would require significant modification. Consequently, during the late seventeenth century, the timepiece was adapted to become smaller, slimmer and, in the process, substantially more fashionable.
As a result, demand for pocket watches increased dramatically during the reign of Charles II, and the pocket watch became the first timepiece available for public consumption - even if just for those in the upper echelons of society.
1670s – British Ingenuity Prevails – Hooke, Tompion and the Race for the Balance Spring
In 1675, scientist and polymath Robert Hooke embarked on a collaboration with esteemed watchmaker and ‘father of English clockmaking’ Thomas Tompion to produce the world’s first springregulated watch.
Renowned for never completing experiments due to his heavy workload at the Royal Society, Hooke became motivated to construct the spring regulated device after Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens produced a similar mechanism the year before. Although Hooke did not have a prototype by the time Huygens unveiled his timepiece, the experimenter cried foul, claiming he had presented the idea and theory to the Royal Society 17 years before in 1658.
The race was on, and in 1675, Hooke presented his timepiece to Charles II. To make their claim to the device absolute, Hooke somewhat petulantly inscribed, in Latin, upon the watch’s case: “Hooke invented this 1658. Tompion made this 1675.”
As it turns out, neither Hooke and Tompion’s nor Huygens’s mechanisms were accurate enough to be granted the patent. However, the concept would prove revolutionary to the advancement of timekeeping, improving the accuracy of portable timepieces from around an hour a day to a matter of four or five minutes.
From here, British horological progress moved with vigour, accelerated by a cocktail of the technological advancements catalysed by the Industrial Revolution and the emphasis on reason and scientific discovery promoted by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment.
1680 – Daniel Quare, Some More Tompion and a New Escapement
In around 1680, Somerset-born horologist Daniel Quare invented the first repeater mechanism. Designed to aid night-time timekeeping, Quare’s repeater announced the time in fifteen-minute intervals with alternating chimes – no longer was it necessary to light a candle or oil lamp to know the time during the darker hours. Later versions of the repeater would include an additional third tone to represent minutes, signalling the dedication to progress timekeeping precision.
Then, fifteen years later, renowned British horologist Thomas Tompion invented a revolutionary mechanism: the cylinder escapement.
A small mechanism with a hollowed-out cylindrical balance wheel and horizontal escape wheel, Tompion’s cylinder was the first challenge to the reign of the verge and foliot escapement, which, up until this point, had featured in every timepiece globally for centuries prior.
Tompion’s cylinder escapement was a welcome development. The verge and foliot was notoriously inaccurate and could fall out of time by as much as two hours a day. The verge and foliot escapement was also a bulky mechanism, making it impractical for the increasingly popular and fashionable pocket watches appearing at the end of the seventeenth century.
The compact nature of the cylinder escapement made it substantially more suitable for use within pocket watches. Additionally, and more importantly, the cylinder escapement was a far superior timekeeper than the verge and foliot.
Tompion’s escapement replaced the pallet system employed by the verge and foliot with the hollowed-out cylinder. By doing so, he significantly reduced recoil - the problem that had caused the verge and foliot escapement to fall so far out of time.
However, much like the verge and foliot, Tompion’s mechanism was prone to excessive wear as a frictional rest escapement. French watchmakers attempted to rectify this by building the balance wheel from ruby, but this made the mechanism vulnerable to shock. As it was not self-starting, if jolted or shocked in any way, the cylinder escapement would 'set' or stop.
It would take another 30 years for Tompion's own apprentice and nephew George Graham to perfect the cylinder escapement. Indeed, Graham's contributions to the development of the mechanism were so great he is often also credited with its invention.
British Watchmaking in the 18th Century
The British horological industry showed no signs of slowing down as the turn of the century approached. Britain now boasted some of the best watchmakers in the world, and, amongst these, a young George Graham was emerging as one of London’s finest horologists after completing his apprenticeship with master watchmaker Thomas Tompion.
The Rise of George Graham
In 1715, Graham made substantial changes to the anchor escapement. Invented by polymath Robert Hooke in 1657, the anchor escapement, like those that had come before it, also suffered from the ever-recurring problem of recoil. Indeed, Hooke’s anchor escapement was also known as the ‘recoil escapement’.
A slight alteration to the shape of the anchor’s pallets meant the escape wheel remained stationary when caught by the pallets instead of bouncing backwards. This modification ensured the escape wheel could progress smoothly forward without disruption, improving accuracy to such an extent that the deadbeat escapement, as it was now known, was almost instantly universally adopted by watch and clockmakers around the world.
Over the next few years, as well as making revolutionary modifications to pre-existing mechanisms, the burgeoning horologist was working on his own devices.
In 1721, Graham invented the mercury pendulum. For several years prior, the relationship between changing temperatures and timekeeping regulation had been widely observed: in winter, the cold weather caused the metal of the pendulum to contract, while in summer, the opposite occurred. The fluctuating size and weight of the pendulum subsequently altered its swinging rate, causing its timekeeping abilities to falter periodically.
Graham’s pendulum neutralised these effects, the mercury levels within the device rising and falling per the expansion and contraction rate of the metal. Such coordinating oscillations ensured the weight of the pendulum remained constant, no matter what the external conditions.
Despite his undisputed genius, Graham remained modest about his achievements and readily shared his wisdom with contemporaneously emerging watchmakers.
1728 – John Harrison and the Marine Chronometer
In 1728, a young John Harrison arrived in London bearing plans for a marine chronometer to present to the Board of Longitude. Lured by the £20,000 Parliamentary reward, Harrison had devised a mechanism that would aid ships to calculate longitude while at sea.
Harrison showed his plans to Graham, who praised their detail but advised the young horologist to wait until he had produced a physical model to present his idea to the Board. Heeding Graham’s advice, Harrison retreated to Yorkshire to build his device.
Returning to London with the first iteration of his chronometer in 1735, Harrison received the highest praise from Graham and the Royal Society. He had managed to build a machine that would withstand corrosion from seawater, varying temperatures and humidity, and keep time to an accuracy of a minute for 50 days.
Harrison's chronometer was then put to the test on a sea voyage to Lisbon in 1736. Unfortunately, the device did not perform well on the outward journey. But upon the return trip, the timepiece managed to calculate the correct reckoning within a degree and a half. In recognition of his outstanding efforts, the Board of Longitude awarded Harrison £500 to continue perfecting his device.
After over 20 years of research and experiments, Harrison perfected his watch in 1759 and, after two more long voyages to Jamaica in 1761-62 and Barbados in 1764, the horologist finally received his £20,000 parliamentary award. Due to his revolutionary contributions to maritime navigation, Harrison is considered one of the most influential horologists of all time.
1750 – Thomas Mudge and the Lever Escapement
As the eighteenth century progressed, the British horological industry showed no signs of slowing down. And, while Harrison was busy perfecting his chronometer, another young watchmaker was beginning to make waves of his own within the watchmaking world.
Thomas Mudge, apprentice to esteemed watchmaker George Graham, is often considered England’s greatest watchmaker. As well as gaining commissions from Ferdinand VI of Spain, Mudge made significant contributions to developing marine chronometers, modified the repeater mechanism to denote minutes and invented the perpetual calendar.
But the invention that would make him distinguished amongst watchmakers would come in the mid-eighteenth century. In around 1750, Mudge invented the detached lever escapement.
Prior to Mudge’s detached lever escapement, almost all mechanical escapements suffered from the same problem: friction. Known as ‘frictional rest escapements’, the balance wheel of mechanisms such as cylinder and verge and foliot escapements would be in constant contact with the escape wheel. The continuous contact meant that both parts fell prey to erosion over time, ultimately affecting their timekeeping capabilities as the original measurements degraded.
To solve this problem, Mudge separated the balance wheel from the escape wheel, all but eliminating friction from the mechanism. Connected by a lever, the two wheels now only made contact during the impact period, allowing the balance wheel to oscillate undisturbed for the remainder of its cycle.
Another revolutionary benefit of the lever escapement was its ability to self-start. Earlier escapements had all been liable to stall and stop if shocked or jolted, but the lever escapement rectified this problem.
The result was dramatic, with a level of timekeeping accuracy created that would go unrivalled for over 200 years. Even today, most modern mechanical watches employ the lever escapement, albeit modernised versions.
1800 - The End of an Era
Britain continued to lead the way in watchmaking for the rest of the eighteenth century. By the 1790s, the British horological industry accounted for around half of the world’s watches, producing approximately 200,000 timepieces annually.
Unfortunately, however, the new century marked the beginning of the end for the dominance of British watchmaking. Although the nation’s horological heyday had run in tandem with the start of the Industrial Revolution, with productivity growing one per cent annually during the eighteenth century, as its effects spilt out on a global scale, the ever-increasing rate of technological advancement around the world began to outpace the Brits.
And, just as Britain’s production levels were starting to falter, new competitors were emerging within the horological market.
Switzerland, particularly, was beginning to assert its dominance within the watchmaking industry. While Britain continued to manufacture timepieces using traditional methods and highly skilled craftsmen, the Swiss readily adopted new techniques, technologies and inexpensive labour.
The Swiss’s welcome embrace of modern innovation allowed them to not only produce timepieces on a mass scale but also manufacture at a much lower cost. Although widely acknowledged to be of lesser quality than handcrafted British watches, Swiss timepieces were far more affordable and, understandably, therefore, much more popular.
Adding to the popularity of Swiss and European timepieces was the continental adoption of the going barrel to replace the fusée – a bulky pulley device that helped to equalise the pull of the spring in watches, and one that the Brits still employed. Due to this mechanical change, the Swiss created much slimmer pocket watches, making them much more fashionable than their British counterparts.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw Britain produce some of the greatest watchmakers and innovations in horological history. From Thomas Tompion to Thomas Mudge, the ingenuity inherent in British watchmaking during the 16 and 1700s was revolutionary, and its influence on the industry, even to this day, is undeniable.
Unfortunately, it would be Britain’s renowned exquisite attention to detail and care for the craft that would lead the nation’s watchmaking industry to fall behind the mass-producing markets of countries such as Switzerland and America in the nineteenth century. But it also cemented the nation’s reputation in timekeeping history and shaped the future of watchmaking for centuries to come.
And while the nineteenth century saw a dramatic decline in the British horological industry, it certainly wasn’t the end of the line - just the beginning of a new chapter.
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