The following is an excerpt from my new book, Marie Antoinette’s Watch: Adultery, Larceny & Perpetual Motion, about one of the most complex watches ever built. As watch fans it’s important to understand the origins of watchmaking and some of the amazing stories associated with this incredible technology (and art).
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The first modern mechanical clock appeared in the eleventh century, when Su Song, a Chinese official, created a clepsydra that looked less like the primitive bowl-and-basin system used for centuries than an early grandfather clock. It still used water, but as a power source, rather than an indicator. As the liquid flowed downward through a series of buckets, the motion of the stream would power the clock. The clock itself consisted of a complex mash of gears, hands, and bells. It could chime the hours and had animated figures that moved and danced at pre-set times.
But even when used as a power source, water, like the sun, had obvious limitations. As the liquid flowed through the machine, friction caused some buckets to refill faster or more slowly than others. To remedy this, a number of solutions were tried to control the rotation of the wheel — or transmission system — and ensure that it “escaped” at exactly the right period. Some escapements used spinning regulators, while others used weights or even pools of mercury that slowly filled portions of the wheel as it turned. Nothing, however, could be done about the power source freezing in the winter or evaporating under the summer sun. You’ll notice that many early water clocks first appeared in temperate climates that weren’t too hot or too cold. Northerners, while enamored with the idea of the water clock, would have to think of something that wouldn’t be affected by the vagaries of weather.
The first true mechanical clocks appeared around 1360 and used falling weights to power the registers. The weights, in this case, acted as a power source and transmitted this power to an escapement that swung back and forth in an exact period. Given a consistent push, a pendulum would move approximately equally back and forth in every subsequent tick, and when connected to the escapement, acted as a balance wheel, controlling the time register as it ticked off the seconds.
These early time indicators, with their ability to move and chime unaided by human hands, must have been magical to lay-people. Once the water stealers and clockwork gadgets began chiming out the hours, priests could call their followers to order, kings could call their people to work at certain times, and the people, if they were savvy enough, could be ensured a fair day’s work. The chimes of town clocks helped citizens know when they needed to light their lanterns. Nights were fraught with peril, and many countries had laws requiring citizens to stay locked in their homes at certain hours. In Paris, to go outside at night without a light could get you fined ten sous, about the price of sixty loaves of bread. The town clock, then, was vital and the riotous chimes of many cathedral and church clocks helped define entire neighborhoods as those who could hear one set of bells began to differentiate themselves from those who could hear another set. After all, in London, the bells of St. Clement’s always called out “oranges and lemons” and St. Martin’s was always in debt, forever owing the Old Bailey “five farthings.”
Many early portable clocks, called clocca (Latin for bell), didn’t have faces. An internal power source slowly wound down, and usually a hammer tapped a bell once a day or on the hour, making them more like modern egg timers than real clocks. The first Western versions, created long after the Egyptian clepsydrae, still used water pitchers that slowly sank and triggered a signal, or candles that burned down to nubs. Most of the candle clocks were abandoned for fear of late-night fires. Later, horloges — clocks with hands — were introduced, with and without bells. Often, clocks had elements of both clocca and horloge, offering some continuity in the transition from faceless timepieces that didn’t require reading to ones with complex dials and registers.
If the clocca was a precursor to town-hall, house, and carriage clocks, the horloge anticipated the pocket- and wristwatch. It was when clocks began sporting full faces in about 1400 that the term “watch” came into use, to designate the part that showed the time, while the “clock” was the mechanical part with the bell. A “clock-watch,” then, referred to a watch with a bell. This was soon shortened to clock for anything that told time but was not worn on the person. A timepiece worn on the person and “watched” by other people (nobles often wore theirs on their chest in order to show importance and prestige) then gave “watch” its modern meaning.
Early clock-watchers set their clocks once in the morning and once at night, in time with the tolling of the church clock tower, which, if the church horologer was doing his job, would toll precisely at the rising, and the falling, of the sun. This is what Iago meant in Shakespheare’s Othello when he said “He’ll watch the orologe a double set if drink rock not his cradle,” a double set being a full day.
But time was not equal in every town and city. A clock-keeper on the “drink” could miss a call or be late for duty and clocks ran fast or slow depending on who was maintaining them (in many cases a bad watchmaker was worse than none at all when it came to watch repairs). It wasn’t until the rise of the railroads that the world would share a single standard time. Until the 1800s, time was a concept without precision, and what Breguet and his peers were really measuring was the “measured duration” between events, natural and unnatural. A dandy on the Île might set his clock to the bells of Notre Dame, which, in turn, were set to the moment of sunrise or high noon. A farmer in his pasture would set his watch, perhaps, to the crowing of the cock at dawn. Your neighbor’s noon was not your noon. Solar time was eventually wrested out of popular use and “standard time” introduced. Huge swathes of the planet grew to share the same time and clock towers finally chimed in unison, much to the determent of a good night’s sleep.
The religious significance of clocks shaped the words used to describe them. The spring or weight or water wheel — whatever powered a particular timepiece — came to be called the prime mover, after Aristotle’s explanation for the creation of the physical world. The word Germans used to describe nature, zeitgeber (“time-giver”), came to mean clock, too. Clocks often had mystical powers attributed to them, and kings wishing to impress visiting potentates would produce them for inspection.
Because clocks involved trapping energy and transmitting it, they gave rise to a new understanding of physics and led directly to such inventions as water wheels and steam-powered pumps, which predated the steam engine by fifteen hundred years.
But mechanical clocks were far too imprecise to trust for more important matters, so obelisks and sundials held their place in scientific endeavor long after the invention of the first timepieces. Only four centuries after the creation of the first real mechanical clock was the sundial finally made obsolete.
Clocks and watches took on a new urgency during the age of exploration. Overseas travel, especially to distant colonies, was full of peril. Ships could easily drift off course, and a small, unintended shift in direction could send a ship already overburdened with sugar, tobacco, and pelts into rocks that would send it plunging to the deep without warning. The measure of longitude became a vital necessity.
In theory, the easiest way to compute longitude was to have a clock on board set to the time of the port of origin. One early solution involved something called “sympathetic powder,” a knife, and a wounded dog. Every day, an observer on shore would dip the knife in the powder at a certain time, causing, it was thought, the dog to cry out in pain as the knife once again inflicted its cruel sting through the magic of the sympathetic powder. Luckily, because this method never worked (one questions why the inventors didn’t try it on their own self-inflicted wounds before stabbing a pooch), sailors realized they really needed a good watch instead, thus saving the lives of many hapless pups.
Using a watch, a navigator could compare the time in a distant city with the time indicated by the position of the sun, and derive how far a ship had travelled. In reality, while most clocks worked wonderfully on land, they quickly broke down in the wet, salty air on the decks of heaving ships.
The Greenwich Society, a scientific brotherhood of thinkers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, called for a solution to the Longitude Problem, a request that brought many of the greatest English minds of the eighteenth century to bear on the issue. Solving it was the last piece of the puzzle of navigation. The government able to measure longitude would be able to control the seas and, thereby, trade with the New World and do battle with the Old while knowing exactly where it was on the map, a sort of proto-GPS. France, Spain, and Holland were also attempting to solve the problem, but the Greenwich Society, funded by the British crown and interested merchants, went about it the most systematically. The Longitude Act, passed in 1714, offered a prize of up to £20,000 (about $4.5 million in modern dollars) to the person who could measure longitude to within thirty nautical miles (thirty-four statute miles) — half a degree of a great circle in topographic terms.
A twenty-year-old carpenter named John Harrison, obsessed with clocks since he was a child, embarked on an unlikely mission to win it. He recognized that the single biggest challenge was changes in temperature. The slow contraction and expansion of a clock’s wood and metal caused it to slow down and speed up. Thus he codified a set of techniques dedicated to the eradication of the clockmakers primary enemy, friction. Harrison set out to reduce friction on all parts and ensure that the most important parts — the springs, the pendulums, and the transmission systems — wouldn’t change shape over time. He would spend the next sixty years perfecting his invention.
Eventually, his chronometer would include a bimetallic strip, a piece of metal made of two connected strips of two different metals. When the temperature got too hot or too cool, the strips would bend and expand at different rates, ensuring that a watch’s internal spring would never change during long voyages. The chronometer also contained a rolling element bearing, a ring containing multiple balls, or bearings. The bearings would reduce friction considerably, ensuring that the barrel and major gears of Harrison’s clock would never slow down due to friction. This ring reduced the need for messy lubricants and made it easy to swap out pieces when repairing the clock. A third innovation was a mechanism to allow the clock to remain running while it was being wound. By separating the mainspring from the movement during winding and keeping a small spring running when the winding key was engaged, the clock could be powered without having to be shut down and risking the loss of accuracy. And by using a wound spring instead of a pendulum, Harrison’s device was considerably smaller than any marine chronometer – the name given to seaworthy clocks — previously built.
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