Home Continuing Series Historical Horology Historical Horology – The Mechanical Oscillator

Historical Horology – The Mechanical Oscillator



When it comes to mechanical time keeping, the oscillator is truly what allows the measurement of time. Take, for instance, a grandfather clock – it is the frequency of that pendulum swinging back and forth, at a constant rate, that allows the internal gearing to tell us the time. While things are on a much smaller scale, the same sort of principle applies to watches, be they mechanical or quartz watches. The humble oscillator has some really rather interesting developments recently, and that is what we will talk about in today’s edition of Historical Horology.

Why historical? Well, as I mentioned at the outset, the oscillator is what allows the telling (or, more accurately, the measurement) of time. This basic principle has remain unchanged since they started creating watches. Yes, there was a changing of the guard, so to speak, when quartz movements came into being, with the greater accuracy afforded by the high frequency enabled by the quartz crystal. And yes, that oscillation is still mechanical in nature.


The thing is, with the frequency of these oscillations, is that it has a direct impact on the accuracy of the watch – the higher the frequency, the higher the accuracy. And that is just considering standard time keeping. When you get into chronographs, then the higher rate enables timing down to smaller and smaller fractions of time.

With the traditional timekeepers, Seiko looks to have one of the more interesting implementations with their Spring Drive Watches. While they bill it as a mechanical watch, purists will likely call that a misnomer. Yes, the watch is driven by a mainspring and has many of the gearing components we would expect in a mechanical watch. At the end of the line, however, they have a wheel (not a balance wheel) that provides power to the quartz timing circuit. With the quartz coming in at the end, you get frequency of over 32,000 Hz (regular “high beat” mechanical watches are generally in the 3-4 Hz range).


Ok, so what if you want something a purist would certainly consider fully mechanical (and a chronograph to boot)? For that, we need look no further than the TAG Heuer Mikrogirder watches. The latest iteration, the Mikrogirder 2000, allows for timing down to 1/2000th of a second. As you might imagine, this requires a rather high frequency – in this case, 1,000 Hz. For a standard mechanical movement, there would be no way that the components (or lubrication) could keep up. For this implementation, TAG Heuer came up with a rather interesting solution – a small blade spring that is able to hit the requisite frequency.

These are just a few of the rather interesting developments occuring with mechanical watches, and you can get a very in-depth look at these (and some others) in this article over at Revo Online. For other changes that are coming for mechanical movements (albeit a bit further down the line), I really recommend these two articles (here and here) (here and here) over at aBlogtoWatch. It certainly is an interesting time for our beloved mechanical movements, one that could well be a brand new chapter in Historical Horology.

All images courtesy of Revo Online

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