The AHS Blog

Journal Volume 35 Issue 1

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Was there high-quality, wholesale, clock movement manufacture in seventeenth-century London?

This post was written by James Nye

There is a fascinating article in the latest edition of Antiquarian Horology, just starting to arrive through people’s letterboxes, setting out a remarkable research question which cries out for some crowdsourcing of data—hence this blog post. For those who don’t receive a physical journal, the editor has conveniently made it the sample article for this quarter. You can download it here.

Hands of a clock signed John Davis of Windsor, c. 1680. © Harris (Belmont) Charity.
Hands of a clock signed John Davis of Windsor, c. 1680. © Harris (Belmont) Charity.

Put simply, it is suggested a range of prominent makers (or perhaps retailers) bought in largely finished movements from a single source, and arranged for their casing/signature/final finishing.

This is clearly a very well-understood practice in the watch world from a relatively early date, and was certainly common practice in the clock world later on. For example, Thwaites produced movements for a wide range of other clockmakers and clockmaking firms, and on a large scale.

The question remains, how early did this standard practice emerge, and is there sufficient physical evidence to allow us to draw firm conclusions?

Distinctive click-spring from a clock by Edward Burgis, c. 1695–1700
Distinctive click-spring from a clock by Edward Burgis, c. 1695–1700

The key element is that Jon’s piece is a call to arms! More data is needed. And it is not difficult to look for it. This is a massively worthwhile project to support, and whatever the outcome, if you can supply data you can play a part in improving our understanding of clockmaking practice in London in the period 1660–1720. Please do get involved!

Count wheel from a longcase signed John Aylward of Guildford, c. 1695.
Count wheel from a longcase signed John Aylward of Guildford, c. 1695.
Back cock on a longcase clock re-signed for Robert Seignior, c. 1680. © Harris (Belmont) Charity.
Back cock on a longcase clock re-signed for Robert Seignior, c. 1680. © Harris (Belmont) Charity.
Characteristic lozenge-shaped hour bridge, with bevelled edges, Aylward, c. 1695.
Characteristic lozenge-shaped hour bridge, with bevelled edges, Aylward, c. 1695.

The unexpected visitor

This post was written by Jonathan Betts

Almost exactly ten years ago I had John Harrison’s magnificent first marine timekeeper H1 in my workshop at the Royal Observatory. It was being dismantled for study, cataloguing and conservation for the new chronometer catalogue.

I had a film crew with me making a documentary, and they were becoming exasperated at constant interruptions to the filming. Finally another telephone call – a man was outside, asking if he could see me. Embarrassed, I assured the film team I would politely ask him to come back another time, but explained they had to come with me as I couldn’t leave them alone with H1.

Outside, the man apologised for arriving without warning and that he could come back if necessary. He introduced himself, offering his hand and just saying softly “Neil Armstrong”.

One of the film crew laughed and remarked 'Ha! I bet with a name like that you get lots of requests for autographs!' to which the unassuming gent simply replied: 'I’m afraid I don’t do autographs'.

It was at that point that we collectively realised that we were indeed in the presence of history. Suffice to say, all anxieties about filming schedules melted away and we all returned to the workshop (but with film cameras firmly switched off!)

Armstrong had long been a Harrison fan and he and his golfing friend Jim, hearing on the grapevine about the H1 research, had taken a detour from a sporting trip to Scotland, to make a pilgrimage to Greenwich.

Neil Armstrong with H1, 2009
Neil Armstrong with H1, 2009

For a wonderful hour or so we discussed Harrison and his first pioneering longitude timekeeper and it was clear Armstrong’s reputation was correct – reserved, yet of great intelligence and hugely well-informed; in short, a thoroughly nice man and not at all the showman one imagines when thinking of lunar astronauts.

I always asked visitors to sign my Visitors Book, but understood when Armstrong explained 'if you don’t mind, I’ll do it in capitals'.

Hearing that Harrison’s second prototype timekeeper, H2, would be next for research in the coming year, Armstrong returned and I spent a little more time with him, getting to know him a little better and was privileged to learn more of the Apollo 11 mission, from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

As he and Jim left on that occasion I asked Jim to sign my book again, and as they got back into their car, Jim whispered to me 'I think you’ll find Neil signed properly this time too'.

And indeed he had, something I shall always treasure.

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The Wittnauer ‘2000’ Time Machine: perpetual calendar or not?

This post was written by Rory McEvoy

I am fascinated by gimmicks used by past watch manufacturers to make their products stand out in a crowded marketplace and this post is the first in a short series on some attention seeking watches that have piqued my interest.

This post takes a look the Wittnauer ‘2000’, a quirky automatic wrist watch from the 1970s.

It is a snazzy-looking chunk of a watch and is impressively big at 46mm across the case and crown; the dial does not disappoint with its day, date and complex-looking calendar information around two apertures at twelve and six o’clock.

It was advertised in the early 1970s as a time machine with perpetual calendar, which is technically correct but arguably a little misleading.

The Wittnauer ‘2000’ with an advert ( inset) from 1971
The Wittnauer ‘2000’ with an advert (inset) from 1971

The perpetual calendar is a celebrated complication prized by collectors of high-end wrist and pocket watches.

The intricate mechanism required to keep the calendar in step with the short months and leap years demands multiple precisely made components, is only found on the best watches and, unsurprisingly, its presence in a watch hikes the value substantially.

Stephen McDonnell’s recent innovative perpetual calendar design. Uploaded to Youtube by Quill and Pad.

The Wittnauer ‘2000’ has a perpetual calendar, which does conform to the same definition.

The date display is a standard type, which must be manually advanced at the end of a short month. It is more normal for the calendar to be set using the crown, but why do that when you can have an extra button on the outside of the case? Instead of keeping the date in sync, it uses tables and a revolving scale to reckon the day of the week for a given date.

The mechanics of the design are very simple, the revolving disc has a contrate gear on its reverse, which is driven by a pinion attached to a second crown.

The years and days of the week are printed on the revolving disc and, as can be seen in the image, aligning the year with the month on the lower table (at six o’clock), places each day of the week above one of seven columns (at twelve o’clock) that contain the relevant days of the month.

300 Year Almanac
A Victorian perpetual calendar. Image kindly supplied by Chris McKay.

The Wittnauer ‘2000’ perpetual calendar employed an old and simple technology to allude to luxury. For a modest price it had bags of 70s style and, as with any self-respecting time machine, had buttons aplenty!

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Changing times in Germany

This post was written by David Rooney

We call it British summer time, but the first country to advance its clocks during the summer was Germany, which inaugurated a daylight-saving scheme in April 1916.

A letter, written 100 years ago this week and found buried in a museum archive, holds an important clue as to how the idea reached the top of German government just days before the outbreak of the First World War.

William Willett, by Elliot & Fry, NPG x91747 (©National Portrait Gallery, London)
William Willett, by Elliot & Fry, NPG x91747 (©National Portrait Gallery, London)

The champion of daylight-saving, British house-builder William Willett, had spent many years campaigning around the world for his time-shifting scheme to be adopted, and had become a regular correspondent with Henry von Böttinger, a prominent German chemist and industrialist who had been appointed to the Prussian House of Lords in 1909 by the German Emperor, Wilhelm II.

In 1913, von Böttinger had written to Willett to say that he was 'still pushing the Time Saving Question' and had raised the matter with the Prussian Minister of Public Works and the Association of German Chambers of Commerce.

But it was on 21 June 1914 that von Böttinger wrote again to Willett, this time with news that he was about to take the daylight-saving proposal to Germany’s highest authority.

'I have meantime taken note of your wish to have the subject laid before the German Emperor—and as His Majesty knows me personally and very well, I have at once made a written report to him and have asked him to devote his interest to the furtherance of this great object. As soon as I have another personal interview with His Majesty I shall not fail to bespeak the subject with him and thus bring the matter still closer home to him.'

Seven days later, Kaiser Wilhelm’s friend, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated, and Europe began its plunging descent into war.

This was the last letter William Willett received regarding his international daylight-saving campaign, and a few months later, while on a business trip to Spain, he contracted influenza and died.

We will never know the full circumstances of Germany’s adoption of daylight saving time in 1916, but it is possible that this letter between two influential international businessmen represented the crucial turning point in Willett’s campaign—though it was a campaign he did not live to see realized.

What is certain is that technology and politics are inseparable: ideas need powerful backers, and the German Emperor in 1914 was truly one of the most powerful men in the world.

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Keeping in touch with time

This post was written by Oliver Cooke

A common feature of watches and clocks of the 16th century are touch-pins. These are raised studs located at each hour position on the dial, with that at the 12 o’clock position typically being longer and sharper to provide a point of reference.

These enable the time to be read by feeling the position of the single, robust, hour hand.

This was useful as it was not possible to simply switch on a lamp to read the time at night. An added benefit might have been that the time could be read discretely under one’s robes.

Stackfreed watch, made by “MS” (unidentified) in Germany, c.1560 (British Museum, reg. No. 1989,0914.1)
Stackfreed watch, made by “MS” (unidentified) in Germany, c.1560 (British Museum, reg. No. 1958,1201.2203)
Spring-driven table clock, made by anon. in (probably) Germany, c.1560   (British Museum, reg. No. 1958,1006.2112)
Spring-driven table clock, made by anon. in (probably) Germany, c.1560 (British Museum, reg. No. 1958,1006.2112)
Montre à tact, made by Breguet & Fils in Paris, c.1824 (British Museum, reg. No. 1958,1201.1862)
Montre à tact, made by Breguet & Fils in Paris, c.1824 (British Museum, reg. No. 1958,1201.1862)

This is a later variation of touch indication, known as a “montre à tact” (“touch watch”).

The exposed hand does not turn with the movement but it is moved manually, clockwise, until it stops at the right time. This is read against touch-pins that are located on the edge of the case.

These watches are also sometimes known as “blind-man’s” watches but, although they could have served as such, they were conceived as night watches.

Watch with braille indication and pin-pallet escapement, made by Anglo-Celtic Watch Company in Ystradgynlais, Wales c.1952. open glass  (British Museum, reg. No. 1983,1012.104)
Watch with braille indication and pin-pallet escapement, made by Anglo-Celtic Watch Company in Ystradgynlais, Wales c.1952. open glass (British Museum, reg. No. 1983,1012.104)

This watch, however, was clearly designed to be used by visually impaired persons as it has Braille numerals on the dial.

Mass production of watches and clocks became established in the 19 th century and it enabled them to be affordable to the masses and, subsequently, the massive new market enabled a much greater variety to be economically viable, including this Braille watch.

The “Bradley” wrist watch with ball-bearing touch indication, made by Eone in China, 2014
The “Bradley” wrist watch with ball-bearing touch indication, made by Eone in China, 2014

This wrist-watch bears the latest incarnation of touch indication.

The time is indicated by steel ball bearings which run in tracks, positioned by magnets driven by the movement within the case – the hours around the perimeter and the minutes on the front of the watch.

The balls are easily displaced, which prevents damage to the movement, but are easily relocated with a twist of the wrist.

The watch was conceived for use by visually impaired persons, but its elegant design appeals to a far larger market. The development of this watch somewhat parallels that of the Braille watch, as it also depended on a fundamental development in technology and economics.

This watch was brought to market through internet “crowd-funding”, whereby many individuals invest a relatively small amount each to raise the total capital necessary to fund the development of a product (in this case enabled by Kickstarter). Crowd-funding can enable some exciting projects to succeed which might have been rejected by more traditional investors.

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A second in one-hundred days: insanity or genius?

This post was written by Rory McEvoy

In 1775 John Harrison made a critical remark about Graham’s dead beat escapement, saying, of George Graham, that '…either he must be out of his Senses, or I must be so!'

Later in the same publication he stated of his own clock that '…there must be then more reason…that it shall perform to a second in 100 days…than that Mr Graham’s should perform to a second in 1.'

Keeping time consistently to within one second in 100 days was a degree of accuracy not achieved until around a century and a half later by mechanical clocks such as Shortt’s free pendulum system.

Harrison published his remarks in a vitriolic and virtually impenetrable book, the manuscript and transcriptions of which are freely accessible online.

On reading the book, which contains scattered descriptions of his method, the celebrated watchmaker Thomas Mudge, stated of Harrison that the book’s contents had '…lessened him very much in my esteem…' and that '…there are several things which he says about Mr Graham’s pallets and pendulum that are absolutely false…'.

The London Review of English and Foreign Literature described the work as 'one of the most unaccountable productions we ever met with' and went on to say that 'every page of this performance bears marks of incoherence and absurdity, little short of the symptoms of insanity'.

Harrison’s words were not taken seriously by any of his contemporaries and his radical statement about the capabilities of his pendulum clock, with its large pendulum arc, relatively light bob, and recoil grasshopper escapement, remained largely unexplored until the 20th century.

Then, in 1977, a number of horological scholars, who became known as The Harrison Research Group, began to look at his theories afresh.

Martin Burgess’ Clock B is a product of this collaborative research and represents one of the most significant historio-technical investigations in recent years. Recently, numerous experiments have been tried on the clock at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich with exciting results.

To learn more about this intriguing project please join us for a special one-day conference on July 12 2014 at the NMM.

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Of mice and clocks

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

In his most recent blog, Oliver Cooke discussed watches and clocks without hands as indicators.

Another example is the Mouse Clock, in which a mouse making its way up against a wooden board serves as time indicator. Its designer was inspired by the well-known nursery rhyme:

Hickere, Dickere Dock

A Mouse ran up the Clock,

The Clock Struck One,

The Mouse fell down,

And Hickere Dickere Dock.

The rhyme comes in various versions; this is the oldest, published in 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s_Pretty_Song_Book.

Could it be based on a real event: a mouse hiding inside a longcase clock, panicking when it struck?

In the literature I find only other explanations. One authority suggests it may be an onomatoplasm – an attempt to capture, in words, a sound; in this case, the sound of a ticking clock. Another relates it to the shepherds of Westmorland who once used ‘Hevera’ for ‘eight’, ‘Devera’ for ‘nine’ and ‘Dick’ for ‘ten’ when counting their flock.

The mouse ran up the clock (Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744)
The mouse ran up the clock (Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744)
The mouse ran up the clock (woodcut from unidentified publication, probably 18th-century)
The clock struck one, the mouse fell down (woodcut from unidentified publication, probably 18th-century)

Be that as it may, just over a century ago it inspired an American businessman, who was also an avid clock collector, named Elmer Ellsworth Dungan, to develop the Mouse Clock.

He initially just created one for his daughter, who loved the nursery rhyme, but then decided to take them into production. He took out patents and various models were manufactured.

They are nowadays prized by novelty clock collectors, so much so that we are warned to beware of reproductions, especially for what one dealer calls ‘Chinese knockoffs’.

First model of the Mouse clock, 1909 (Photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
First model of the Mouse clock, 1909 (Photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
A later model of the Mouse clock. Photo Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand
A later model of the Mouse clock. Photo Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand
A modern Chinese reproduction version of the Mouse clock (photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)
A modern Chinese reproduction version of the Mouse clock (photo courtesy Antique Clock Guy)

Details, including several images of the mechanism, and a link to an animated photo of the clock in operation, can be found on these American websites: Antique Clock Guy and Fontaine’s Auction Gallery.

In 1966 the NAWCC published a booklet by Charles Terwilliger, Elmer Ellsworth Dungan and the Dickory, Dickory Dock Clock; there is a copy in the AHS Library at the Guildhall.

And speaking of mice and clocks, how about having some fun with the (grand)children with this on-line clock reading game. Read the time correctly and the mouse runs up safely to the cheese in the clock. Read it wrong and the cat gets the mouse.

Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand started with the private collection of  Archibald Clapham (1882–1963), whose sense of humour and his love for the unexpected or quirky is reflected in the type of clocks he collected. Not surprisingly, these included a Mouse clock (Photo courtesey Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand)
Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand started with the private collection of Archibald Clapham (1882–1963), whose sense of humour and his love for the unexpected or quirky is reflected in the type of clocks he collected. Not surprisingly, these included a Mouse clock (Photo courtesey Claphams National Clock Museum, New Zealand)

Time in Old Bohemia

This post was written by David Thompson

Many thousands of people today have stood amazed in front of the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall Square in Prague, but I wonder just how many have managed to make sense of the dial. In modern times, perhaps it makes little sense.

The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall Square in Prague (Wikimedia Commons)
The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall Square in Prague (Wikimedia Commons)

The clock was made by Jan Šindel in about 1410, and from as early as the 15th century, the clock had a 24 hour dial which showed the so-called Bohemian Hours, a system in which the day began and ended at sunset.

This means, of course, that the 24-hour ring around the outside had to be adjusted periodically so that the 24th hour coincided with sunset.

In the early part of the clock’s life this was done manually, but later an automatic mechanism was installed to adjust the position of the ring. In medieval Prague, a knowledge of how long it was to sunset and the imposition of curfews in the city was useful knowledge. For instance – a simple glance at the dial indicating 19 hours tells you straight away that it is five hours to go before sunset.

As well as telling the time, the dial also has moving sun and moving effigies of the sun and moon, showing where in the zodiac they lie throughout the year. Useful astrological information.

The ecliptic circle with the zodiac signs and the sun and moon effigies rotate together once per day, but gradually over the course of the year, the sun and moon effigies with make a complete circle of the zodiac.

All this is achieved by some sophisticated gearing located behind the dial and driven by the clock mechanism in the tower. With the horizon circle with shaded buff areas, the periods of Aurora and Crepuscular, dawn and dusk are also shown,

Today, the clock is controlled by a more modern ‘regulator clock made by Romuald Bozek in the 1860s, but for the most part, the clock mechanism is still that which has been in existence from the beginning of its history.

Looking at the illustration here, you will see that the time is just a few minutes past 13 hours. On the fixed chapter circle the time is shown just before IX o’clock in the morning and hour 24 is just before 8 o’clock in the evening – correct for a July date. The sun is in Leo and the moon is in Aries.

So next time you stand in front of this amazing clock, you can really show off by knowing how to read the dial.

Detail of a sketch by J.A. Pfeffl after a drawing by Jan Josef Dietzler, 1743
Detail of a sketch by J.A. Pfeffl after a drawing by Jan Josef Dietzler, 1743 (link)

Stopping the clock after death

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

In a previous post I included an opera scene, in which a woman mentions (sings!) that at times she stops all the clocks in her house. She dreads getting old and wants time to stand still.

One reader told me this reminded him of a poem by W.A. Auden which begins:

'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.

'Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

'Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

'Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.'

But here the motive for stopping the clocks is different. Someone has died, and stopping the clocks in the house of the deceased, silencing them, is an old tradition, similar to closing the blinds or curtains and covering the mirrors. The clock would be set going again after the funeral.

Some people believe stopping the clock was to mark the exact time the loved one had died. The subject was discussed here by members of the NAWCC, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors in America.

The French film Jean de Florette, set in the Provence between the wars, contains such a clock-stopping scene. The film is made after a novel by Marcel Pagnol, from which the following quotes are taken.

Clock in background
Clock in background

Jean, an outsider, inherits a house with surrounding land and hopes to make a living there. But two locals, who covet his land, secretly block a source, cutting off his vital water supply.

In despair, Jean uses dynamite to create a well, but he dies as a result of the explosion (chapter 37). The doctor, taking his pulse, 'listened for a long time in a profound silence emphasized by the ticking of the grandfather clock', but the man had died.

Then one of the two devious locals, who was in the room, 'crossed himself, walked around the funeral table on tiptoe, and stopped the pendulum of the grandfather clock with the tip of his finger'.

He then tells his comrade in arms 'Papet, I have just stopped the grandfather clock in Monsieur Jean’s house' – a way of saying: he is dead.

Stopping the clock
Stopping the clock

The three stills reproduced here are from that scene, which you can see in this short clip.

The clock is a typical Comtoise grandfather clock with a big flower pendulum.

"I just stopped the clock"
“I just stopped the clock”
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