The AHS Blog

Journal Volume 35 Issue 1

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Commemorating an invasion that never happened

This post was written by Rory McEvoy

Last month saw the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic era. To mark the anniversary, this week’s blog posting looks at two curious watch dials. The unusual point being that they both appear to come from the same manufacturer, but were made to celebrate victories on both sides of the conflict. One of which never happened.

Gillray's print showing the 'Republican flotilla in danger' © NMM Ref. PW3949
Gillray’s print showing the ‘Republican flotilla in danger’ © National Maritime Museum (NMM) Ref. PW3949

The first of the two watch dials was made around 1798 when the prospect of a French invasion of England was real and, for many, a terrifying prospect.

Rumours abounded of the French rafts that would carry tens of thousands of troops and weapons to English shores. The images of these vessels distributed by the printmakers ranged from the allegedly factual to the overtly ridiculous.

The French perspective was bullish about the prospect of invasion. Not only were they confident of success, but they also believed that the English would, for the most part, welcome the invasion.

Gillray’s print (above) records that there were indeed those who may have welcomed the French. Whig collaborators are shown on the right-hand-side of the picture trying to winch the French transporter ashore and their efforts are being foiled by Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, seen as the wind blowing the flotilla to destruction.

The 'descente en Angleterre' watch dial. ©NMM Ref.
The ‘descente en Angleterre’ watch dial. ©NMM Ref.

The dial depicts the ‘descente en Angleterre’ with a more traditional fleet of ships sailing towards the heavily defended English shoreline and serves as a useful glimpse into the mind of the manufacturer, keen to capitalize on the bullish French mood of early 1798.

The scene on the second dial is identifiable as the Battle of the Nile because of the burning ship on the left-hand-side of the image. This represents the French Flagship, L’Orient, which exploded with such violence that fighting was temporarily halted and it became a symbolic feature in popular representations of the Battle.

Commemorating the Battle of the Nile  © Pieces of Time, December, 2012
A watch commemorating the Battle of the Nile © Pieces of Time, December, 2012

There is a near-identical row of box-shaped buildings placed along the horizon on both dials. This suggests that they both came from the same source. Such buildings seem more appropriate for the northern coast of Africa than the southern shores of Britain and so it was probably a generic depiction preferred by the artist.

Details from the 'descente' (above) and Nile (below) watch dials, showing the similar depiction of buildings
Details from the ‘descente’ (above) and Nile (below) watch dials, showing the similar depiction of buildings

As an asides, the invasion watch dial has a later counterpart in the Museum’s medal collection. A rare sample medal was struck in 1804 with dies intended to be used in London by the victorious French conquerors. Despite amassing a substantial force in the Boulogne area, the embarkation was prevented, principally by the diversion of troops and resources to the Battle of Ulm and, secondarily, by the English blockades.

Sample medals to celebrate the invasion. Reverse marked: frappe a Londres en 1804 © NMM Ref. MEC0831
Sample medals to celebrate the invasion. Reverse marked: frappe a Londres en 1804 © NMM Ref. MEC0831
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Having a smashing time

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

On my twelfth birthday I was given my first watch.

I remember that it had the word ‘shockproof’ stamped on the back and that I wondered just how ‘shockproof’ it was. Mercifully I did not try to determine the limits of what it could take.

On Wikipedia I find that ‘shockproof’ should be understood as ‘shock resistant’, and that there is an international standard which specifies the minimum requirements and describes the corresponding method of test.

It is based on the simulation of the shock received by a watch on falling accidentally from a height of 1m on to a horizontal hardwood surface.

In the test the shock is usually delivered by a hard plastic hammer mounted as a pendulum. Some manufacturers are more ambitious.

Under the heading ‘Having a smashing time: Making sure your watch stands the test of time’ a newspaper article describes and illustrates the many types of torture to which the Swiss factory of IWC (International Watch Company) subjects its timepieces.

The impact test is illustrated here. A metal pivot, weighted with a 10kg block, is pulled upright, then swings round to hit a watch held in a vice. A cotton sheet is laid out to catch the watch, and technicians check after each impact to see that it’s still ticking perfectly.

A watch, the IWC Engineer, subjected to an impact test with a 10kg block
A watch, the IWC Engineer, subjected to an impact test with a 10kg block
The watch
The impact test in progress

A less carefully planned demonstration of the shock resistance of a watch was given during the 1951 Tour de France, the annual cycle race.

The watch manufacturer Pontiac had sponsored the Dutch team by supplying them with wristwatches. One runner fell and dropped seventy meters down the side of the mountain.

Amazingly, he was not seriously injured. Even better for the sponsor, his watch was still ticking. Pontiac made a successful publicity campaign out of it.

The 1951 advertisement. Note the arrow pointing at the wristwatch of the unfortunate man in the ravine. ‘Zeventig meter viel ik diep, mijn hart stond stil, maar mijn Pontiac liep’ (Seventy meters I dropped, my heart stood still but my Pontiac never stopped), and  ‘Inderdaad, een PONTIAC kan tegen een stootje’ (Indeed, a PONTIAC can take a knock)
The 1951 advertisement. Note the arrow pointing at the wristwatch of the unfortunate man in the ravine. ‘Zeventig meter viel ik diep, mijn hart stond stil, maar mijn Pontiac liep’ (Seventy meters I dropped, my heart stood still but my Pontiac never stopped), and ‘Inderdaad, een PONTIAC kan tegen een stootje’ (Indeed, a PONTIAC can take a knock)
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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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Look no hands!

This post was written by Oliver Cooke

On the one hand we have looked at single-handed dials, on the other hand we have looked at some more unusual forms of indicator. Here we will look at indicators with no hands at all.

Wittnauer “Polara” quartz wrist watch with LED digital display by Hughes Aircraft Corporation, USA, 1974.  The power draw of LEDs necessitates that the time only be displayed on demand, by pressing the button - quite a backwards step from the constant display of a mechanical watch - but that did not hinder their popularity. (British Museum Reg. No. 1998,0603.1)
Wittnauer “Polara” quartz wrist watch with LED digital display by Hughes Aircraft Corporation, USA, 1974. The power draw of LEDs necessitates that the time only be displayed on demand, by pressing the button – quite a backwards step from the constant display of a mechanical watch – but that did not hinder their popularity. (British Museum Reg. No. 1998,0603.1)

This watch has a display with digits formed of light emitting diode (LED) segments, seven for each numeral.

LED watches were first introduced in 1970 by the Hamilton Watch Company and were soon followed by liquid crystal display (LCD) watches. LED and LCD were by no means the first technology to enable digital displays however.

Ever Ready “ticket clock” by American Electrical and Novelty & Manufacturing Company, New York, 1930 (British Museum Reg. No. 1987,1012.62)
Ever Ready “ticket clock” by the American Electrical and Novelty & Manufacturing Company, New York, 1930 (British Museum Reg. No. 1987,1012.62)
Gold and niello cased cylinder watch by Jean François Bautte & Cie (attributed), Switzerland c.1830.  The watch has moving discs for hours and minutes (British Museum Reg. No. 1958,1201.1283)
Gold and niello cased cylinder watch by Jean François Bautte & Cie (attributed), Switzerland c.1830. The watch has moving discs for hours and minutes (British Museum Reg. No. 1958,1201.1283)
Side view of the watch, showing its notable thickness
Side view of the watch, showing its notable thickness

Before these examples existed the 'wandering hour' dial, something of a mash-up of digital and analogue time indication.

The hour numeral wanders, from the left-hand position (as viewed), up-and-over the semicircular aperture during the course of an hour. As the current hour ends and disappears behind the dial plate, the next hour numeral appears on the left.

We see 12:14 indicated on the illustrated example.

The system was invented in the 1650s by the brothers Tomasso and Matteo Campani from San Felice in Umbria, as a means to enable the time to be read at night (the numerals are pierced, allowing the light of an oil lamp to pass through from behind). This was very useful in the days before instant electrical lighting.

The wandering hour dial was also, occasionally, used on watches in the late 17th century, (but an oil lamp was not fitted in these!)

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Close-up of the dial, here showing 12:14
Eight day longcase night clock by Edward East, London, c.1675 (British Museum Reg. No. 1980,1002.1)
Eight day longcase night clock by Edward East, London, c.1675 (British Museum Reg. No. 1980,1002.1)

Finally, this watch also blurs the distinction between analogue and digital.

It has an LCD but, instead of digits, it has radial segments representing hands. This, however, requires 120 segments instead of the 42 needed to make up a standard six-digit digital display.

Together with the corresponding electronics needed to drive each segment, this means that these “LCA” watches cannot be made as cheaply as their digital counterparts. Perhaps for this reason they have never been popular, but they must have an adequate, if small, number of fans as they seem to have always (just) remained in continous production by one manufacturer or another since the 1970s.

I wonder how many of their fans, like I, appreciate them mostly for the futility of over-engineering, to achieve a result with LCD that is much more easily and better obtained with physical hands!

Close-up of the dial.  The time shown here is .  Despite the seconds and minute hands appearing identical in this still, the seconds are readily visible when reading the time
Close-up of the dial. The time shown here is 6:18:48. Despite the seconds and minute hands appearing identical in this still, in use the advancing seconds allows them to be easily distinguished
Wristwatch with liquid crystal “analogue” display and walkie-talkie function, anonymous, Chinese, c. 2010
Wristwatch with liquid crystal “analogue” display and walkie-talkie function, anonymous, Chinese, c.2010