The AHS Blog

Journal Volume 35 Issue 1

The No.4

This post was written by Jonny Flower

It’s really not every day that a dealer in horological objects gets to make a once-in-a-lifetime report. But, to the door of number 4 Lovat Lane, London, residence of the AHS, to convey news of a handsome discovery! Buried under decades of dust in a darkened room it has been found! Behold…the Synchronome No. 4, which came to me as part of the estate of an electrical engineer.

In photos it looked like it might be a self constructed version, especially with the blue Hammerite paint on the frame. Upon seeing it however, it was obvious that it was factory built.

It was smaller and more delicate than usual Synchronomes and the carvings in the upper door frame were sunrise style, not floral. A very early Hit and Miss synchroniser shows that at some stage it was connected to another Master clock, possibly a Shortt tank.

Synchronome No.4. Note the sunrise carving in the upper door.

Once the synchroniser had been removed the bronzed NRA plate engraved with the magical No.4 appeared, one of the very first production Synchronome one-second master clocks.

No pilot dial was evident. The movement had separate footed cocks for the count wheel, latch and the gravity arm. The coils were attached to an L-shaped projection from the main frame casting. The pendulum has a typical steel trunion with adjustable brass sleeve, delicate brass weight tray and a nicely made lead filled bob with small brass shaped rating nut. The impulse pallet was of a shape I had not seen before with stepped sleeve, lipped tip and a separate screwed on support plate for the gathering wire and jewel.

The mahogany case was a design that was used for the early prototype clocks with brass frames and used before the adoption and incorporation of pilot dials.

After all these discoveries I consulted friends and colleagues together with all the books and literature to establish where No.4 sat in the time line of Synchronome production. What came to light was that there was a fundamental change in the construction of the one-second master clocks very early on in their production. In Bob Miles’ excellent book on Synchronome he had noticed this too.

The bronzed NRA plate, clearing showing the number 4.

This first series of numbered production models I am going to call the Interim Series. The Interim Series of one-second master clocks can be distinguished as follows:

Frame: We know from physical evidence that from serial number 4 up to and including number 41 the cast iron frame had an L-shaped protrusion to support the coils and armature pivot plate.

Movement: Footed brass cocks are used for the Count wheel and gravity arm. The latch used until 1920 is positioned on an adjustable brass frame that is screwed to the back plate.

The back stop is a jewel with a coiled spring-like counterweight that pivots through a pillar attached to the inside of count wheel cock.

No.4 has a case that was used for the brass movement prototypes with a narrow trunk, pediment top and sunrise carvings in the upper door frame. Uniquely at this point in time it is the only one with a door that has the hinges located on the left hand side. No.41 Has a flat topped case with glazed sides. I believe that this Interim Series was a very small production run of approximately 50 pieces with smaller cases and no pilot dials.

My thanks go to John Fothergill and James Kelly for their help, and of course to the late Bob Miles. I am pleased to report that No. 4 will soon be joining the collection of The Clockworks museum in South London.

A musical romp in an antique clock shop

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

Howard Walwyn deals in fine antique clocks in Kensington Church Street, London. While his shop was closed for normal business due to the Covid crisis, he allowed it to be used for a remarkable musical entertainment: a filming of Maurice Ravel’s comical opera L’Heure Espagnole.

clockmaker and cake
The clockmaker at his desk, covered with tools and clock parts, messily eating an over-large cream-cake bought from the pastry shop next door (3:18 into the video)

First performed in 1911, the opera is set in a clockmaker's shop in eighteenth-century Toledo. The title can be translated literally as ‘The Spanish Hour’, but the word heure more importantly means ‘time’ – ‘Spanish Time’, with the connotation ‘How They Keep Time in Spain’.

It is the story of a clockmaker and his wife, who hopes to have some private pleasure in the hour her husband is out winding the municipal clocks. However, the presence of a muleteer (here modernized as a UPS courier) who came in to have his watch repaired throws a spanner in the works.

It is a delightful romp – a farce – with two would-be lovers hiding inside the cases of long-case clocks (the pendulums do not appear to have been in the way!) and both ending up being persuaded to buy a clock after the clockmaker has returned.

For more information and a synopsis of the action, see here.

carrying a longcase clock alternative.jpg
The woman has asked the UPS courier to carry a longcase clock containing one of the two would-be lovers into her bedroom. (18:58 into the video)

The opera is sung in original French with English subtitles. It is a small affair by opera standards: just 50 minutes long, and only five characters, no choir. It was pre-recorded in the Wigmore Hall in London, and the (excellent) singers acted out their roles in the shop. In this small-budget production the orchestra is replaced by a piano, but that doesn't detract from the pleasure of seeing and hearing it performed with such gusto.

The opera has been staged regularly since 1911, and will undoubtedly have many more performances. But it will never be repeated with such an abundance of authentic ‘props’ as can be seen in this entertaining video recorded in Howard Walwyn’s shop.

Stories of an everyday timepiece

This post was written by Andrew Hyatt

I'm a 1st year student at Birmingham City University, studying for a BA in Horology. One of the things that interest me in horology as a student are the stories that timepieces can tell. Whilst the world changing events of John Harrison’s H1 through to H5 or the exciting life of Larcum Kendall’s K2 do make for fascinating reading, I am talking about the story every timepiece that I hope to end up servicing will tell me.

This story is not necessarily the emotional attachment that the owner undoubtedly has to the item. That can be interesting, but in taking apart one of my first clocks I found what I consider to be a much more interesting story.

The clock shown below is a mass produced 2 train clock with a rack striking mechanism. I picked it up because I loved the art-deco style case and the unusually shaped dial.

Art deco clock
Art deco style mantel clock

It is clear that several other people also did as when I took the movement apart my initial observations found a couple of things, the first is that at some point the pendulum suspension spring has been replaced. Both the rod and the back cock have been bent to accommodate a new plastic topped spring shown below.

Back cock and pendulum leader
Back cock & pendulum leader that have been previously modifed to fit the thicker plastic spring

This made me a little worried about the rest of the mechanism with what appeared to be a quick fix to get the clock running again, but as I continued I found evidence of what may have been a more caring hand. The back cock also shows evidence of the escapement/crutch arbor pivot hole having been re-bushed with the finish almost invisible on the acting face. One of the click springs has also partially sheared, but then its been re-blued.

Re-bushing on the backcock and screws
Re-bushing on the backcock showing a good internal finish and a damaged screw

This tells the story of one or more people that got this clock running again and I am excited to add my name to that list, hopefully in a less noticeable way, as this clock continues its story.

Elizabeth Tower from construction to conservation

This post was written by Jane Desborough

On a cold, dark evening recently my spirits were lifted when I had the pleasure of listening to an online lecture on the conservation work that has been undertaken on the Elizabeth Tower at Westminster.

Elizabeth Tower undergoing conservation
Elizabeth Tower undergoing conservation

Presented by tour guide, Catherine, who is clearly very experienced in talking about the Tower, the clock and the bells, it was a really engaging and accessible gallop through the history and overview of the recent conservation works.

For fans of horology, there were no big surprises – most people know the story about the cracked bells and the key players ( Edmund Beckett Denison, Sir George Airy, Edward John Dent and Frederick Dent) involved in the design and making of the clock – but a couple of points stood out for me.

The first was the discovery that when the clock was finished in 1854, it had to wait for the rest of the tower to be complete before it could begin its public service – this was five years later in 1859.

Westminster clock
Westminster clock before conservation work began

The idea of a paused instrument – one that’s designed to move continuously – made me think that there must have been a lot of work needed to store it safely, maintain it in good condition and to set it going five years after its production. It was interesting to hear that those five years provided some time for experimentation with the escapement.

Another fascinating aspect of the talk was centred on the lamps required to light the dials at night. Recent conservation work has replaced all of the lamps with LEDs.

Behind a dial of the Westminster clock
Behind a dial of the Westminster clock with the old bulbs visible on the right

As a more efficient lamp, the LED will obviously be a good energy-saver. The change makes sense, but I couldn’t help being pleasantly surprised that the same changes being made at a small, household scale are also being made on a larger scale with our public buildings.

For me this talk was great because you can think you know a clock or a building, but there’s always something new to discover!

Opening my first clock

This post was written by Alexandra Verejanu

I'm a 1st year student at Birmingham City University, studying for a BA in Horology. In the context of the lockdown I got pretty behind in my studies as we couldn’t go into the workshop. As I knew it would be helpful to see and touch a mechanism, I decided to buy some cheap old clocks. The clock I have 'played' with brought some interesting questions to my attention.

Clock with case
The case of the clock, which obviously hasn’t been taken care of

Firstly, I couldn’t take it out of the case, probably because it didn't seem to have been made to be serviced. I might have stumbled upon one of those old American clocks which were made to look fashionable in the house, but after a few years were discarded as uneconomical to repair. .

I looked closely and it was obvious someone has taken it out of its glued case using some aggressive methods, like bending the bell rod and cutting holes in the case. After two hours of struggling to carefully remove the mechanism from the case, I bent the bell rod and took it out.

Dial hole
The dial hole has additional cuts made previously by someone trying to remove the mechanism

Then, I examined the mechanism which was very oily. I knew excessive lubrication can do more harm than good, but I didn’t expect to see damage with the naked eye.

In the future I intend to change the damaged pieces, hopefully with some I will produce in the school workshop.

Ratchet wheel
Ratchet wheel showing a lot of damage
Effects of excessive lubrication
The effects of excessive lubrication can be observed on this pinion

I decided not to take apart the mechanism just yet, as it was useful as a comparative item to the clocks I was presented with during online courses.

Considering this timepiece is not in its best shape, I might try to do some case work during the summer. I will not be able to fix the cuttings, but I’ll give it a good clean and maybe turn the case into an easy to open one.

This clock was very helpful during lockdown and helped me understand the mechanics of a clock. It truly helped me connect and mesh information from various sources which I was not able to understand.

Special thanks to my teacher Mathew Porton, for taking his time to answer all my questions and making sure I will be safe when I disassemble the mechanism and work on it.

The universe on our bench

This post was written by Tabea Rude

My colleague Amélie Bezárd and I had the chance to take a very close look at a so-called ‘Chronoglobium’ invented and built by Mathias Zibermayr in the first half of the 19th century in Brno (today’s Czech Republic) and Graz (Austria).

The chronoglobium in situ in the Vienna clock museum

His invention, a terrestrial globe driven by a gear train including small models of the Sun and Moon within a static glass celestial globe, was intended as a teaching device to demonstrate the movements of the heavenly bodies.

Zibermayr built at least 18 of these machines, which enjoyed great popularity not just at the time, but also much later when this particular model entered the Vienna Clock Museum in 1951. Almost immediately, it appeared in the Vienna newspapers and on the museum catalogue cover page.

Chronoglobium without sphere
The chronoglobium without celestial globe, front view

The machine can either be operated using a hand crank to show the movements as a time-lapse, or by a spring-driven clock movement, which also shows the time of day and day of the week.

Within the glass sphere, the shadow-hoop with ecliptic stands vertically, screwed into the back of the supporting Atlas figure. The outer hoop is fixed and shows the day of the month indication. The inner ecliptic is a gear wheel that is firmly attached to the models of Sun and Moon.

These models are attached on long arms on the rear side of the Chronoglobium. The model Sun is firmly attached on the ecliptic with a fan-like grid indicating the direction of Sun rays onto Earth.

Chronoglobium with Moon and Sun
The chronoglobium, side view, with the models of Sun and Moon visible

The model Moon is moved by way of a mechanism including two wheels and two lever arms up and down to demonstrate the elliptical movement of the Moon in relation to the Earth. The models of Moon and Sun perform a whole rotation around the terrestrial globe once a ‘year’, indicated by the moving ecliptic.

A few examples of contemporary typography in watchmaking

This post was written by Lee Yuen-Rapati

The evolution of typography in horology has come a long way from the dominance of Roman numerals and the round hand script. While the mid-twentieth century remains a potent library of inspiration for today’s watch brands, other watchmakers look forward in creating their timepieces.

These contemporary watches can appear non-traditional or even avant garde, with typography to match. However a closer look reveals that even the newest typography on watches still has connections to the past.

The use of bold and blocky sans-serif numerals is a common trend in many contemporary watches that try to eschew a sense of antiquity, at least on the surface. A prime example is the collection from Urwerk who have consistently used a bold and angular style of numerals since their inception in the late 1990s. The ultra high-end pieces from Greubel Forsey also feature rather rectangular numerals which both match the aesthetics of their main collection, but provide an interesting juxtaposition in their Hand Made 1 as well as the Naissance d’une Montre (1) watch, both of which highlight more traditional watchmaking techniques.

Lee Header.jpg

The use of bold and blocky numerals is more of an evolution for a company like Rolex who have adopted them across their recent collection, notably on the Explorer and GMT-Master II models. While none of the examples above are likely to be mistaken for antique pieces, similar rectangular or blocky numerals were popular in the art deco era and into the mid-twentieth century. Even if the watch is new, the link to the past is sometimes quite prominently promoted as with the unabashedly contemporary (and divisive) Code 11.59 collection which features numerals adapted from a 1940s Audemars Piguet minute repeater.

Some contemporary watches pull from outside the horological world to define themselves. Hermès as well as the young company anOrdain each sought out type designers to create new and identifiable typography. Hermès got its modernist numerals from the studio of Philippe Apeloig for its Slim d’Hermès line while anOrdain’s typographer Imogen Ayres created numerals inspired by survey maps. Neither brands’ numerals are completely new, but their lack of typographic precedence in the watch world make them both stand out.

Other brands use more traditional numerals but change the material in order to place their watches firmly in the twenty-first century. H. Moser & Cie’s Heritage Centre Seconds Funky Blue uses applique numerals that are inspired by 1920s pilot’s watches. The appliques are made from the luminous material Globolight rather than metal. In a similar fashion, the refounded British brand Vertex uses moulded Super-LumiNova numerals in lieu of traditionally painted or printed numerals on their military-inspired watches. Kari Voutilainen offers the option for brightly coloured arabic appliques on his watches which bring a youthful presence to his more classically designed dials. Dimensionality has long been a useful styling tool for watchmakers, and the inclusion of new materials has produced some very refreshing results.

The examples above represent a few different typographic paths for the contemporary watchmaker to follow. While these watches and their typography may appear to share very little with antiquity, there are always links to trace back, they are simply being shown from a new angle.

Photo credits:

  1. Baruch Coutts @budgecoutts (Urwerk, UR-UR111C)
  2. Greubel Forsey (Hand Made 1)
  3. Atom Moore @atommoore (Rolex, GMT Master II)
  4. Audemars Piguet (Code 11.59 Selfwinding White)
  5. Baruch Coutts (Hermès, Slim D’Hermès Titane)
  6. AnOrdain (Model 2 Blue Fumé)
  7. H Moser & Cie (Heritage Centre Seconds Funky Blue)
  8. Vertex (M100)
  9. Atom Moore (Voutilainen, TP1 OW2019)

A bad time in Znojmo

This post was written by James Nye

In my January 2021 London Lecture on Johann Antel (1866–1930), the Czech/German clockmaker (available to AHS members here), I condensed much, and stories were omitted, like this one–a disastrous episode.

In 1930, the Znojmo authorities sought quotations for a clock for the bus-stop in Divišovo Square. Antel himself died that July, but his firm won the tender, offering a four-sided rooftop subsidiary clock, driven by a minute-impulse transmitter clock. Antel would source it from Siemens and Halske of Berlin, or its Prague subsidiary Elektrotechna.

Divišovo Square
Divišovo Square, with the clock over the bus-stop. Archiv mesta Znojma, prilohy ke kronice Nr. 35 II. / 18-23. Possibly taken on 28 October, ‘Republic Day’, given the flags.

Installation started in February 1931. In lifting the clock housing onto the bus-stop roof, the ladder slipped and both technician and clock fell to the pavement. Six weeks were lost in repairs. It was finally installed 24 March 1931. But regular attendance by the technicians over the next month suggests all was not right from the beginning.

Antel’s widow Ludmilla issued proceedings to secure payment, but matters dragged into 1932. The legal papers are actually a wonderful source of information on this catastrophic installation. The original drawings showed dials with numerals, but Antel’s firm delivered a clock with four plain dials, claiming they looked more ‘modern’.

No! said the town, we want numbers!

They also wanted a thicker gauge of glass, as the night-time illumination revealed too much of the motion-works, and the lamps were so bright the hands were invisible. A hand went missing, perhaps the fault of the technician who upgraded the glass.

In July 1933, the local paper Nas Týden reported all four dials showed a different time. A satirical piece followed in Ochrana in October, urging civic pride in a clock that showed different times on different dials, like the astronomical clock at Olomouc.

The gods never favoured the clock, and it was probably replaced in around 1938. As with an ill-fated earlier installation at the law-courts, Antel never had much luck in Znojmo.

Siemens catalogue.jpg
Siemens & Halske catalogue, from the same period. Siemens operated through Elektrotechna in Prague from 1930.

The engineer’s chronometer: William Wilson and the Adler

This post was written by Allan C. Purcell

Last Summer I bought on eBay this fusee chain driven watch with detent escapement, dia 50mm, hallmarked Chester 1858, signed on the movement ‘William Benton of Liverpool, No. 5115’, and on the dial ‘Chronometer watch by William Benton 148 Park Road Liverpool’.


In the description of the watch, the seller had written ‘Opening below to reveal a highly decorated dust cover “Stephenson’s Rocket, Steam Train”, and clean fully working highly decorated “Steam Paddle Ship”.’

What the seller failed to point out is that the watch is inscribed on the dustcap ‘WILLM WILSON / LIVERPOOL / AD 1859’. It is my belief that this was the English engineer William Wilson (1809-1862), and that the locomotive illustrated on the watch is not the Rocket but the Adler (German for: Eagle), the first locomotive successfully used commercially for the rail transport of passengers and goods in Germany.

The only known photograph of the Adler
The only known photograph of the Adler, built in 1835 and sold to a scrap dealer in 1850.

In 1835, George & Robert Stephenson in Newcastle were contracted by the Bavarian Ludwig railway company to build an engine for their first railway to run from Nuremberg to Furth. They sent the new locomotive packed in boxes, and their engineer William Wilson was contracted to rebuild it there. The train was a huge success and Wilson stayed with the Ludwig railway company for another twenty-five years, driving the train in all weathers. In 1859, William was covered in glory by the German railway company. In 1862 he died and was buried in Nuremberg, where his descendants are still living.

While Stephenson’s Rocket has only four wheels, the Adler had six wheels (wheel arrangement 2-2-2 in Whyte notation or 1A1 in UIC classification). The engraving on the watch shows a locomotive with six wheels. The image of the ship engraved on the watch may refer to the steamboat Hercules which in September 1835 had been used to transport the boxes containing the locomotive from Rotterdam on the Rhine to Cologne.

When in September last year I went to Nuremberg for the Ward Francillon Time Symposium, I arranged an appointment with Stefan Ebenfeld, the director of artefacts and library at the Museum of the German Railway (Deutsche Bahn Museum) in Nuremberg. It turned out that the museum had no personal artefacts of Wilson’s, and we agreed that the museum would buy the watch from me for the price I paid for it.

For anyone interested in more details, there are entries on William Wilson and the Adler on Wikipedia.

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Put down your pens: the Oxford Examinations School clocks

This post was written by Johan ten Hoeve

Located on the High Street, in the heart of Oxford, the Oxford Examinations School was built between 1876 and 1882 and made the reputation of its architect, Thomas Jackson, who incorporated materials from old buildings to construct the school. Among them, Christopher Wren’s pulpit from the Divinity School forms the Examiners throne in the North School, and many now regard the building to be Jackson’s masterpiece.


In 1883 Charles Shepherd (Jr) installed a master clock and slave system with 19 slaves. This was replaced with an expanded Gents master system, with 28 slave dials, in 1959. The current dials, which are some 30 inches across, are replacement dials, having possibly been installed along with the Gents system.


Most of the original wooden housings of the slave clocks are still fitted with the old Shepherd terminals which connected the slave clock to the system. This is the only remaining evidence that there was once was a Shepherd clock system. However, the original Shepherd master and a slave clock are still around, and can now be found in the reserve collection of the History of Science Museum, Oxford.

The slave unit is described thus: “Slave unit to the Shepherd electric master clock (78037), the mechanism closely resembling that of the master. The slave unit receives the impulse every two seconds and moves the hands of the dial. The unit has two hands but no dial. Mounted on wooden board, with unfitted Perspex cover”.


The Gents slave system still operates in the Examinations School even though Gents ceased the clock side of their business in 1999 and terminated the contract. The 28 slave dials are divided up into three sub circuits; one C73 and two C74 relay units, with a power supply, trickle charger and battery back-up.

At present, the whole system, (master and all slave clocks) is undergoing a major overhaul and service.

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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 second edition of 'Synchronome: Masters of Electrical Timekeeping'

This post was written by Charles Ormrod

Robert Miles’s landmark work, Synchronome: Masters of Electrical Timekeeping , sold out a few years after its original publication in 2011. Since then, copies of this highly sought-after book have been selling for several times the original cover price of £50.

Synchronome cover, with previously unpublished photograph of Frank Hope Jones.

The AHS is therefore delighted to announce that a long-awaited second edition is now available, made to the same standards as the first, hard-backed and thread-bound, at a new low price of just £25 plus postage.

As a humble labourer in the vineyard of the second edition, assisting James Nye with administrative work but certainly not with Synchronome expertise, I’ve had a first-class opportunity to learn about the pitfalls of editing, proof-reading, and the finer points of book production.

The possibility of a second edition was mooted some years ago, and revisions to the first edition had been contributed by Bob Miles himself, Derek Bird, Norman Heckenberg, Arthur Mitchell and others.

One of my first jobs was to combine these various sets of revisions into one document, eventually about eight A4 pages long, for presentation to the designer of the first edition, Phil Carr. Phil very generously made no charge for all the work of entering revisions into a new version of the original book’s electronic file.

Examples of the high-quality colour illustrations and diagrams found throughout the book.

Double-checking the changes and exploring disagreements between contributors led to many absorbing hours searching for clarification. I now know far more than I did about the history of sonar and the extent to which Second-World-War sonar sound-pulses fell within an audible range (which depended on whether the listener was a fit young sailor or an old sea dog).

I also learned about the Doppler effect on the sound of swinging tower-clock bells, the problems of reproducing the appearance of pre-war electrical flex, alternative cabinet-making methods applied to Synchronome cases, and the best method of setting up the suspension of a Synchronome pendulum.

The thread-binding machine at Short Run Press, printers of the second edition, with reels of thread showing at the top of the picture.

I must admit I hadn’t quite realised that high-quality hard-backed books, such as the first and second editions of Synchronome, really are still made by sewing groups of double pages together with thread. A machine does the sewing of course, but the principle is broadly the same as with the earliest surviving bound books of the eighth century.

A thread-bound book is much easier to use than a glued paperback because the pages naturally fall flat when the book is opened, and thread-binding lasts far longer.

The late Bob Miles, photographed for the 2011 first edition.

This second edition of Synchronome: Masters of Electrical Timekeeping is dedicated to the memory of its author, who died earlier this year in the knowledge that work on a new edition was under way. The book is available to order on the AHS website via this link.

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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.


Star of the show

This post was written by James Nye

At the Mannheim electric clock fair, now in its twentieth year, one unusual item usually attracts a lot attention.

This year (2019) was no exception. The images show an early form of German ‘treppenhausautomat’, loosely a ‘staircase lighting timer’. Lighting, and therefore electricity consumption, has always been expensive.

An intriguing question, worthy of some serious research, is the economic justification for the complicated (and also expensive) electro-mechanical devices used (late 19th/early20th C) to reduce consumption.

Trepenhausautomat by Faul Firchow, Berlin, c.1905
Trepenhausautomat by Faul Firchow, Berlin, c.1905
General arrangement view showing clock movement to the top and lighting control motor below
General arrangement view showing clock movement to the top and lighting control motor below

In large houses, or multiple-occupancy blocks, it’s always made sense to add press-button switches to control stairwell lighting—the lamps remaining lit for a set period before being switched off.

Modern switches incorporate integrated circuits, but for a long-time such devices used a pendulum clock as the timebase.

Dial arrangement, with variable contacts to control the lights
Dial arrangement, with variable contacts to control the lights

The object here dates to c.1905, and was sold by Paul Firchow Nachfolger, from 3 Belle-Alliance-Strasse in Berlin. The clock mechanism is a standard volume production element, unsigned, and perhaps from Lenzkirch.

The hands are arranged to carry an adjustable set of contacts which will make a circuit, naturally for night hours, but with the capacity to set the operating hours (accommodating seasonal variations).

Top view of the motor, and variable width drum, through which the circuit flows for 3 minutes
Top view of the motor, and variable width drum, through which the circuit flows for 3 minutes

Assuming it is night (dial circuit closed), pressing a push-button in the stairwell will activate the motor below the clock, which in turn will revolve the drum.The drum has brass (conductive) sides, embraced by brass slide contacts.

The drum has a narrowed section, and when this arrives between the (wider) contacts, the circuit is broken.

The cycle lasts around three minutes.

The top panel shows ceramic entry ports for various cables: knöpfe (push-buttons), power, lampen (lamps), and two set of widerstand (resistance). The machine will switch 110V and up to 18 amps, so a significant load is possible.

View of standard volume-produced clock movement
View of standard volume-produced clock movement

The clock is a forerunner of more typical, volume-produced ‘black boxes’, but its complex form (and by inference its high cost) is a strong signifier of the importance placed upon saving money and controlling power use.

Top view of the case, showing the marked cable-entry points
Top view of the case, showing the marked cable-entry points
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The typography of revival watches

This post was written by Mat Craddock

Until recently, there had been little research carried out on the typography of wristwatch dials. However, over the past decade, the increased interest in collectable vintage wristwatches appears to have sparked the interest of brands and collectors alike.

While wristwatch collectors’ focus has largely been on the variations in logo, layout and content of vintage wristwatch dials, interdisciplinary designer Lee Yuen-Rapati has taken a critical look at the typefaces used, and typographic decisions made, by watchmakers.

His Masters dissertation, titled ‘Motivating Factors In The Trends Of Horological Typography,’ formed the basis of an AHS Wristwatch Group talk at The Clockworks in April.

Lee Yuen-Rapati at The Clockworks, April 28, 2019.
Lee Yuen-Rapati at The Clockworks, April 28, 2019.

Lee’s research covered clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches, and looked at type and numerals used on the dials, identifying various themes and typographic pitfalls that appeared to be specific to wristwatches.

His research included interviews with brands and independent watchmakers about their typographical decisions, the typefaces they use and the importance of type design to their brand.

His talk focused on the typography of contemporary wristwatches that had revived distinct vintage or antiquarian styles.

Highlights included the use of system (or default) fonts by high end watch manufacturers, the technical limits of pad printing, the benefits and traps of modern processes involved in dial design (such as the digital workspace) and inconsistent choices made by watch brands when reviving older designs. Examples of recent wristwatches from Longines, Nomos and Stowa were used to illustrate these themes.

As a codicil, Lee discussed recent advances in dial printing, such as the use of physical vapour deposition on the zirconium ceramic dials of the Charles Frodsham Double Impulse Chronometer, suggesting that this technology might be taken up by other watch manufacturers, necessitating an increased focus on typographical principles and design choices.

Follow The AHS on Instagram: @thestoryoftime
Lee Yuen-Rapati: @onehourwatch
Mat Craddock: @the_watchnerd

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Dreaming of a clock in the slums of Paris

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

Every clock that left the workshop or factory on its way to a buyer has, we may assume, been coveted by and, we may hope, given satisfaction to its owner. But most of this goes unrecorded, and where traditional non-fiction sources are silent, we may find some glimpses in fiction.


For vivid descriptions of the life of the workers in nineteenth-century France one can do worse than turn to the wonderfully naturalistic novels of Emile Zola (1840-1902).

The book that shot him to fame in 1877 was L’Assommoir; below I quote from the most recent English translation: The Drinking Den , Penguin Classics 2000 rev. 2003, translator Robin Buss.

The novel depicts in graphic style the rise and fall of Gervaise Macquart, who worked as a laundress in Paris during the period 1850 to 1870. There are scenes of abject poverty and alcohol is a key character in the story; but there are also comical scenes and uplifting passages. It is a masterpiece. As one author has put it:

‘L’Assommoir is set in the dirt and filth of working class Paris, where life was hard and lives depressingly short. He researched in great detail the impoverished quarter of which he wrote, so that the work is an ethnographic novel and probably the first of its kind’.

In the poor household of the young Gervaise, a chest of drawers takes pride of place:

‘One of her dreams, which she did not dare mention to anyone, was to have a clock to put on it, right in the middle of the marble top – the effect would be quite splendid. Had it not been for the baby that was on the way, she might have risked buying her clock, but as it was she put if off until later, with a sigh.’ (p. 97).

Three years go by before she is able to act on her desire:

‘She had bought herself a clock; and even then this timepiece, a rosewood clock with twisted columns and a copper gilt pendulum, had to be paid off over a year, at the rate of five francs every Monday. She got cross when Coupeau [her husband] said he would wind it up, because only she was allowed to take off the glass globe and religiously wipe the columns, as though the marble top of her chest of drawers had been transformed into a chapel. Under the glass cover, behind the clock, she hid the savings book. And often, when she was dreaming about her shop, she would sit there, miles away, in front of the dial, staring at the turning hands, for all the world as if she was waiting for some particular, solemn moment before she made up her mind.’ (p. 108).

This clock closely matches the description of the clock that was so important to the laundress Gervaise Macquart in Zola’s  L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). Dimensions: width 29 cm, height 66 cm, depth 19 cm. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Antiquités Dubois, Antiquaire généraliste, 29 rue Jean Jaurès, Nantes 44000.
This clock closely matches the description of the clock that was so important to the laundress Gervaise Macquart in Zola’s L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den). Dimensions: width 29 cm, height 66 cm, depth 19 cm. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Antiquités Dubois, Antiquaire généraliste, 29 rue Jean Jaurès, Nantes 44000.
The clock without its glass dome but with its gilt pendulum
The clock without its glass dome but with its gilt pendulum

The ‘dreaming about her shop’ refers to her ambition to make herself independent and set up her own laundry, which indeed she eventually manages to do. Life looks good, she even entertains a large group to a celebratory dinner in the laundry shop.

But it was not to last, and as her life goes in a downward spiral, Gervaise is forced to bring one possession after another to the pawnbroker. She puts a brave face on it:

‘Only one thing broke her heart and that was putting her clock in pawn, to pay a twenty-franc bill when the bailiff came with a summons. Up to then, she had sworn she would starve rather than part with her clock. When Mother Coupeau [her mother in law] took it away in a little hat box, she slumped into a chair, her arms dangling, tears in her eyes, as though her whole fortune had been taken away’. (p. 279).

There is more horology in this novel. She also has a cuckoo clock, which would have been a much less valuable object, but it is never described in detail. Neither is the watch which only once makes an appearance, on the day that she is forced to put it in pawn as well:

‘The little knick-knacks had faded away, starting with the ticker, a twelve-franc watch, and the family photographs.’ (p. 384).

There is also a watchmaker who plays a small role in the story. In the courtyard of the tenement house where she lives are various workshops and shops, including – for a while – her own laundry shop:

‘At the bottom of a hole, no larger than a cupboard, between a scrap-iron merchant and a chip shop, there was a watchmaker, a decent-looking gentleman in a frock-coat, who was continually probing watches with tiny tools, at a bench where delicate things slept under glass covers while, behind him, the pendulums of two or three dozen tiny cuckoo clocks were swinging at once, in the dark squalor of the street, in time to the rhythmical hammering from the farrier’s yard’ (p. 134).

Literary critics may argue that in fiction, clocks and watches are often introduced as symbols, and that therefore novels do not necessarily give a realistic image of the ownership of clocks and watches.

Be that as it may, the story of the struggling laundress Gervaise Macquart, who dreamed of owning an ornamental clock and managed to bring one into her poor home, only to have to part with it again, feels very real indeed.

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Mr Satori fuses quartz

This post was written by Tabea Rude, Vienna Museum

Around one hundred years ago, on May 15th 1918, the newly founded, not yet opened Vienna clock museum receives a generous present: a clock movement fitted with a fused Quartz pendulum rod.

It is installed in a most prominent position: right next to the entrance, in a case with a fully glazed front. Visible to every passer-by, it draws attention to the narrow house with its hidden treasures in the heart of Vienna.

Vienna City clock museum
Vienna City clock museum

This donation was the beginning of a long lasting correspondence between the clock museum’s director Rudolf Kaftan and the engineer, donor and inventor Karl Satori.

Correspondence card from Satori to the museum director Kaftan (front)
Correspondence card from Satori to the museum director Kaftan (front)
Correspondence card from Satori to the museum director Kaftan (back): ‘Dear Professor, Thank you very much for your post card and the message that my Quartz pendulums are working very well. I wish you happy holidays and hope to see you soon. I will bring you the promised photography personally. With best wishes, engineer Karl Satori’
Correspondence card from Satori to the museum director Kaftan (back): ‘Dear Professor, Thank you very much for your post card and the message that my Quartz pendulums are working very well. I wish you happy holidays and hope to see you soon. I will bring you the promised photography personally. With best wishes, engineer Karl Satori’

Originally from Hungary, Karl Satori is first mentioned in the proceedings of the international electrical society (Internationale Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft) in Vienna aged 24, explaining Lorentz electron theory.

In the following years he delves into astronomical observation and planetary documentation and builds up professional relationships in the astronomy scene.

Satori’s drawings of the planet Mars in 1898-1899
Satori’s drawings of the planet Mars in 1898-1899

Soon he joins the international astronomical society and files his first patent in 1903: an electrical rewind system for clocks.

His professional career blossoms, allowing him to invest in his own private observatory in Vienna.

Around the same time, he is also given the opportunity by the Vienna electricity works to build up his own laboratory and to equip the Viennese Urania observatory with an electric time system which synchronized all public clocks in Vienna. This supplies the time signal as so called ‘Urania-Zeit’ to all telephone owners.

Electric time system synchronising Vienna public clocks
Electric time system synchronising Vienna public clocks
The clock room in the Urania observatory
The clock room in the Urania observatory

Besides his involvement in astronomy and several other clock related patents, he was also very keen in exploring pendulum materials and different methods of air pressure and temperature compensation.

Recognizing the unfortunate jumps steel pendulum rods experience during temperature changes and their reaction to magnetic fields, he experiments with fusing quartz into seconds pendulum rods. In 1912 he files his patent of the quartz pendulum.

The quartz pendulum as advertised in the ‘Zeitschrift für Instrumentenkunde’ September 1913
The quartz pendulum as advertised in the ‘Zeitschrift für Instrumentenkunde’ September 1913

One year later he opens his own precision workshop for mechanics and clock making. Satori expands, fuses quartz, files patents and ensures that the Vienna clock museum is placed to show the most cutting edge Viennese horological technology of its time.

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Redisplaying the York automaton clock

This post was written by Daniela Corda

Over summer 2018, Matthew Read, Director, Bowes Centre, and I were commissioned to condition survey, part disassemble, pack for transportation, and reassemble an eighteenth-century automaton clock on behalf of York Museums Trust.

Hercules, hour strike reassembly (photo  courtesy of York Museums Trust)
Hercules, hour strike reassembly (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)
York automaton clock (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)
York automaton clock (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)

Originally assembled during the 1780s, this highly ornate clock was most likely designed for the export market and – although unsigned – has long been attributed to the London inventor James Cox (c.1723-1800).

The compilation of written and photographic condition surveying helped update museum records, inform current and future care, and outline operation options.

Pop-up conservation workshop, The Burton Gallery, York Art Gallery (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)
Pop-up conservation workshop, The Burton Gallery, York Art Gallery (photo courtesy of York Museums Trust)
Reassembling the two main movements (photo courtesy of York Museums trust)
Reassembling the two main movements (photo courtesy of York Museums trust)

In its new permanent location in the Burton Gallery at York, the clock is on open display for the first time. Preventive measures were taken during reassembly such as the insertion of Melinex® film behind the case frets to restrict dust entering the case.

Under normal operation, the clock performs a 360-degree audio-visual show that includes rotating glass rods simulating waterfalls; automata pastoral scenes; spinning stars; jewelled contra-rotating flowers, and dancing cast-figures. In addition, the clock plays a sequence of seven melodies on a nest of eleven bells, striking the quarters too.

A detailed treatment report from York Castle Museum, dated 1982, indicates the clock has undergone many repairs, alterations and layers of reinterpretation, including the replacement of a pipe organ with a nineteenth-century Swiss musical box mechanism.

In its present state the clock has six main functions:

  • Clock mechanism indicating hours, minutes, seconds, 1/5th seconds, date and age of the moon
  • Quarter striking
  • Hour striking
  • Automaton musical train
  • Automaton drive mechanism
  • Swiss musical box

The majority of these dynamic elements are able to function, thanks to major renovation upon the object’s acquisition in 1974. So, although the clock can run, the overriding question is: should the clock run?

As the single dynamic historic object on show at the Gallery, running the clock adds tangible and intangible value for visitors, but comes at the cost of further cumulative damage. The present arrangement is to run the clock’s main movement, authorising the ticking sound, the hour and the quarter striking, but only to operate the automata elements at scheduled times.

Digitisation methods are being considered to build into wider conservation plans. Following prior research into microcontroller electronics, this object can benefit from implementing digital strategies such as recording audio aspects, reversibly relieving the mechanical movement from operation, and therefore wear, without experiential losses.

This ostensibly straightforward project highlighted inevitable emotional, mechanical, philosophical and conservation collections care questions. The clock can be seen at York Art Gallery with automaton demonstrations on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 14.00.

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A clock to remember the Zeppelin raids over London

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

A recent article published in Antiquarian Horology, entitled ‘A Time to Remember’, focuses on a pocket watch in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich that had been recovered from the Titanic, which sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg.

The hands indicate 3.07, presumably marking the moment the watch entered the water.

The article discusses this and other watches recovered from the Titanic and can be read here.

I was reminded of this when recently I noted a board outside a tavern in the London district of Holborn, drawing attention to a somewhat macabre relic. The pub had been destroyed by a Zeppelin bomb in 1915, and a clock found in the wreckage, marking the time the bomb had struck, could be seen inside the pub.

The Dolphin Tavern, 44 Red Lion St, London WC1R 4PF
The Dolphin Tavern, 44 Red Lion St, London WC1R 4PF
The board outside
The board outside
The clock found in the wreckage stopped at 10.40
The clock found in the wreckage stopped at 10.40
the two clocks
Inside the Dolphin

Step inside, and there it is on the wall. Next to it hangs a clock that is in better shape but lacks its movement. In a show of solidarity, both clocks stand still forever.

The clock is mentioned in a list of ‘London’s top 10 timepieces – Time Out counts down our city‘s finest timepieces’, with this comment:

'When this snug corner-boozer was leveled by a Zeppelin bomb in 1915, one of the few things to be pulled intact from the rubble was the clock that today hangs to the left of the bar, hands frozen at the hour of doom. Locals say the clock can sometimes be heard to whistle, as though imitating the falling bomb. Bollocks, says the barman.'

The clocks side by side — their hands frozen in time
The clocks side by side — their hands frozen in time

And now for something different

This post was written by David Read

In the world of watch collectors there are many who dislike finding that a pocket watch case has been engraved with the owner’s name, or to record it being given as a present. My feelings are different. An engraving not only provides a date which can be useful information, but can also point to an interesting history.

E. Howard & Co. pocket watch
E. Howard & Co. pocket watch

Late one evening in November 2000, I was watching a BBC documentary about the Yukon Gold Rush when the name Skookum jumped out at me.

In turn, I jumped out my chair because some years earlier at a NAWCC meeting in Florida, I had acquired a 14 karat gold E.Howard & Co. pocket watch retailed by Joslin & Park of Denver Colorado.

E. Howard & Co. made some of the finest watches in America so it interested me, as did the inner back which was not the same colour of gold as the rest of the case. And engraved on it were the words, 'A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22nd 1897'. It was certainly something different.

E. Howard & Co. movement, signed "E. Howard & Co. Boston.  220854"
E. Howard & Co. movement, signed “E. Howard & Co. Boston. 220854″

When the Yukon documentary finished, some quick research on the Internet led me to an email address for the Yukon Prospectors Association and before going to bed I sent questions with attached images.

E. Howard & Co. Inner cover engraving: "A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22 1897"
E. Howard & Co. Inner cover engraving: “A relic of Skookum Gulch March 22 1897″

In due course I received a reply from a member, himself a prospector who had searched for gold and experienced the thrill of finding it.

The following summarizes what he wrote:

'Gold was first discovered at Skookum Gulch by Joseph Goldsmith and his partner on 22nd March 1897, the date engraved on your watch. Arriving in the Klondike area too late to stake a claim on one of the major creeks, he prospected the feeders and found rich gold in this one. Goldsmith staked the first claim and named the stream. He, or perhaps his partner, used some of the gold to have a replacement inner cover made for the watch. The gold will be from the original panning and is significant in that it marks an historical event'.

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