Time and My Fascination With It

Horology is defined as “the study and measurement of time” and “the art of making clocks and watches.” As TBR Radio personality and amateur horologist Dr. Ed DeVries prepares for the launch of his new horology-themed podcast, which will be made available to our TBR family of readers and listeners at BarnesReview.org/podcast he submits this brief history of horology:

Time and My Fascination With It

by Dr. Ed DeVries

watchesFor millennia, mankind has been fascinated with the observation of time. From the sundial wristwatches worn by Fred Flintstone and his caveman friends to the Stührling 457.335575 hand-winding mechanical wristwatch that is on my wrist at the time of this writing, there has been a plethora of devices used by ancient and modern men to measure and display the passing of time.

Before the first mechanical clock was invented in England back in 1275 the most common time telling devices were sundials and “water clocks.”

A sundial is any device that uses the Sun’s azimuth to show the time. Sundials basically consist of a flat plate, the dial, and something called a “gnomon” (usually constructed of a rod, wire, or metal casting) which is a fixed hand that casts a shadow upon the dial. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow aligns with the different hour markers on the dial thus indicating the time. While simple enough, the sundial has its limitations. Mainly, that it has to be properly realigned in parallel to the Earth’s axis several times throughout the year or it will not be accurate. And on an overcast day, or at night, the device simply does not work at all.

A water clock is any device that measures time by measuring the regulated flow of liquid into or out of a vessel. Believed to have been invented by the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians around 1,600 BC, some historians claim that water clocks may have been in used in ancient China as far back as 4,000 BC.

While some modern devices are called “water clocks,” they work differently from the ancient ones. Governed by a pendulum, the newer “water clocks” use water for other purposes, such as turning a water wheel to supply the power needed to turn the clock’s hands.

Perhaps the oldest working clock in the world was built in 1386 and is located at England’s Salisbury Cathedral. The Salisbury clock does not have a face but it tells time by chiming the hours. In the early 1300’s, similar clocks were built and installed in churches throughout Italy.

The 14th century clocks were constructed from iron by blacksmiths. In the 16th century both the art and science of clock making advanced considerably. As a result, the materials used in clock movements changed from iron to the softer metals of brass, bronze and silver.

It was also in the 16th century that the Swiss watch industry was born when the famous reformer John Calvin passed an edict forbidding the people from wearing jewelry. Unable to make their living as jewelry makers, numerous craftsman started building and repairing clocks.  In 1574, one of these craftsmen built what is believed to be the world’s first “pocket watch.” It was a small clock built within a bronze case with religious inscriptions etched both upon the dial and into the front and back of the brass case.

The pocket watches produced in the late 16th century were not like the pocket watches of today. They did not have minute or second indices and only showed the hour.  It would be over a hundred years, 1680, before the minute hand was added. The first watches with a second hand would be built about ten years after that.

But the biggest improvement to clockmaking occurred at the outset of the 17th century when Galileo invented what was probably the first pendulum clock in 1602. Christian Huygens would pattent a similar and slightly improved design in 1656. The movements of the clocks, were governed by gravity and the motion of the pendulum. Unlike their predecessors, most of which were usually accurate within about 15 minutes a day, the pendulum clocks were often accurate to within 15 seconds to a minute each day.

As a result to the improvements in pocket watches and pendulum clocks, the 18th century began the era of common clock ownership.

With the industrial revolution came manufacturers producing clocks and watches in all shapes and sizes. For example, Sears and Roebuck began as a mail-order watch and clock catalog. From large grandfather clocks, to decorative wall hanging and smaller mantle clocks, practically every home had at least one.  The more clocks were sold, the more money and effort the manufacturers put into improving them.

Perhaps the most famous of these improvements was the invention of the “self-winding” or automatic movement in 1770 by Abraham Louis Perrelet.  In the same year, Jean-Antoine Lepine invented a thinner movement allowing watchmakers to make much thinner watches.

In the 19th century, manufacturers began to develop their own systems for replicating tools and machinery.  Mass production, primarily by watch and clock makers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, along with the use of “cheaper” materials, made what were formerly expensive items affordable to everyone.  Mass production also resulted in design changes in how pocket watches were wound.  As the previously united American nation divided in 1860, winding keys were being replaced with “crowns,” or the little stems on the sides of our watch cases that we now use to wind and set our watches.

Known as “arm watches,” the first wristwatches were built in the 1570’s but never caught on. In 1812 a wristwatch was built and presented as a gift to the Queen of Naples. This resurrected interest in them. In 1880, Constant Girard, of Girard-Perregaux, mass produced 2,000 wristwatches for officers of the German Navy.

During WWI, infantrymen complained that reaching into their pockets to check the time simply was not practical. It also meant having a pocket dedicated to their watch and thus not used to stow other gear. In response to those complaints, the various armies enlisted the help of watchmakers who developed “trench watches” which the soldier would wear on a leather strap. Most had luminous hands and indices, in other words, they glowed in the dark. Additionally, they had hard crystals that were almost impossible to crack. These watches became a standard part of the soldiers “kit” for the war front. And thus the wristwatch all but replaced the pocket watch, not just among soldiers, but throughout society as a whole.

While crude stop watches were first invented in the 1770’s, the first accurate one was officially patented by the Breitling Watch Company in 1930.

Electric, or battery powered watches, were introduced in the 1950s.  Their hands were moved by a mechanical device whose balance wheel was powered by a solenoid (basically a thin wire wrapped around a metallic core that produces a magnetic field).

Quartz watches, the type most commonly worn today, were introduced in 1969.  The big “revolution” of the quartz watch was that it removed all of the moving parts found in mechanical watches and replaced them with crystals whose vibrations were driven by a battery powered circuit. As a result, watches became more “shock absorbent.” Quartz watches also keep time with far greater accuracy while also not requiring cleaning or oiling.

While the invention of quartz watches truly was “revolutionary,” even the best of them will only last about 20 years. Most last about 10. And when a quartz movement stops working, you do not repair it, you replace it. Contrariwise, I have mechanical watches that are older than I am, which still function accurately and that I still wear regularly.

And now the 21st century has brought us the “smartwatch.” These devices, made by Apple, Samsung, and other tech companies, Bluetooth to your phone, keep track of your pulse, how many steps you take in a day, play games, take pictures, and even accept incoming phone calls.

Maybe it is just me, but there is still something about winding my watch everyday. To holding it up to my ear and listening to it tick. To watching its hands sweep around the dial. Though I probably should not have, I confess to a few occasions when I took the back off of my wristwatch to actually look at the turning of its tiny gears. Many newer mechanical watches have what they call “exhibition” or clear casebacks so that you can observe the gears without taking the back off thus exposing the movement to possible contaminants.

But I’m going to postulate that I’m not the only person who feels that way, because while quartz watches should have long ago replaced their mechanical predecessors, they simply have failed to do so. In fact, not only are the older styled non-quartz watches still manufactured, the industry flourishes. Watches today, be they made of traditional materials like silver, stainless steel, and gold; or more “space-aged” materials like titanium, carbon fibre, aluminum, platinum, silicon or even ceramic; some of these materials being used not just in the watch cases but even in the newer movements; are often far more technologically advanced than were their counterparts of just 50 years ago. With so many older crafts lost to innovation and new technology I am going to wishfully predict that mechanical watches are here to stay.

With most of the timepieces in my personal collection being “vintage” pieces made before the push of technology, I readily admit that the new watchmaking methods also fascinate me. Adding newer pieces to the old, my collection grows as time itself continues. All the while, the world’s fascination with time remains no passing concern.

Ultimately, Revelation 10:6 tells us that one day, an Angel shall declare “that there should be time no longer.”

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