Dominique Fléchon’s book “The Mastery of Time” is a weighty tome that shows just how complex the development of what we now understand as “time” has been and, by analogy, how the instruments that mankind has used to measure its interpretations of time have evolved. Its 500 lavishly-illustrated pages cover the entire history of our measurement of time, from its very beginnings to the mechanical masterpieces produced by the famous Swiss brands of today. Among our most distant forefathers are the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic period, who probably had little notion of the time of day and were content to mark the passing of each day, as carved bone fragments dating back over 20,000 years attest. After the Neolithic revolution gave birth to agriculture, however, the mastery of time took on much greater significance. Early farmers needed to be able to predict the seasonal cycle in order to plant and harvest crops at the most appropriate time. One only needs to look at monuments that seem so tremendously out of proportion to any other remnants of their age, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, to see the importance that was given to determining the solstices.
Calendars and early time measurement
As pre-history passed to history with the invention of writing, allowing civilisations to record events for future generations, the first calendars emerged. In the third millennium BC, the Mesopotamians were already using a calendar based on the movement of the sun, the cycle of the seasons and the phases of the moon. Over two thousand years later the Babylonians devised a calendar that brought the lunar months into closer synchronicity with the solar year and resulted in a 365.2469 day year that was later adopted by Judeans, Arabs and Christians.
With the sun used as a reference for the beginning and end of a day, the sundial (or shadow clock) was one of the first devices used to determine the time of day based on the shadow cast by the sun, which could be read along a scale. As an alternative for use at night-time or in cloudy conditions, the Egyptians developed clepsydras, or water clocks, from the 16th century BC. Water poured into these clocks (essentially a bucket carved with an interior scale) would empty through a hole in the bottom, allowing the elapsed time to be read off the internal scale. The foundation of Athens in 800 BC brought with it an age of education and discovery that even today continues to bring new surprises. The Ancient Greeks even produced a gear-wheel device that did not reveal its true secrets until the year 2000 after passing through a special scanner. So the mechanical theory behind the workings of a clock was already in place, but it would take another two thousand years before man could produce a driving force to power it.
The Romans experimented with several unsuccessful calendars (with the length of successive years varying by up to 30 days) before Julius Caesar effectively put out a call to tender from the leading brains in his empire. The resulting Julian calendar took a step closer to the one we are familiar with today, starting on 1 January and counting 365 days, with an extra day inserted every four years. We also have the Romans to thank for the instigation of a seven-day week with Sunday as the day of rest.
In reading “The Mastery of Time” it is at this point that we notice an immense gap between the accomplishments of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and the medieval age. The next significant invention for the measurement of time—the astrolabe—does not appear until the twelfth century and was developed primarily in the Islamic world, which only serves to highlight that civilisation (in Europe at least) descended into the Dark Ages. The astrolabe could be manipulated to obtain a “real time” depiction of the sky and, using the position of stars, could be used to measure the angle of height of a star from the horizon and thus determine latitude.
An astrolabe, used to determine the position of the sun, moon planets and stars and thus to determine latitude or time.
The clock in Salisbury Cathedral, England, which dates back to 1386 and is thought to be the earliest surviving clock.
The first mechanical timepieces
Both the birthplace and the inventor or inventors of the first mechanical clock remain a mystery. But the first manifestations of the escapement—the “missing link” that was required to regulate a turning wheel powered by weights and driving gear trains—appeared in the 1300s, with the oldest surviving mechanical clock probably being that in Salisbury Cathedral in England, which is thought to date from 1386. This first escapement was known as a verge escapement with the verge being a rod with two pallets which, when actioned by the crown wheel, give an impulse to the balance wheel (and later the pendulum) and cause it to oscillate. By the turn of the fifteenth century, the first use of springs is recorded and an historically significant document, the Almanus Manuscript, describes a collection of “horometers” with detailed descriptions and illustrations that show the existence of spring-driven pendulum clocks, moon phase displays, alarms and—for the first time—a minutes dial. The use of springs brought an obvious advantage over cumbersome weights and paved the way for the miniaturisation of the technology used, leading to the first portable clocks.
As developments once again gathered pace, the first watches started to appear at the end of the fifteenth century and were worn around a chain hung from the neck. But it was the arrival of Galileo and his pendulum escapement, which was refined and simplified by Christiaan Huygens of the Netherlands in 1656, that signalled the real birth of mechanical timekeeping. The use of the pendulum improved the accuracy of timepieces from around 15 minutes per day down to ten or fifteen seconds.
The longitude problem
The mastery of time was crucial in man’s relationship with the oceans, when it became clear that whoever could solve the “longitude problem” would have the upper hand at sea. Latitude could be used to determine a ship’s position visually when navigating inshore, but the “dead reckoning” system used to determine longitude was far from adequate and its errors often resulted in shipwrecks. A means of keeping accurate time at sea seemed to be the answer, since this could then be compared with the local noon to determine longitude.
With this in mind, king Louis XIV of France recruited Christiaan Huygens in attempt to solve the problem. Huygens had already produced clocks that were used as navigational aids on ships but his pendulum clocks could not be used to determine longitude accurately, since their operation was affected by the pitching and swaying of a ship. To avoid this he invented the sprung balance, which has ever since been used at the heart of mechanical clocks and watches.
England’s Longitude Act of 1714 established a prize fund that allocated up to £20,000 for a method to determine longitude to an accuracy of half a degree. Jeremy Thacker’s admirable attempt, a clock housed in a vacuum chamber, which he called a “chronometer”, provided the term that would henceforth be used to refer to such precision instruments, but was not accurate enough to secure the prize.
Resistance to temperature was what Thacker’s clocks lacked and it was the unassuming John Harrison who overcame this final hurdle with his series of marine chronometers, the last of which—a large pocket-watch sized H4—recorded an average daily rate of 0.834 seconds on a test voyage from Plymouth to Barbados. This was far better than the three seconds in twenty-four hours required for accuracy within half a degree of longitude stipulated by the Longitude Act.
Magnetic dial for latitude mounted on a compass. Used before the introduction of marine chronometers, 18th century.
Chatelaine watch, 18th century, designed to be worn on a belt.
Longines pocket-watch, delivered to the Romanian railways, late 19th century.
The birth of the watch industry
Once the problem of longitude had been solved, the great minds in the mechanical watchmaking world turned their focus to miniaturisation, simplification and further improvements to the mechanical watch movement. By the turn of the 19th century Abraham Louis Breguet had secured his place in history as one of the most prolific innovators in mechanical watchmaking after inventing (amongst others) the “perpetual” self-winding watch (1780), the perpetual calendar (1795) and the tourbillon (1801), preparing watchmaking for the industrial revolution.
The industrial era moved the watchmaking industry from the small “cabinets” of the Geneva watchmakers to larger factories with more automated production. Frédéric Japy was instrumental in bringing about this change. After serving an apprenticeship under Jean Jacques Perrelet in Le Locle, Switzerland, Japy set up his own business just across the border in Beaucourt, France, mass-producing movement-blanks at an unbeatable price. With Japy flooding the market with as many as a hundred thousand movement-blanks by 1801, the Swiss watchmakers reacted by setting up a factory of their own in Fontainemelon, in the canton of Neuchâtel.
With the advent of industrialisation, progress came much more quickly and the next major invention—the chronograph—came in 1821. France’s watchmaker to the king, Nicolas Rieussec, invented a device to time a horse race in Paris using two rotating dials. The pocket chronograph later opened up numerous advances in medicine (for taking the pulse), warfare (range finding) and engineering (measuring velocity).
In 1884 man took another step forward in his mastery of time when the delegates at the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. voted for the Greenwich meridian as the world’s prime meridian, confirming a reference that had been used by sailors the world over ever since Nevyl Maskelyne, England’s fifth royal astronomer, published his first Nautical Almanac, using the Greenwich meridian as a reference, in 1767. The conference also divided the world into 24 separate time zones that we use today.
Double-faced artillery pocket-watch with curvimeter and compass, 1914 (anonymous).
Dunhill pocket chronograph, c. 1910, with indications for measuring speeds of between 15 and 200 km/h.
From crisis to a blossoming future
At the turn of the twentieth century the wristwatch itself was born, opening up new challenges for the miniaturisation of the mechanical movement and heralding new uses by divers, pilots, polo players and even astronauts, as the models produced still today by some of the biggest Swiss brands attest. Within thirty years, however, the first electro-mechanical and quartz clocks had appeared and would bring about the biggest crisis that the Swiss watchmaking industry has had to face. After only twenty more years, the first atomic clock—the most precise timekeeping instrument available—was presented.
As the electronic age gripped the watch industry in the 1970s and 1980s watches could be used as alarm clocks, calculators, databases and even as a TV remote control. The traditional mechanical watch seemed to be on the verge of extinction. With high-frequency quartz watches even obtaining certification as a marine chronometer, what chance did the mechanical watch have of survival?
History has since taught us that Nicolas G. Hayek was largely responsible for saving the Swiss watch industry by tackling the fierce competition from Japan head-on with the Swatch, whose simplicity, affordability and constantly-changing designs were an instant hit and provided the financial footing from which a group of major traditional brands could resurrect themselves and ultimately become the world’s biggest watchmaking group. Interestingly, though, Swatch’s Internet time, the “Beat”, designed for our globalised and IT-dependent world, never caught on. This shows just how much we are attached to the hours, minutes and seconds that mankind has worked so hard to measure.
Pocket-watch with universal hours (diurnal and nocturnal) by Cartier, 1940.
The first watch developed by IWC specifically for pilots. 1936.
The Omega Speedmaster Professional, the only watch ever to be worn on the moon.
As the sumptuous models from Switzerland’s iconic watch brands presented in the closing chapter of Dominique Fléchon’s book show, mechanical watchmaking is going from strength to strength. Although we have largely mastered time, there is still plenty of unexploited potential in terms of the developments that can be fitted into the few square centimetres of a watch case. The revolutionary “résonique” escapement recently presented by De Bethune (see Pierre Maillard’s article “The yurt and the equation” in this issue) and the intriguing hydraulic-mechanical timepiece that will be unveiled by HYT at BaselWorld this year are just two examples of our continuous quest to make every second count on this extraordinary planet.
The Mastery of Time is the English translation of La Conquête du Temps by Dominique Fléchon and is published by Flammarion.
(www.editions.flammarion.com). Price: €75.
Reflections on Time, read more:
- Introduction: Suspended Time
- Hartmut Rosa: The acceleration of time
- The yurt and the equation
- Aphorisms on time
- The Clock: watch of the year
- Carte blanche: Eric Giroud
- Chronometry at the speed of light
- A meeting with Ottavio Di Blasi
- Carte blanche: The White Group
- Starry skies on the wrist
- Carte blanche: Alexis Guillier
Source: Europa Star February - March 2012 Magazine Issue