Switzerland currently lays claim to the best watchmaking industry in the world but it wasn’t always thus. From 1600 to 1750, England was the king of watches. Rob Corder reports.
The period of the Scientific Revolution from the early 1500s to the late 1700s was a time of extraordinary discovery across Europe and the Far East. Intellectual giants including Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton were advancing mathematics, science, philosophy, technology and medicine at a pace never before seen.
The progress of the period was key in helping great British explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook discover new parts the globe; in particular horological advances that had their roots in the grimy streets of London were shrinking the world.
British clock making and watch making was instrumental in a swathe of technical advancements, particularly in improving navigation, so that long-range explorers could accurately plot courses across oceans.
London-based John Harrison was arguably the most famous clockmaker of the period. His greatest invention, the marine chronometer, cracked the challenge of accurately establishing the East-West position (longitude) of a ship, and earned him a prize of £20,000, which had been offered by Parliament to the first person to solve the problem.
The clock was perfected after a decade of development and testing in 1759, and proved its accuracy on two voyages to the West Indies in 1761 and 1764.
But Harrison was not the only Briton driving forward the art and engineering of timekeeping. England, and particularly London, was a hotbed of invention and innovation, and very much the forerunner of the more recently dominant Swiss watch makers.
By the time Harrison was plying his trade, the British timekeeping industry had been functioning for more than 200 years, although the work of the early 1500s was not well documented.
“The early history of the clock and watch trade in London is very obscure,” noted historian and editor William Page in his study of Victorian enterprise, Victoria County History, published in 1911. “Very little is known about the early clockmakers, and had it not been for the custom of marking the works of each watch with the name of its maker, our knowledge would have been still more scanty.”
But Page was a historian of considerable tenacity, and did document the work of several London watch makers from the 16th century and since.
Some of the most skilled clockmakers employed in England during the 16th and 17th centuries were foreigners, wrote Page. For example, Nicholas Cratzer, a German astronomer, was recorded as “deviser of the King’s [Henry VIII’s] horloges”, and lived 30 years in England. Frenchman Nicholas Oursiau, who was known to have lived in Westminster in 1568, was clockmaker to both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.
The principal makers of the time congregated in the City of London, but Soho also had an important settlement of French watchmakers. Clerkenwell was a centre for the working classes of the trade, with many streets almost wholly occupied by workmen engaged in the various subdivisions of the trade, such as escapement making, engine turning, fusee cutting, springing, secretspringing, and finishing.
In 1655, Robert Hooke, an English scientist, philosopher and architect, started to study the movement of pendulums with a view to improving them, in particular the effect of gravitational forces on their accuracy. In autobiographical notes, Hooke recorded that he had created a way to determine longitude (Harrison is more widely recognised for this achievement a century later) and with the help of Robert Boyle and others he attempted to patent it. In the process, Hooke demonstrated a pocket-watch of his own devising, fitted with a coil spring attached to the arbour of the balance.
The end of the 17th century saw the rise of the Debaufres, a Huguenot Protestant family that had moved to London from France (many Huguenot communities were driven out of France at the time by religious persecutors). Peter Debaufre was in business in Soho from 1686 to 1720 and, in 1704, in conjunction with Nicholas Facio and Jacob Debaufre, he was granted a patent for the application of jewels to the pivot holes of watches and clocks.
The most famous English name of the period was Joseph Windmill, who is considered one of the finest clockmakers in late 17th century London, and produced a considerable number of lantern clocks of all sizes and qualities. His earliest known watch was created before 1680 and did not feature a balance spring; this is his rarest watch and is displayed in the British Museum.
He later formed a family business with his son, Thomas. Both were leading figures in the emerging Clockmakers’ Company, which went on to control watchmaking in the City of London.
The Windmills plied their trade at the same time as Daniel Quare, who Invented a repeating watch movement in 1680 and a portable barometer in 1695 and it is also claimed, by him, that he adapted the concentric minute hand, although this is contested.
William Page continues his history with a who’s who of watchmakers driving the industry forward over the subsequent 150 years. Simon De Charmes, another successful Huguenot who escaped persecution with a move to London in 1688, created the De Charmes firm of clockmakers in 1688. Jonathan Lowndes, who was in business in Pall Mall between 1680 and 1700, was a celebrated maker of his day. Christopher Pinchbeck, described as clockmaker to the king, was said to have procured the first pocket watch made with a compensation curb for George III in 1766.
These were the contemporaries and competitors of John Harrison who were beaten to the £20,000 Parliamentary prize by Harrison’s marine chronometer in 1770.
Other prominent makers of this period were James Short (1740-70); John Bittleston (1765-94); Thomas Best (1770-94); Francis Magniac (1770-94); James Smith (1776-94); and William Hughes (1769-94) of High Holborn, a maker of musical clocks and clocks of curious mechanism.
London’s horologists were in fierce competition, but they were also tightly regulated and monitored by an early trade association (known as a guild), the Clockmakers’ Company, which was created by a Royal Charter of King Charles I in 1631. The guild oversaw quality control in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in much the same way as Switzerland’s Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, which was created relatively recently in 1876, operates today.
Standards in London were maintained and driven up by the Clockmakers’ Company. The Company’s original purpose was to regulate and encourage the “art and mystery” of watch and clock making together with many related skills, such as engraving, sundial making and mathematical instrument making. Its powers were generally restricted to the City of London, but in some areas extended to the whole of the UK.
In theory at least, no-one could make, buy or sell clocks or watches or any part of them within the City, unless they first became a freeman of the Company.
The period from the mid-1750s to the end of the 18th century was the most prolific and profound for London’s watchmakers, although invention of patented technological improvements gradually gave way to more artistic endeavours as the pocket watch became more important as decorative jewellery than as a functional instrument.
The year of 1796 saw 191,678 gold and silver watches hallmarked by Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, which represented the high water mark for watch sales by London makers. By 1842, the total of hallmarked watches had already declined to 99,000 as Swiss watches became more popular, even among the English aristocracy.
In the history of fine watches, almost all claims to patents and technical advancements have been contested, and many achievements by London’s pioneering watchmakers have not been conclusively attributed to one of the city’s craftsmen or companies. However, in the period from 1600 to 1750, and perhaps for another 100 years beyond, London was generally acclaimed as the greatest source of innovation for watchmaking in the world.
This article was taken from the January 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read the magazine online, click here.