Many people have an old watch or clock that is a treasure; the Great Uncle who has passed along a valued memento of an armed forces war issue wrist watch or the valuable English import or maybe the complex Swiss time piece purchased "right at the factory". I am often asked about the value of a particular piece, its history, its merit historically or whether or not it can be repaired. The internet and the local library are both amazing resources that have served me well. I'll try to open some topics here for discussion, to provoke questions and to inspire the curious to learn more about the world of Horology (watch and clock making).

fancy cast caseIn North America we haven't had much opportunity to learn about Horology. In Europe, the training facilities and overseeing bureaucracies are comprehensive and require study closely related to Engineering. To be fair, there is some reportedly excellent training to be had in North America now. The international correspondence course offered by the British Horological Institute is also an excellent option. I am not affiliated with the institute in any way that would prevent me from being critical.

From the emergence of humans working with gears, the study of timekeepers has been involved. (I would appreciate any historians of Engineering being gentle in their corrections, if any.) The clepsydra or water clock, has been around for a very long time. Some accounts indicate it was around 5000 years ago. By the thirteenth century AD (making a long story much shorter) the question had begun to revolve around the regulation of the time keepers. Minute and seconds hands had yet to make an appearance. At this point the revolution was gaining momentum.

In Europe, the pursuit of time keeping and gearing had huge implications in industrial development. There is a lot of material on library shelves regarding Horology that include names like Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Abraham-Louis Breguet and John Harrison that make good reading for the curious. One of the most informative is David Landes' Revolution in Time . He documents well the grand struggle of John Harrison's remarkable achievements. They began in 1713-14 with the British offer by act of Parliament, of prizes up to £20,000 (equalling approximately eight million dollars today) to find the longitude within one degree and a great contest was begun. Scientists of the day could calculate longitude on land with what Newton reportedly said was accurate to one quarter of a degree (others said one half a degree). One degree of longitude at the equator is equal to 69 miles. This made for some substantial errors if you were out a couple of degrees.

On the rolling deck of a ship at sea however, even these results were impossible. The question of longitude was what many of the brightest minds of the time were striving to resolve. John Harrison was finally awarded the prize from a reluctant board, when in 1764 his "H.4" met the challenge and more. Once again H.4 performed admirably, with a mean error of estimate of the time difference between Portsmouth and Barbados of only thirty-nine seconds (equals 9.75 minutes of longitude or 11.2 miles at the equator, well within the best limit of thirty minutes of longitude set by the Act of Queen Anne).

In five months the clock had lost only fifteen seconds, a tenth of a second a day! 1 When the question of longitude was finally solved, the British "ruled the waves" for many years with their ability to tell time accurately and therefore navigate around and through their opponents. It also necessitated a degree of secrecy in regards to the technology. Remnants of this guarded nature are still evident in some circles. Contemporary history offers a good and dramatic yarn close to the heart of this mechanic.

1700 style fuse movement

It took place the day a restricting fly wheel on the famous "Big Ben" in London England failed and the weight began to fall down the tower, driving the mechanism ever faster until the machine literally flew apart. The resulting blow-out left remarkable scars from the rampaging machinery, permanently embedded into the stone room in which it is housed. Thankfully it is once again on duty marking the hours. Locally, we have a bit of a prize in the clock housed in St. Luke's Anglican Church. When you look at the stone tower, know that there is a proper mechanical tower clock living there, or at least there was last time I checked.

The machinery is about three feet long with a gravity escapement that acts like some kind of glorified clackety mouse trap. The pendulum looks to be made of cast iron weighing more than I would want to carry anywhere! When I viewed the clock, the caretaker made mention of his gratitude for the installation of the electric winding, as it used to be quite a chore to haul the weight from the bottom of the tower with the hand crank. It is a clock that I would guess is about a hundred years old. With it running twenty four hours a day, 8760 hours a year, the high quality is unquestionable.

If we could have our cars run as long or as well as the tower clock mentioned, it would, at 100km per hour, travel far enough to warrant an oil change every 2.5 days if you changed it every 6000 km. Many of us receive a great many hours of trouble free operation from our time pieces and never think twice about how much longer it would run with the odd tune up. So... remember to never wear your watch to bed, keep it out of the bathroom and never move a clock without removing the pendulum. Here's hoping your watch or clock will pass down through the ages with a clean bill of heath. Until next time. "There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle" - Samuel Butler Tempus Fugit (time flies)

1700 style fuse movement