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English Watchmaking

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.

Don't assume that a name engraved onto the movement of an English watch indicates who made it; usually it doesn't.

In the earliest days of watchmaking there were watchmakers such as Thomas Tompion (1639–1713) who made complete watches in their own workshops, with the help of a few assistants and journeymen, and signed them; but these are relatively rare.

During the eighteenth century, increasing specialisation resulted in a division of labour, which meant that there were dozens of specialists involved in the making of a watch, many of them working on their own separate workshops.

Making a watch was divided broadly into two responsibilities, the movement maker, who made the rough movement, and the watchmaker, who managed the process of turning the rough movement into a finished watch.

Although Tompion and his contemporary watchmakers sold watches from their own shops, which were also their workshops, the rise of pure retailers meant that by the end of the eighteenth century, English watchmakers didn't sell watches directly to the public; they sold them to high street retailers, who sold them to the public. Retailers didn't want anyone's name other than their own on the watches that they sold. English watchmakers usually quite small operations, so the retailer had the stronger hand. If one watchmaker didn't want to put the retailer's name on the watches he made, the retailer could go to another who would. There were a few exceptions to this rule, well known prestigious watchmakers whose highly finished, often complicated and always highly priced watches were in demand.

The same considerations applied to imported watches. The general practice in Britain until the mid-1920s was that it was the retailer's name that was put onto watches. For more details about this, see Names on the Dial.

Movement Makers and Watchmakers

The term “watchmaker” must be one of the most abused in the English language. Many people would assume that someone who described themselves as a watchmaker actually made watches. Nothing could be further from the truth. From as soon as there were shops that sold watches and jewellery, the terms “watchmaker and jeweller” were commonly used by high street retailers who sold watches and jewellery. These establishments never actually made watches or jewellery, the terms were used solely to impress the public. The same terms are still used today by high street retailers for the same purpose.

Although the very first watches, made in the sixteenth century, might have been made by one person, the craft soon diversified into specialisations where individuals concentrated on one aspect of the trade.

In English watchmaking, the work of manufacturing a watch became divided into two broad specialisms; movement maker and watchmaker. Rather strangely to most people's ideas, neither of these actually made watches. A movement maker made “rough” watch movement, which a watchmaker then “finished”. The end product was a watch, but no one person or establishment could be said to have made it; a watch was the end product of a long and complicated process that involved many separate specialists.

A movement maker, such as John Wycherley in Prescot, bought raw materials, brass and steel, and produced “rough movements” consisting of the “frame”, the main plates and pillars, and mobile parts such as the fusee, mainspring barrel, train wheels and their arbors.

A watchmaker bought rough movements from a movement maker and “finished” them by sending them out to various individual specialists who fitted the escapement, jewels, engraved and gilded the movement, and then fitted the dial and hands. The finished movement was put into a case made by another set of specialists working for a case maker.

There was a good reason for the division between movement makers and watchmakers; roughing out parts from raw materials required heavy machinery and was dirty work, whereas the processes of finishing were more delicate, requiring concentration, and were better done away from heavy machinery.

The Beginnings of Watchmaking in England

From Southern Germany watchmaking gradually spread across Europe to the low countries and France. There was no watchmaking in England before 1570 and the English watchmaking industry most likely began with clockmakers servicing or repairing German, Swiss or French watches, and then making watches of their own, training up apprentices who could do parts of the work and gradually building up workshops of skilled workers. There were probably makers like this in many provincial towns, but of course the greatest demand and concentration of skilled craftsmen was in the capital, London.

There was an influx of Huguenot refugees into England from France following the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685) which revoked the Edict of Nantes and abolished all legal recognition of protestantism in France. Amongst these refugees were skilled watchmakers, which stimulated the nascent English watchmaking industry. In the seventeenth century, English watchmakers came to dominate the supply of fine quality watches and English watches were the best in the world, highly priced, much sort after and imitated.

Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), known as the father of English clockmaking, made very fine clocks and watches, and many of his apprentices went on to become important makers themselves. Tompion's associate George Graham continued this work after Tompion's death. One of George Graham's apprentices was Thomas Mudge, who invented the lever escapement around 1755.

Although the very first watches in the sixteenth century had been made by individuals or small teams, they were mechanically simple and not very good timekeepers. The introduction of the balance spring in 1675 transformed watches into useful timekeepers. By the end of the seventeenth century, individual workers had begun to specialise in certain aspects of the trade. This led to a rise in the number of people employed. By 1690 Tompion was employing up to 20 workmen at his workshop in Fleet Street, the "Dial and Three Crowns". In the section of Rees's Cyclopaedia devoted to Clocks, Watches and Chronometers published in 1807-1818, William Pearson listed thirty four different principal crafts that were involved in the process of making a watch, many of which were further subdivided.

Making or Finishing?

By the end of the seventeenth century watches were “made” on the division of labour principle, where separate specialists would each do one part of the work, the watch being passed round to each one in turn. For example; one person would fit jewel holes and do nothing else, and another person would attach and shape the balance spring and do nothing else. These two people were utterly incapable of doing each other's work.

This was also true for dozens of individual highly skilled but very specialised craftsmen who made all the individual parts of the watch, often in their own workshops. Some specialised in aspects of finishing the movement: jewelling, engraving, gilding etc. Others made ancillary parts such as the case (which on its own a required a team of individual specialists), the dial, the hands etc.

This was a highly complex interlocking web of craftspeople that could only exist in the few main centres of London, and later Liverpool and then Coventry, where there was a conglomeration of workers with the necessary skills.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, most English watches began as a collection of raw materials that had been machined close to the finished sizes and were supplied as rough movements, consisting of the “frame”, the top and bottom plates separated by the pillars, together with the mainspring barrel, the fusee and the train wheels mounted on their arbors. There was no escapement, balance and balance spring, and no jewels; these were added during the finishing process. For many years the town of Prescot near to Liverpool had a monopoly on the supply of rough movements, but in the late nineteenth century rough movements began to be made in Coventry.

The person who organised the work of “finishing”, purchasing the rough movement and passing it out to the various specialists who gradually turned it, step by step, into a finished watch, was called the “watch maker” although he might not have made a single part of the watch himself. He also almost never put his name onto the movements or finished watches. Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were the manufacturer.

Rees on Watchmaker
Rees' “Cyclopædia” on the term Watchmaker c1820 Click image to enlarge.

Retailers liked to style themselves as “watchmakers”. Perhaps this harked back to a time when there had been someone in the business who actually made watches and set up a shop to sell them, like Tompion and his shop in Fleet Street in the seventeenth century. But there were many more retailers who never made anything that they sold and just liked the grand sound of the title “Watchmaker”. This is still the case today, when high street shops call themselves “Blah, Blah and Co. Goldsmiths, Jewellers and Watchmakers” even though there is no one in the organisation who has ever smithed any gold, set a jewel, or made a watch.

In Rees' “Cyclopædia”, The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, published in the years leading up to 1820, William Pearson discusses the term “watchmaker” as shown in the image here. The text looks a little odd to modern readers because it uses the long form of the letter "s", ſ, which looks like an f without the crossbar, at the start and in the middle of words, as was the practice at the time, with the normal form of s used at the ends of words.

The mention of the evidence presented to a committee of the House of Commons, that materials costing less than sixpence in their raw state were manufactured into watches worth £100 and more, was the reason that a tax on watches and clocks that had been introduced in July 1797 was repealed in March 1798.

The Craft Method of Watchmaking

Traditional English watches were not made by individuals, they were made by large communities of workers, each of which was a specialist in one particular aspect of the work. Rough movements were made in Prescot, Lancashire. These were then “finished”, turned into finished movements, by communities of individual specialists; most of the work was in the finishing. These communities were based in London, Coventry, Liverpool and Birmingham; all large cities.

Hand crafted movements often varied in size meaning that the cases had to be individually fitted to each one, unlike American watches that were from the start made in standard sizes and could have their cases interchanged, and were often fitted with a customer's choice of case by the retailer. Later standard sizes were adopted so that cases could be "made to blocks", pieces of metal the same outer size and shape as the finished movement.

Clerkenwell watches were almost entirely hand made using simple tools that hardly changed over centuries, using traditional hand skills passed down over the generations. For instance, theoretical epicycloidal principles, expounded on the continent by Camus, say that pinion leaves should have radial flanks to the dedendum with semicircular addenda while the wheel teeth should have mitre shaped acting profiles. An editor of an English edition of Camus' work that was published in 1842 received the following comment: In Lancashire they make the teeth of watch wheels of what is called bay-leaf pattern; they are formed altogether by the eye of the workmen; and they would stare at you for a simpleton to hear you talk about the epicycloidal curve. This, however, is at odds with a statement by Professor D. S. Torrens that the first tooth cutters of true epicycloidal form were made by the Prescot clockmaker and toolmaker, Thomas Leyland, about the year 1800. These were made on the orders of William Hardy to epicycloidal patterns that Hardy had created.

Identifying the "Maker"

In an attempt to prevent forgeries and counterfeits, a statute William III, 1697-8, An Act for the exporting Watches Sword-hilts and other Manufactures of Silver, required that from 24 June 1698 all clocks and watches should have engraved on them the name and place of abode of the person who made them, or who caused them to be made. If the maker was well known, such as Tompion, then their name on the piece would add to its value. But if the maker was not well known, the allowance that the person who caused a clock or watch to be made could put their name put on it allowed a retailer, who would be better known to his customers than a little known maker in a far off town, to have his name put on.

The vast majority of English made watches of the nineteenth century do not carry the name of the person who made them; instead the name of the retailer who ordered the watch and sold it in his shop was engraved on the movement, and sometimes enamelled onto the dial. The exceptions to this rule are a few well-known makers whose reputation for high quality work added to the value of the watch. These are easily identified. If a watch carries an unknown name, one that is not associated with a well known watchmaker, then the name is almost certainly that of the retailer.

In the nineteenth century trade the term the trade was broadly divided into movement makers, who made rough movements, and watchmakers, who organised the finishing of a watch from a rough movement and other parts such as hands, dial and case, into a complete watch. Their names almost never appeared on the finished watch.

In the earliest times the name of the retailer was engraved directly onto the movement top plate. Later it was engraved onto a removable plate that was fixed to the top plate over the mainspring barrel. This “barrel-bar” was originally introduced to make it easy to remove the mainspring barrel without dismantling the whole movement so that a broken mainspring could be replaced. It soon became the usual place to engrave the retailer's name, because that could easily be done at a late stage in the making of the watch or even after the watch was complete.

If the engraving was not done at the time the watch was being made, it was sent out with the barrel-bar blank so that the retailer could add his own name, or his customer's name later. Sometimes it is obvious that this has been done because the engraving cuts through the gilding, or the plate has been re-gilded and is a different colour to the rest of the movement. Sometimes the cost of engraving was not justified; the barrel-bar was left blank and the watch carries no name.

It is very rare to find on an English watch the name of the person who actually “made” it. One of the reasons for this is the way that English watches were made, which meant that there was no one maker in the traditionally understood meaning of the word; it was more of a team effort.

English watches were almost all made entirely using craft methods, hand tools and simple hand powered machines, and the system of “putting out”. Each part was made or finished by an individual craftsman working in his own home or small workshop, often working for several different customers.

By the nineteenth century watches usually began as rough movements, consisting of the frame, the main plates separated by pillars, and a few other parts such as the spring barrel, fusee and train wheels on their arbors. These were mostly made at Prescot in Lancashire by a number of specialised companies, many by John Wycherley, an English pioneer of mass production, until Coventry started to make rough movements in the late nineteenth century.

The rough movements were sent from Prescot to the traditional watchmaking centres of London, Coventry and Birmingham to be “finished” into working movements and then fitted with dials, hands and cases. Sometimes this was done by someone who directly employed journeymen and apprentices to do the finishing, but many watches were made by the process of "putting out" - sending the part finished watch to various specialists working in their own homes or small workshops to have each stage of the work completed. This person might have considered themself to be the manufacturer, even though their role was organising the work rather than actually making any of the parts.

Most often the name of the retailer, the shop keeper who had ordered the watch to be made, was engraved as if they were the manufacturer. In the days before mass advertising, a local retailer was someone well known and trusted by customers in the local area, whereas they would never have heard of the. The name was usually engraved on the barrel bar, a small plate above the mainspring barrel that could be easily removed for this work. Often watches were sent out with the barrel bar blank so that a retailer could have his, or his customer's, name engraved on it.

Most English watches have a serial number on the top plate. This is often the watchmaker's serial number, although some retailers had their own serial numbers engraved on the top plate, with the watchmaker's serial number being marked on a part of the movement not seen by the customer. The origin and purpose of serial numbers on English watches is not known. Thomas Tompion was one of the first to put serial numbers on his clocks and watches, and since he was regarded as the father of English watchmaking perhaps others simply followed his practice.

It is not possible to work backwards from the serial number to discover who was the manufacturer. Unless you know who made the watch, and have access to the factory records (which is unlikely), you cannot discover anything from the serial number alone.

Mr W. E. Tucker, 1933
Mr W. E. Tucker, 1933: Click image to enlarge

Some of the best known London makers did establish a sufficient reputation for their name to be valuable and be put onto the movement or dial, but many of the hundreds, or even thousands, of small "makers" are unknown. Even the best English makers did not always put their name on their work, the retailers preferring that if any name appeared it should be theirs. Appearing in 1887 before a Select Committee considering amendments to the 1862 Merchandise Marks Act, Mr Joseph Usher, of the very renowned London watchmaking company Usher and Cole, said that ... it is very seldom that our names appear on the watches that we make.

Speaking in an interview in 1933, Mr W. E. Tucker, who had worked at Williamsons, attributed this to the attitude of British retailers, who wanted to put their own name on the watches that they sold.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century a few English watch manufacturers, the best known being Rotherhams of Coventry, introduced mechanical methods of manufacture and produced enough watches to be known by name, but their production quantities were small compared to the American factories, and they suffered from too little investment too late, being unable to keep up with changing fashions and finally swept away by Swiss imports and the wristwatch.

This makes it all rather difficult if you decide you want to collect English watches and pursue a theme to the collection – say if you wanted to make a collection of Rotherhams watches to see how the styles and technology changed over the years. Unless the vendor recognises the movement as being made by Rotherhams, they will list the watch under the retailers name. Sometimes a search on ebay for "Rotherham" can have surprising results, such as a watch listed as "Mint Silver Fusee Rotherham Massey 1 Pocket Watch 1828" which turned out to be signed "William Farnill Rotherham" who turned out to be a retailer in Rotherham. In "Reminiscences of Rotherham", Alderman George Gummer, J.P., records that on the High Street in Rotherham was "... the shop of an eccentric old man named William Farnill, who carried on a mixed business, dealing in confectionery, toys, watches and jewellery - a curious combination. This shop, always popular with the younger generation, had in it a proprietor who was a greater curiosity than his wares." Needless to say, this watch has nothing to do with Rotherhams the Coventry watch manufacturer, and neither was it "made" by William Farnill, whose name was engraved on it by the anonymous finisher.

When English watches were exported to America, the name of the eventual retailer was not known so fictitious names were made up. In an article in Antiquarian Horology June 2009, Alan Treherne wrote about George Clerke, a London manufacturer who supplied watches to provincial watchmakers and jewellers and also exported many watches to America. Clerke gave evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1817 about the practice of putting fictitious names on clocks and watches. Clerke used fictitious names such as Fairplay, Fondling and Hicks on watches he exported to America - an invoice to Demilts of New York USA was reproduced in the article showing these names on watches supplied by Clerke. English made cases were expensive and so many "bare" movements, that is they were without a case, were sent to America and cased there.

So collecting English watches looks a bit like pot-luck. But you can improve your chances of getting what you want by leaning the characteristics of the watches you are after, the layout of the top plates and the sponsor's marks of the watch case makers for silver and gold cases. But even then, finding something specific is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

So Who Did Make my English Watch?

If you have an English watch that does have a name on the dial or engraved on the plates and it is not the name of one of the small number of well known English watchmakers that can be easily researched, then it is most likely to be the name of the retailer who ordered the watch to be made and sold it in their shop, or sometimes the name of the customer who bought the watch. This is the case for the vast majority of English made watches.

Many retailers called themselves "watchmakers" although they were not watch manufacturers and did not actually “make” the watches that they sold. The term watchmaker undoubtedly originally meant someone who made watches, but by the eighteenth century the trade of watchmaking had been divided into many separate branches and no one person made a whole watch, although someone who had completed an apprenticeship should, in theory, have been capable of making all the parts of a watch. People who made parts for or repaired watches started called themselves watchmakers, and then also those who only serviced watches, and finally jewellers who simply ordered watches from the manufacturers started calling themselves watchmakers.

Sometimes it is possible to discover the identity of the movement maker who made the rough movement by looking for initials on the bottom or pillar plate, the plate underneath the dial. An example of these are the initials JW for John Wycherley of Prescot, an English pioneer of mass produced rough movements. Click this link to see a watch with a Wycherley movement. If you have the watch serviced, which you certainly should do if you intend to use it, then ask your watchmaker to take a photograph of the plate for you.

If there is no name on the dial or engraved on the movement, then the watch was "made" by one of the small "makers" whose name was not sufficiently well known or celebrated to be worth the expense of engraving it onto the plate, and the retailer didn't have his name engraved, probably for reasons of cost.

If there is a serial number on the watch, that will almost always be a number put on by the watch "maker" rather than by the retailer.

Who Made the Watch Case

It is often easy to find out something about the making of a watch case, because for hallmarking purposes a sponsor's mark had to entered at the assay office and each case punched with this mark before it was submitted for hallmarking. Sometimes this can lead to the name of the watch manufacturer if they were large enough to have a case making department, such as Rotherhams of Coventry. But often it only gives the name of an independent watch case maker, working on his own account for anyone who cared to place an order with him. Sometimes it can be completely misleading, because manufacturers would punch the sponsor's mark of someone who had nothing to do with making the items, such as a retailer.

The term “maker” is loaded with misunderstanding. Watch case making had its own specialists and a case maker would employ many journeyman workers: the case maker who made the basic structure of the case, soldering together the band and case back, the joint maker who made the "joints" (hinges of the case), the springer, the pendant maker, the polisher, and the "boxer in". So each case was the result of a team of specialists rather than the product of a single "maker", and the owner of the enterprise probably never laid his hands on a case day to day. The use of the term “maker's mark” in the context of hallmarking has contributed to this misunderstanding over many years, which is why the term "sponsor's mark" is preferred.

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Technical Developments

In England the verge remained the most used escapement until the nineteenth century when it was superseded by the lever escapement, invented by Thomas Mudge around 1755. On the continent the virgule and then the cylinder escapement were widely used, partly because they gave better timekeeping than the verge, and partly because they allowed a thinner, flatter, watch to be made, which was more fashionable.

The subsequent history of the lever escapement after its invention by Mudge is still subject to debate. It was not immediately taken up by English makers, although continental watchmakers such as Breguet did use it. Josiah Emery, a Swiss national who had set up business in London, made a watch with a lever escapement modelled on the Mudge design in 1782, and between then and 1785 made around 30 such watches. John Leroux, also working in London, created an improved lever escapement that included "draw". This is a safety feature that positively pulls the lever onto the banking pins, making the action of unlocking more certain at the expense of a slight increase in the energy required for unlocking. Leroux's escapement did not retain oil well on the escape wheel teeth and was abandoned.

In 1791 Peter Litherland of Liverpool was granted a patent for the rack lever escapement, which proved to be robust and popular and was made in large numbers, but was not a detached escapement.

The first really successful English attempt at a detached lever escapement was made by Edward Massey. Beginning around 1812 he developed a lever escapement having a roller on the balance staff with a projecting tooth or pin that moved the lever on each swing. The design went through several versions before arriving at one with a jewelled impulse pin. By the 1820s this design had matured into the lever escapement with table roller, and a second smaller roller was added to separate the safety action from unlocking and impulse, giving the classic design of English lever that was used throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

In the wake of Tompion, Graham and Mudge were many other fine watchmakers, and in the eighteenth century English watchmaking was pre-eminent. English watches were regarded as the finest available and much imitated and copied. At some stage in the mid-eighteenth century London makers stopped producing watches from scratch, and started to use rough watch movements (ébauches or rougn movements) made at Prescot, near to Liverpool. These were supplied in batches to watchmakers in the Clerkenwell district of London, the centre of British watchmaking, and in smaller numbers to watchmakers in other cities such as Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool. These "watchmakers" finished the movement by arranging for the train to be planted and jewelled and fitted with the escapement, and added dials, hands and cases.

During the eighteenth century the industrial revolution had resulted in the increased use of labour-saving machinery and reduced the demand for manual labour. The Napoleonic Wars made the economic situation worse due to the government raising taxes to pay for the war (income tax was introduced as a "temporary measure"), rising food prices and unemployment caused by wartime trade restrictions. When the war ended in 1815 Britain was left deeply in debt and in a serious economic depression. In 1817 a select committee of the House of Commons investigated condition in the British watchmaking industry and found that it was in a terrible state.

Samuel Smith submitted the following evidence to the committee by letter: Since I last had the honour of seeing you in London, in October, 1815, I have travelled all through North and South Wales (three times since the double duty on plate licences) and I find the trade is getting much worse every journey, in consequence of the enormous duty on plate; for I find all through the country they are giving up their licences, for it will not answer to pay 4l.12s. per annum to sell but three or four watches in the course of the year; there are but few vendors of watches in the country through which I travel, who sell more than the above statement; and I, by getting orders from these different people, have for a number of years employed from thirty to forty men; at the present time, I do not employ ten, and I think the principal cause is owing to the duty on plate; I have formerly sold on this journey (which is about a thousand miles in circuit) more than five hundred watches, and that will regularly employ from fifty to sixty hands. If the duty on plate was reduced to its former amount, it would give great relief to our trade, and would ultimately bring in more to Government, for you will find by the number of people who will give up their licences, the duty will ultimately fall very short; I have not the least doubt, there will be as many as three out of four who will give them up. Smith goes on to list many towns in the Midlands and the North of England, and in Wales, and relates the terrible state of trade and high levels of unemployment in all of them.

This evidence is interesting because of its insight into how watches reached provincial retailers and the numbers of watches that they sold, many of them only three or four watches a year.

Watch design in England had improved significantly by the 1820s by which time English watchmakers developed a design of watch with a movement that had a detached double roller lever escapement. This became known as the "English lever" watch and it remained in production for over eighty years. At the time of its introduction it held a very high reputation, but it was not developed as time passed, and remained almost entirely hand made. Because of the fusee it was almost impossible to be made with keyless winding, and many were made that were key wound and set years after the introduction of the modern form of keyless winding and setting in the 1840s, which made the English lever watch appear increasingly old fashioned towards the end.

English makers continued to use the fusee, which had been abandoned by the Swiss in favour of the simpler going barrel and was never used in American factory production. The complexity of the fusee added substantially to the bulk and to the cost of making an ordinary watch without significantly improving its accuracy, although it was useful in watches and chronometers where very high accuracy was required. But English watchmakers clung to the fusee because they thought the public recognised it as the sign of a good watch, even though the public probably didn't have a clue what a fusee was or why it was important and were voting with their wallets and buying imported watches Swiss and American watches in increasing numbers.

The “free trade” movement led to a reduction in duties on imported watches. Up to 1840 import duty on watches was charged at 25% and huge numbers of watches were smuggled into the UK. In 1842 under Robert Peel the duty was reduced to 10% and the declared value of imported watches rose more than tenfold from £5,085 to £52,622. The lower duty meant that the cost and risks of smuggling were less financially viable and so watches were imported through normal channels. In 1860 Gladstone removed the duty on imported watches altogether. It is impossible to say whether the number of watches entering the country actually increased as some have said, or remained constant, with watches that previously would have been smuggled now being declared as imports.

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Division of Labour

Division of labour means the assignment of different parts of a manufacturing process or task to different people in order to improve efficiency. The watch industry was one of the first to make extensive use of division of labour, to breakdown the manufacture of a watch into steps that could be carried out efficiently.

Workmen (it was almost invariably men) trained for years on how to make a single part, and then made that part over and over again, every day for years on end. In this way they got very good and very quick at it, but almost invariably they couldn't make any of the other parts of a watch. For example; one person would fit jewel holes and do nothing else, and another person would attach and shape the balance spring and do nothing else. These two people were utterly incapable of doing each other's work.

Most workers were self employed, or employed only a handful of apprentices and workers, and tools were hand held, and usually hand or foot powered. There were at least a dozen major branches and each specialism was in turn further subdivided. The industry was well described by Aaron Dennison, the father of the American watch industry, in the following quote, but the structure of the English watch industry remained on the same lines from the late seventeenth century until the eve of the First World War and the same account could have been made at any time from then:

The party setting up as a manufacturer of watches bought his Lancashire movements - conglomeration of rough materials - and gave them out to A, B, C, D, to have them finished. A, B, C, and D gave out the job of pivoting certain wheels of the train to E, certain other parts to F, and the fusee cutting to G. Dial-making, jewelling, gilding, motioning, etc. to others, down almost the entire length of the alphabet; ...

The section of Rees's Cyclopaedia devoted to watches was published in Volume 37, Vermes – Waterloo, in 1817 or 1818. The section was written by Reverend Dr William Pearson (1767–1847), a Founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He listed thirty four different principal crafts that were involved in the process of making a watch. Almost all of these were further subdivided, many into a large number of subdivisions.

The principal divisions of the craft were the making of the rough movement by a movement maker and the subsequent “finishing” of this movement by a watchmaker. Other important subsidiary components made by separate specialists were the watch case, the enamel dial and the hands. The following extract is from Volume 39 of Rees's Cyclopaedia, edited slightly for clarity.

The best watch-movements are made at Prescot, in Lancashire, by persons called movement-makers, who furnish the movement complete to the London watch-makers. The following is a list of the principal workmen employed in manufacturing a movement, previously to its coming into the hands of the London watch-maker.

  1. The frame-maker, who makes the frame; that is to say, the two plates, the bar, and the potence.
  2. The pillar-maker, who turns the pillars, and makes the stud for the stop-work.
  3. The cock-maker, who makes the cock and the stop-work.
  4. The barrel and fusee-maker, who makes the barrel, great wheel, fusee, and their component parts.
  5. The going fusee-maker, who makes the going fusee (maintaining power).
  6. The centre wheel and pinion-maker, who makes the same.
  7. The small pinion-maker, who makes from pinion wire the pinions of the third, fourth, and escapement wheels; and in the case of repeaters, the pinions of the repeating train.
  8. The small wheel-maker, who makes the third and fourth wheels, and the wheels of the repeating train for repeating movements, and rivets them to their pinions.
  9. The wheel-cutter, who cuts the wheels.
  10. The verge-maker, who makes the verge of vertical watches.
  11. The movement-finisher, who turns the wheels of a proper size previously to their being cut, forwards them to and receives them from the wheel-cutter, examines all the parts as they are made, to see that they are as they should be ; and finally completes the movement, and puts it together.
  12. The balance-maker, who makes the balance of steel or brass.
  13. The pinion wire-drawer who draws the pinion-wire.

The movement, in the state in which it is sent to the London watch-maker, consists of the frame, composed of two plates, connected together by four or five pillars, as the case may be, which pillars are riveted to one of the plates called the pillar-plate ; the wheels, consisting the great wheel attached to the fusee, the second or centre wheel, the third and fourth wheels, the fusee and barrel, potence and stop-work, which latter are attached to the upper plate, (so called in, contra-distinction to the pillar-plate,) but the potence screwed to it is between the plates; and lastly, the cock screwed to the outside of the upper plate.

The following is a list of the principal workmen employed on a watch to complete it from the state in which the movement is received from Prescot.

  1. The slide-maker, who makes the slide.
  2. The jeweller, who jewels the cock and potence, and, in a more forward state of the watch, any other holes that are required to be jewelled.
  3. The motion-maker, who makes the motion-wheels and pinions and the brass edge; and, after the case is made, joints and locks the watch into the case. (The brass edge separates the dial from the pillar plate and forms a recess that houses the motion work.)
  4. The wheel-cutter, who cuts the motion-wheels for the motion-maker.
  5. The cap-maker, who makes the cap.
  6. The dial-plate maker, who makes the dial.
  7. The painter, who paints the dial.
  8. The case-maker, who makes the case.
  9. The joint-finisher, who finishes the joint of the case.
  10. The pendant-maker, who makes the pendant.
  11. The engraver who engraves the name on the upper plate; and also engraves the cock and slide, or index, as the case may be.
  12. The piercer, who pierces the cock and slide.
  13. The escapement-maker, who makes the horizontal, duplex, or detached escapements; but the escapement of a vertical watch is made by the finisher.
  14. The spring-maker, who makes the mainspring.
  15. The chain-maker, who makes the fusee chain.
  16. The finisher, who completes the watch, and makes the balance spring, and adjusts it.
  17. The gilder, who gilds the watch.
  18. The fusee-cutter, who cuts the fusee to receive the chain.
  19. The hand-maker, who makes the hands.
  20. The glass-maker, who makes the glass.
  21. The wire-drawer, who draws the wire for the balance springs.

The springs of a hunting-case are made by a separate workman called a secret spring-maker. Single cases (not hunting-cases) are frequently made to open with springs; pairs of cases (the old-fashioned box and case) are sprung, lined, and polished by a workman called a springer and liner; the better description of single cases and hunting-cases are polished by a person simply called the polisher: this is sometimes done by women, particularly by the wives of some of the case makers; and this is the only branch of the trade, probably, in which women are employed in this country.

Many of these tasks involved the work of more than one person, or were further subdivided, especially as more machinery was introduced into the process. For example, the pillar plate had numerous holes bored through it and sunk into it, which would be done by different operators on separate machines.

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Watchmaking in 1893

In the Horological Journal of April 1894 are the questions for the 1893 City and Guilds Institute examinations in watch and clock making, to which Mr T D Wright of the BHI added such answers as appeared likely to satisfy the Examiner. One of Mr Wright's answers gives an insight into the processes of English watchmaking that were very old fashioned by 1893. Although some English manufacturers had adopted mass production by automatic machinery before 1893, there were still many small businesses where the traditional methods of turning a rough moment into a finished watch by the out-work of individual specialists which Mr Wright describes were still being practised.

Question 4. Enumerate the successive stages in the “manufacture” of a key-winding ¾-plate watch. State them in the order in which they would be most conveniently accomplished.

The stages listed by Mr Wright in his specimen answer below are those carried out by the “watch maker” after the rough movement was received from the movement maker. These may be compared with the specialist occupations listed above from Rees's Cyclopaedia, published more than 70 years earlier.

Mr Wright's specimen answer to question 4. The rough movement is examined to see that all the necessary parts are complete and correct, the [serial] number given to it stamped on the plates and cock; the holes in the pillar plate for the dial feet are drilled (if not already made by the movement maker) in such positions that the feet shall not be in the way of other pieces ; the dial is then made to fit the pillar plate; the balance cock is then lowered, if necessary, to the proper height, and the balance holes are jewelled. In the meantime the balance may be made, a suitable pair of pallets and escape wheel selected, and the escape pinion carefully sectored to the fourth wheel to see that it is of a proper size. These parts are now given to the escapement maker, together with the pillar plate, cocks, bars, and dial. He first marks the position of the escape wheel, noting particularly the correct position of the seconds hole, and has the escape wheel holes jewelled. He then makes the escapement and has the pallets holes jewelled. The finished escapement is now removed from the frame and carefully placed in a separate box, and the two plates, with balance cock and dial, are given to the case maker. When the case is made, the frame and case are given to the motion maker, who supplies and plants the motion wheels and set-hand arbor, and fixes the movement to the case, with a bolt and joint if a double bottom case, with a joint and pin if a dome case. While the motion maker is doing this the index may be made to the balance cock and the mainspring made to the barrel, and the movement is now ready for the finisher, whose duties are more numerous than any of his predecessors. He has to thin and true the train wheels, have them gilt or polish them, pivot and finish the pinions, run them in, i.e. plant them in their proper positions, pivot and finish the fusee, have it cut and fit the chain, fit the mainspring and do the barrel work, finish and fit the stop work, make the balance-spring-stud and collet, drill and finish the index, polish the bolt, motion wheels, set square and cannon-pinion ; harden, temper, and polish all the screws ; have any jewelling done that is required for the train wheels, have the engraving done and get all the brass work gilt. In the meantime the case can be sprung and polished, and, if necessary, engine turned or engraved; if the watch has a gold dial this can also be engraved. All the parts are now given to the examiner, who goes carefully through all the work that has been done, making the final corrections that are always necessary to bring the separate processes into harmonious adjustment, fits the hands, shortens and polishes the squares, opens the winding holes in case, fixes the movement in the case, poises the balance, applies the balance spring, regulates the watch, and gives all those final touches required before the watch is ready for the wearer's pocket.

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Springing and Timing

At the end of the process was the person who made and fitted the balance spring and brought the watch to rate, adjusting it for equal rate in different positions and temperatures. This person was called the “springer and timer” and it was the most difficult and skilled job of the lot, effectively turning what was a simple gearbox and escapement into a working and accurate timepiece. It was more of an art than a science, even today the dynamics of the balance spring have not been fully analysed. It is an extremely complex four dimensional system that is difficult to model. The men who fitted and adjusted balance springs learnt their trade and practised it by long hours of trial and error.

Springing and timing was the longest stage in the production of a chronometer; making an adjustment to the spring, observing the rate over 24 hours, making another adjustment, observing the rate again, over and over again until the machine was perfect. One can imagine this going on for day, weeks, months even. Sometimes troublesome machines were put to one side and returned to months later.

Chamberlain relates meeting the son of James Ferguson Cole, who said that he could not afford to be a watchmaker like his father but instead confined himself to ... the more lucrative branch of springing and timing. Judging from the description of his house it must have been very lucrative work. I was struck by the contrast between the obvious wealth of Cole junior and that of Dicky Doke, who was said to have cut practically all the wheels for English chronometers over 50 years. The image in “Mercer Chronometers” of Doke after his retirement smoking a pipe does not imply wealth.

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Pierre Frédéric Ingold and Watchmaking by Machinery

The first attempt to establish in England a factory where watches were made largely by machinery rather than hand craft work was made by Pierre Frédéric Ingold in 1842-43. This was resisted and finally defeated by conservative English watchmakers. Ingold and his supporters attempted to set up a company called the "British Watch and Clockmaking Company" but this ultimately failed with heavy financial losses to some of its backers.

The failure of the Ingold enterprise, and subsequently similar ventures in America which also failed due to the large amounts of capital required to set up a factory making watch parts by machine, caused British watchmakers to shy away from making watches by machinery, although ironically when Dennison was successful in America, the memory of Ingold was revived by some in an attempt to show that England had been first in the field.

Speaking in 1933, Mr W. E. Tucker, who had worked for Williamsons, remarked “The introduction of machinery in this country has been a matter of very great difficulty, largely because of the hostility of the old school of watchmakers. Mention of that takes me back to the time when there were serious disturbances in Clerk- enwell, sabotage and rioting were indulged in, and a good deal of antagonism was shown to firms who were progressive enough to want to instal machinery.”

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Mass Production : The Gauged and Interchangeable Principle

American watchmakers were the first to achieve mass production of watches. By using specially designed machines the American factories could produce almost every part of a watch mechanically, and those parts could be assembled into a working watch without further finishing. Swiss manufacturers recognised that this was a severe threat to their industry and adopted American machine methods of production, calling it the "American system", also referred to as the "gauged and interchangeable" principle.

The fundamental problem with making mass produced items is making the parts to such accuracy that any part will fit where it is intended to go without any further work. This gets more difficult as the parts get smaller and the allowable errors in the dimensions, called tolerances, get tighter. Automatic machines can be created to machine hundreds or thousands of parts that are ostensibly identical, but as the cutting tools wear the dimensions of the parts will vary. This is less of a problem today because tools are made from steel alloys or carbides that are very wear resistant, but in the nineteenth century tools were made from hardened carbon steel and wear was a severe problem.

In a watch the most demanding point of fitting is the pivots of the train wheel arbors in their bearings. The difference between a good fit and a poor one is measured in hundredths or even thousandths of a millimetre. When watches were made by hand, the fit was established by trial rather than measurement, the worker would turn down the pivot until it would nearly enter the hole, and then would remove small amounts by burnishing or polishing until it went fully in and "felt right". But this was not possible when machines were used to make parts automatically that needed to fit into other parts without any extra work.

A machine that mass produced parts would be set up by a tool setter to make the parts the right size, and then the parts produced checked against accurate gauges. Once tool wear resulted in the parts going out of the allowed tolerance on the size, the machine would be stopped and reset. Any parts that were the wrong size were simply scrapped.

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The Decline of English Watchmaking

Before the Americans shook up the industry there was a sort of unwritten agreement between the English and Swiss. The Swiss mass produced cheap watches for the mass market by craft methods using low wage labour, often using low paid women and children. The English produced small numbers of expensive, high quality, watches by similar craft methods but using more expensive, time served and exclusively male, labour. From the middle of the nineteenth century, English watchmaking came under increasing competition from high quality American, and then Swiss, watches using mass produced machine made components and assembled by cheaper semi-skilled labour. Most English watchmakers were either reluctant or unable to adopt machinery and mass production methods of manufacturing. Large amounts of financial capital were required to purchase machinery, which took years to pay back on the investment, and the many smaller makers working on the craft system of “putting out” simply did not have the sort of money or scale or operation necessary to make the investment.

Writing in 1887, David Glasgow, Vice President of the British Horological Institute, said I have seen, lately, watches made in Coventry, both by the splendid machinery of the Messrs. Rotherham and others made on the old system, and for quality and price they would compare favourably with any watches I have seen ; but on inquiring into the condition of the producers of the latter, it was quite evident a decent existence could not be maintained on their earnings : therefore, competition with foreigners under such circumstances is neither desirable nor possible. The “old system” referred to by Glasgow was the method of putting out; sending round a partially completed watch to various specialists working in small workshops, often in their own homes, where operations were performed by hand, or on hand or foot operated machinery.

Those English manufacturers who were either unwilling or unable to modernise and carried on in the same way, came under increasing downward pressure on price from the mass produced competition from home as well as abroad but were trapped in an industry and way of work and life that was all they knew. In 1891 the Horological Journal reported that wages and prices were low in comparison to other trades and that really skilled watchmakers were doing ... beautiful work for prices that a bicycle repairer would have a good laugh at. In such circumstances, young people didn't follow their parents into the trade and found work in the new industries of the bicycle and motor car, and the old ways died with the retirement of their practitioners.

Only a few larger manufacturers such as Rotherhams were able to put up a fight, but even these “large scale” English manufacturers were tiny operations compared to the massive integrated American factories, or the highly divided Swiss system where hundreds if not thousands of small manufacturers were tied together in a productive web of activity. Many towns in the Swiss Jura mountains were almost entirely dedicated to the production of watch parts and the assembly of these into finished watches. In Das Kapital, first published in 1867, Karl Marx described the very high division of labour in the Swiss watch industry and said that La Chaux-de-Fonds was a "huge factory-town" such was the extent that it seemed every part of the town was involved in the industry of making watches. Individual companies competed against each other to produce parts of the watch better or cheaper, producing economies of production due to specialisation and division of labour. Against the economies of scale of these competing systems the English factories could not remain profitable and, one by one, closed or changed direction into other areas of manufacturing.

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Swiss Complications

English watchmakers prided themselves on workmanship, but they could not compete with companies in Switzerland that added attractive extra features, known as “complications”, to watches. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

English watchmakers were certainly capable of producing these complications if they put their minds to it, and had done so in the seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth century the capability had disappeared from England and English watches were being sent to Switzerland, most likely to an area that specialised in timepieces with complications called the Vallée de Joux.

In 1887 a Select Committee of the House of Commons took evidence about English watchmaking from Mr Joseph Usher, of the very highly renowned London company Usher and Cole. The answers Mr Cole gave to two questions are very illuminating.

Q: Now, with regard to the very high class of watch with split seconds, chronographic minute repeaters, perpetual calendars, and so on ; is it a fact that those watches cannot be made in England? Mr Cole: Not these complications; but the movements can be made in England, in fact, we make them now, with not more than 10 percent, of foreign work in them, minute repeaters.

Q: Will you explain to us what happens? Mr Cole: It is sent to have the repeating work put on it. The watch itself is made in England ; the movement is made in Lancashire ; we finish and escape the watch in Clerkenwell; and everything connected with it, the keyless work and all that is English, with the exception of the repeating work.

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Watch Production in English Factories

Although the vast majority of English made watches were made by the system of putting out, there were some factories established that made watches entirely in house. In the Winter 1996 issue of Antiquarian Horology, D H Bacon estimated production for some of these factories between 1870 and 1930, when watchmaking in England had effectively ceased.

I have tabulated below the summaries of his data for machine production in factories. Note that the first date given is that when machine production began, although some of the companies, e.g. Rotherham & Sons, could trace their history a long way further back than this. The data was mainly inferred from serial numbers seen on watches rather than from factory records and therefore cannot be assumed to be absolutely accurate, but it gives an idea of the relative scale of the English watch factories.

CompanyApproximate DatesProduction
The Lancashire Watch Company1888 – 1910900,000
The English Watch Company1871 – 1897200,000
William Ehrhardt1856 – 1923775,000
Rotherham & Sons1856 – 1930425,000
J W Benson1892 – 1941Unknown
H Williamson Ltd.1897 – 1931600,000

The scale of output of the English factories was much smaller than that of the Swiss or American. The American Watch Company of Waltham between 1852 and 1900 had produced around 10,000,000 watches, and by 1957 when production ceased had made around 35,000,000 watches.

Paris Exhibition 1878

A letter from a correspondent at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 gives an interesting list of what he regards as the leading English watch manufacturers of the time, and also perhaps a hint that the decline of English watchmaking had begun, at least in its reluctance to take on and compete with foreign competition.

The Paris Exhibition, 1878

THE English section is a favourite resort of all classes of foreign visitors, and to judge from the numerous comments to which I have listened from day to day, I am enabled to say that they are not only highly gratified, but often surprised, at the vast amount of skill and progress embodied in the exhibits of our country. I regret, however, that this eulogium does not apply to our watchmaking and jewellery display. Sir John Bennett, G. E. Frodsham, M. Riego, and V. Kullberg are the only representatives of the English watch trade. Either of the makers just mentioned are quite capable of sustaining the reputation which first-class English work enjoys ; but what we wanted was to show the world what English watch manufacturers can do for the million. Where is Coventry and Birmingham? Some time ago, one of the leading Swiss watch manufacturers told me that England would never be able to manufacture a watch suitable for the pocket and purse of the British workman. Fully anticipating that such makers as the English Watch Company, Wallen, Michael, Newsome and Yeomans, Rotherham, Cowen, Badgers, Hill, and others would be represented here, I promised to show him some work with the price and quality of which he would be astonished. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed : none of these firms have shown up, and my opponent is more than ever convinced of the truth of his assertion. Our representative watch manufacturers have no doubt valid reasons for absenting themselves from this magnificent show ; but I think it a great mistake. As it is, the British Horological Section is no where in comparison with France, Switzerland and America.

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Watchmaking Centres

English watchmaking began in London but later centres arose in Liverpool and Coventry. In the eighteenth century these were supplied with rough movements for finishing by specialist manufacturers in Prescot in Lancashire. The rough movement included the plates, pillars, fusee, spring barrel and train wheels and other basic components, but they needed to be jewelled, fitted with escapements, engraved, gilded, fitted with dials and hands and put into watch cases before they were ready to be sent to the retailers.

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Watchmaking in London became centred in Clerkenwell. At the end of the eighteenth century the annual output of watches from London was almost 200,000 pieces, but this declined steadily throughout the nineteenth century as competition from Switzerland and America took increasing market share.

The Clerkenwell watchmakers continued to use time-served skilled workers and traditional handcraft methods, with movements passing through the hands of twenty or more specialist trades, the working parts being hand fitted to each movement, plates engraved and gilded, etc. It was very rare for all these specialists to be brought together "under on roof", that is in a factory. It was more usual for each craftsman to have his own small workshop, often within or as an extension to his house. The part finished movements were sent from one workshop to another for the various stages to be completed. Craftsmen also rarely worked for only one watch finisher, so work from one had to wait its turn while a job for another was completed.

Although the London watchmakers never adopted modern methods of working and gradually died out, there were sporadic attempts to introduce the American system into British watchmaking.

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Watchmaking in Coventry rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, finishing rough movements sourced from Prescot in Lancashire made by movement makers such as Wycherley. The industry expanded and eventually all the parts of the watches, including the rough movements, were made in Coventry.

The origins of watchmaking in Coventry are obscure. In 1727 George Porter, watchmaker, was Mayor of Coventry, also in 1745 and 1753. Rotherhams, who became Coventry's biggest watchmaker, could trace their origins back to 1747. The trade gradually grew until in 1860 there were 90 manufacturers employing 1,250 men, 667 apprentices and 30 women. The industry was at its peak between about 1850 and 1890, when 100,000 watches were made during busy years, about twice as many as the London watchmaking district of Clerkenwell was then producing.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there were several attempts in Coventry to change over from the craft methods of hand making and finishing to using machines to make parts, adopting the new methods of machine production known as "the American system". These were led by Rotherham and Sons, who were very successful in adopting the new manufacturing methods, and H. Williamson Ltd.

The Coventry Cooperative Watch Manufacturing Society was a group of previously independent traditional Coventry hand-craft watch finishers who banded together in 1876 to gain the benefits of the combined resources and purchasing power of a larger entity.

Many Coventry watchmakers got their rough movements from Prescot until 1889 when the Lancashire Watch Company was founded. Fearing that their supply of rough movements would be cut off, in March 1889 some Coventry watchmakers set up their own movement manufacturing company called the Coventry Watch Movement Company or Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company.

Rather than just rough movements for others to finish, this company appears to have made finished movements ready to be cased, but soon found that Coventry's new bicycle and then motor industries were more profitable and, like many Coventry watchmakers, diversified away from watchmaking and was eventually amalgamated into the Coventry Gauge and Tool Company.

Watchmaking Areas of Coventry

Although Coventry had a long history of watchmaking it was on a small scale before the middle of the nineteenth century. Spon Street, a thoroughfare in the centre of Coventry that had been an industrial area since medieval times, was the first location in the city to harbour watchmakers. Rotherham & Sons and Newsome & Yeomans were on Spon Street, as were other smaller watchmakers and watch material suppliers. Rotherhams and Yeomans remained in Spon Street. The Coventry Watch Museum Project can be found on Spon Street today.

In the nineteenth century the centre of Coventry was overcrowded and unhealthy, so as watchmaking in Coventry increased in importance and prosperity, some watchmakers moved away from the city centre to other areas. In order of their development, these were:

Coventry Production

In the late nineteenth century Coventry watchmakers were making twice as many watches as Clerkenwell in London. These were mainly for the cheaper end of the market, although about one third went overseas, particularly to India and Australasia where American and Swiss exports failed to dominate the markets in Britain's overseas territories. Some could aspire to the highest quality precision work. In 1889 a list of the 26 watches with the highest marks in the Kew Observatory trials included four Coventry watchmakers. Fridlander had four watches in the list, one of which gained 89 marks. There were three by Joseph White, two by Rotherham and Sons, and one by Newsome and Company.

At the peak there were around a hundred Coventry watch manufacturers, from large companies like Rotherhams down to very small operations, supported by three to four hundred smaller firms carrying out specialist operations, making parts and cases. The smaller companies were all working in the time honoured craft tradition in small workshops without power, or at home by piece work, performing operations by muscle power alone.

The Americans, followed by the Swiss, adopted machinery to carry out repetitive tasks quickly and cheaply. Most Coventry watch manufacturers and their suppliers were either unwilling or unable to modernise and carried on in the same way, under increasing downward pressure on price from the mass produced competition but trapped in an industry and way of work and life that was all they knew. In 1891 the Horological Journal reported that wages and prices were low in comparison to other trades and that really skilled watchmakers were doing ... beautiful work for prices that a bicycle repairer would have a good laugh at.

The formation of the Lancashire Watch Company in 1888, which took over many of the movement makers and had the object of becoming a manufacturer of complete watches, caused Coventry watch manufacturers concern that the supply of rough movements might be restricted or prices forced up. In 1889 the Coventry Watch Movement Manufacturing Company was established to produce movements in order to reduce reliance on supplies from Prescot. Although Rotherhams by then made every part of their watches, there were still a large number of enterprises in Coventry that depended on rough movements from Prescot. The enterprise was not a great success and had to become, in part, a Coventry agency for the Lancashire Watch Co. By the end of the nineteenth century the writing was on the wall. Dwindling demand for rough movements and opportunities to supply parts to the bicycle, and later motor car, manufacturers meant that the company dropped the "Watch" part of its name and by 1914 was no longer making watch parts. Business was more successful in these new areas and the company continued until the 1970s.

By the eve of the First World War the number of Coventry watch manufacturers had dwindled to thirty, supported by around 120 specialists, mainly individual craftsmen working in workshops in their own houses. The adoption of the wristwatch by many men during the First World War was a change that small companies did not have the capital to invest in, and the depression of the 1920s that followed the short post-war boom finished the industry off completely.

Watchmaking in England continued to decline throughout the rest of the nineteenth century as Swiss and American imports took greater and greater market share. The spiral downwards was a mixture of a lack of investment which prevented modernisation, downwards pressure on prices as the Swiss and Americans increased the degree to which they could produce components by machine, resulting in low wages leading to few wanting to enter the industry.

The last few English watch manufacturers staggered on until the First World War of 1914 to 1918 gave rise to a new fashion for the wristwatch, which the English industry in general did not make, and could not afford to tool up to make, and so the last manufacturers closed down or diversified into making parts such as speedometers and petrol gauges for the new motor industry. For a while Rotherhams bucked the trend and made some wristwatches in the inter war period, but the writing was on the wall and they increasingly diversified into more profitable engineering activities. They appear to have ceased watch production in Coventry before WW2.

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Prescot, Lancashire

In the first part of the eighteenth century, watches were made in and around Prescot by individual watchmakers as they were in many towns and cities around the UK. By the end of the eighteenth century the practice of individuals making entire watches had been replaced by the system of “division of labour”, where individual workmen specialised in the making of a single part or a small number of parts, and watches were the end result of the work of many of these specialists.

Prescot in South West Lancashire near to Liverpool became a centre of manufacture for horological tools, and collections of parts that constituted rough movements that were sent to Clerkenwell in London to be “finished”. Rough movements were also sent from Prescot to Liverpool and to Coventry to be finished.

For details of some Prescot companies, go to English Companies -> Prescot.

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Liverpool was an important centre of watch finishing with a large export trade to the Americas.

For details of some Liverpool companies, go to English Companies -> Liverpool.

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Birmingham was a large industrial city in the West Midlands with an extensive jewellery manufacturing industry. Rather strangely for such an important centre of manufacturing it had very little in the way of watch makers.

For details of some Birmingham companies, go to English Companies -> Birmingham.

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English watches

Fusee verge movement - click image to enlarge

Early English watches developed from watches imported from the continent or made in England by migrants from the continent. They used spring driven verge movements that were derived from small spring driven table clocks. The timekeeping of the first spring driven timepieces was found to be strongly affected by the strength of the impulse to the balance so in the fifteenth century devices were invented to even out the power of the spring and deliver constant force to the balance. There were two devices, the stackfreed and the fusee. The stackfreed consisted of a spring with a roller on its end that bore on a cam attached to the mainspring barrel. This operated by opposing the power of the spring during the first half of its unwinding and then assisting it during the second half. It was used for a relatively short period. The fusee was a cone shaped pulley that was connected to the mainspring barrel by a gut line or chain. This operated by the chain pulling on a small diameter section of the cone when the spring was fully wound, and then on progressively larger diameters as the spring unwound. The fusee continued to be made in English watches into the twentieth century. The next significant step forward in watch technology after the fusee was the application in 1675 of a fine spiral spring to the balance to give it a natural frequency.

The layout of a fusee verge watch is to a large extent determined by its technology. There are two plates between which most of the moving parts are fitted. The verge staff extends through the top plate where it carries the balance. The top pivot of the verge turns in the balance cock, the lower pivot in the potence, a bracket that hangs down from the top plate and also supports the inner end of the escapement or crown wheel. The outer end of the crown wheel is supported by the counter-potence. These design factors mean that a verge watch pretty well has to be a "full plate" design, which means that the upper plate is the same size as the bottom or pillar plate.

The first photograph here shows a low grade fusee verge movement. You can see that the top plate is a full round plate with a small additional plate above the mainspring barrel. The balance cock that supports the top pivot of the verge staff is pierced and engraved, this one pretty crudely, more expensive watches had better quality work. The round head of the cock is slightly larger than the balance itself and protects it from clumsy fingers, or the key when the watch is being wound. The large foot is located by two steady pins and secured to the plate by a single screw. A strange detail is that one side of the foot of the cock has been cut away to clear one of the pillars that separate the two plates.

The plate over the barrel is engraved "Jno Head, Binham" with the serial number 29858. Brian Loomes' "Watchmakers and clockmakers of the world" tells us that there were two John Heads, father and son, in Binham, a small village in Norfolk. Binham Priory Churchyard records show that John Head senior was born 23 March 1753 and died 9 March 1816. A second John Head is recorded in the Binham records without dates, but Loomes records that the son John Head was born 1787 and died 1847, so there was quite a range of dates when this watch could have been made. It was, however, not made by either of the Heads. In common with most English watches it was engraved with the name and location of the person who was going to sell it. The engraving of the marks next to the regulator scale, with a pattern of four arrows all facing one central point, indicates that the watch was finished in Coventry, and the serial number is that of the manufacturer. It does not show that the Head family sold nearly 30,000 watches in one small Norfolk village!

Even though this is a low grade and "relatively" cheap watch it would still have been an expensive purchase at the time. This movement is rather dull and dirty because it has been hanging about without a case for a long time, which indicates that it originally had a gold case that has since been melted down for its bullion value. The brass parts of the movement were gold plated by a method called "fire gilding". Gold was dissolved in boiling mercury to form a putty like amalgam that was spread onto the brass parts. These were then heated so that the mercury evaporated and left a layer of gold on the surface. Fire gilding produces a beautiful effect that modern electroplating does not really replicate, but of course the mercury fumes were deadly and this method of gilding has not been used for a long time. The balance cock has also been elaborately pierced and chased by hand.

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Design developments

Around 1764 Jean-Antoine Lépine of Paris designed a new layout for the pocket watch that was much thinner than had been made previously. He replaced the vertical verge staff and crown escape wheel with horizontal escapements such as the cylinder or virgule, which allowed him to move the balance from outside the top plate to between the plates so that it was in the same plane as the train wheels, with its bottom pivot in the bottom plate. He also dispensed with the fusee and used a going barrel. To make his thinner movements easier to construct and maintain, instead of a full top plate Lépine used separate bridges to support the top pivots of the arbors, a design called a bar movement by English makers. Continental watchmakers followed Lépine's lead and the modern watch was born.

Full plate movement - click image to enlarge

Although the cylinder escapement had been invented in England and patented by Edward Barlow, William Houghton and Thomas Tompion in 1695 and improved by George Graham, most English watchmakers continued to make watches with verge escapements. Those that were interested in improving watches thought that the cylinder, with its constant friction, was not much of an improvement over the verge and so cast around for other, better, designs with less friction. Thomas Mudge invented the detached lever escapement in 1754 but it took nearly 75 years for the lever escapement to sweep all other movements off the board, at least as far as English watchmakers were concerned.

Around 1825 the fully developed form of the English fusee lever escapement emerged into English watchmaking. It was not patented, and its inventor (if it had a single inventor) is not known. To begin with it looked very much like the fusee verge movement that it superseded, with a full top plate and the balance above the plate, pivoted in a large balance cock screwed to the plate. So similar was the layout of the two movements that fusee verge movements could be converted to lever escapements with little trouble.

The photograph here shows one of these full plate English lever movements. You can see that the overall construction has changed little from the fusee verge movement, with the exception that the balance cock is much smaller and plain, and it now carries the regulator.

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The “English lever” watch

English lever movement
An English lever movement. Click image to enlarge.

Between about 1814 and 1826, English watchmakers developed and brought to perfection a type of watch escapement that was to remain in production for over eighty years until it was made uneconomic by machine made watches. Its manufacture was unique to England and it enjoyed almost legendary status. The term “English lever watch” was understood throughout the world in the way people now understand “Rolls Royce”. It was a hand made watch that defied attempts to mechanise its manufacture. It was almost impossible to apply keyless winding, which made it very old fashioned towards the end.

The “English Lever” has three main identifying features.

  1. The English lever escapement. The lever escapement was invented in England by Thomas Mudge in 1770. Mudge made only two watches with this escapement. Developments slowly followed until the final form was achieved in the eighteenth century. The English lever escapement consists of a jewel pin on a roller on the balance staff, the lever itself with two pallets, and the escape wheel. The pivots of these three are laid out at right angles. As the balance swings back and forth the pin on the roller enters a fork on the end of the lever and knocks the lever from one side to the other, and each time this happens a tooth of the escape wheel is released. The escape wheel teeth are pointed, the pallets have concealed jewels, usually rubies.
  2. The Fusee and Chain. This ancient device keeps the acting force of the mainspring constant as the watch runs down. The spring is contained in a barrel. A fine chain connects the barrel to the cone shaped fusee. When the watch is run down all the chain is wrapped round the barrel. As the watch is wound, by using a key to turn the fusee, the chain is drawn off the barrel onto the fusee. It first fills the largest diameter groove at the base of the fusee, then filling the grooves to the smallest diameter at the top until a stop finger is lifted into the path of the stop piece. As the watch unwinds the force exerted by the spring decreases, but the acting radius of the fusee increases, keeping the force on the wheel train constant. The bottom of the fusee incorporates maintaining power invented by John Harrison in 1753.
  3. The case with fixed inner dome. The watch is wound through the dome after opening the case back. The movement is accessible from the front with a hinge at 12 o’clock and a nail-catch at six, as shown at English Lever Case. The dustcover can be released by sliding the crescent-shaped locking piece. Support the weight of the movement while doing this.

In the image of the partly dismantled English Lever movement here is annotated to show the steel lever, impulse notch and the pallets. As the balance (not shown) oscillates through the neutral position, the impulse pin on the roller mounted on the balance staff enters the impulse notch and moves the lever. This causes the locking pallet to disengage from the escape wheel, allowing one tooth of the escape wheel to pass before the other pallet locks the wheel again. The English Lever escapement is called "right angled" because the pivots of the escape wheel, lever and balance form a right angle.

English lever wheels - click image to enlarge
Diamond endstone
English lever rose diamond endstone

The internal parts of an English watch movement were also beautifully finished. The photograph here of the wheels in the train of the English lever watch shown above, dated by the hallmark in its case to 1833, gives an idea of the workmanship that was deployed. The steel pinions are superbly finished and polished, even on the ends of the leaves and with dished and polished centres. This finish was purely for decoration that only another watchmaker or watch repairer would ever see. This would have added considerably to the cost of the watch with no benefit to the purchaser in timekeeping or external appearance and I must admit that I am always amazed by it. Tradition and pride in workmanship was a feature of English watchmaking, the flip side of which was conservatism and resistance to change, and also to making economies so that watches could be cheaper. The English watch was always expensive, and remained so even when cheaper competitors arose and eventually stole its market.

Watch jewelling was also pioneered and brought to a high art by English watchmakers. The picture here is of a balance staff endstone from the same 1833 English lever watch. The setting is blued steel. The jewel is a rose diamond, a hemispherical diamond with the curved upper part cut in triangular facets. This was purely for decoration, the working face of the stone was the flat base. The diamond was brazed to the steel setting and the two were polished on the underside together. There is more about watch jewelling at jewels.

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Centre Seconds Chronographs

Centre Seconds Chronograph with 14,400 vph escapement: Click image to enlarge.

In the late nineteenth century, centre seconds chronograph watches became quite popular in Britain.

These watches had a slide on the case band that caused a strip of metal to press against the balance staff, stopping the balance. This caused the watch to stop keeping time when the chronograph function was used. There was no means of setting the seconds hand to zero, or recording more than one minute, which made them rather inconvenient to actually use as stopwatch. They were probably popular because people liked the appearance of the dial, with its large, sweeping, centre seconds hand, rather than because they wanted to use them as chronographs (much like the enthusiasm for chronograph wristwatches today).

The movements of these watches were designed with the second wheel, which is usually the centre wheel, offset, so that the fourth wheel could be planted in the centre of the movement. The fourth wheel rotates once a minute and, in a movement with a conventional layout, it carries the small sub-seconds hand. By moving the fourth wheel to the centre of the movement, the seconds hand could be made longer to sweep the full radius of the dial rather than a small sub-dial. If the watch is key wound and the hands are set from the back, it is easy to see that the second wheel is offset because the set hands square for the key is offset, or the opening for the key is not in the centre of the dome.

When arbor of the fourth wheel carries a centre seconds hand, the movement is called a “direct” centre seconds. This arrangement avoids the fluttering of the seconds hand of an indirect centre seconds arrangement. It is sometimes said that direct centre seconds was a twentieth century Swiss innovation, but that is wrong.

The dials of early chronographs of this type were marked out with a track of 240 divisions around the edge, such as the one in the photograph here of a watch with a sterling silver case with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1878 to 1879. The use of 240 divisions was because the movement has a 14,400 vph escapement which ticked four times per second or 240 time per minute. The elapsed time could therefore in theory be read to an accuracy of ¼ of a second. The 14,400 vph escapement was an old design, but the newer type of escapement operating at 16,200 vph made 4.5 ticks per second and 270 per minute, which was obviously inconvenient for a chronograph and does not appear to have been used.

Observations suggest that chronographs with 14,400 vph escapements and 240 divisions on the dial were based on traditional English movements with fusees, and that chronographs with 18,000 vph escapements and 300 divisions on the dial were based on going barrel movements.

Lecomber's Decimal Chronograph

On 13 Sept 1875, John Lecomber, a wholesale watch manufacturer of Liverpool, registered under the Merchandise Marks Act (1862) a “Decimal Chronograph” having a dial with a track around its outer edge marked out in 300 divisions. This dial was to be used with a movement having an 18,000 vph train, which ticks five times per second or 300 times per minute, hence the 300 divisions of the outer track.

An 18,000 vph movement usually has an escape wheel with 15 teeth. During one full revolution of the escape wheel, each tooth must pass both the entry and the exit pallet, meaning that 30 ticks are required to complete one revolution. Thirty ticks at five ticks per second takes six seconds, so the escape wheel revolves once every six seconds. Lecomber claimed as part of his design an escape wheel pinion with 6 leaves working with a fourth wheel having 60 teeth, giving a 10:1 gearing ratio. This results in the fourth wheel turning once in 60 seconds, taking 300 steps. Six leaves on the escape wheel pinion and 60 teeth on the fourth wheel are unusual, seven leaves and 70 teeth are the usual counts.

Watches made by Lecomber have “Decimal Chronograph Registered 13 Sept 1875” on the dial, and usually have Lecomber's name on the movement and his sponsor's mark of the initials JL incuse on a hallmarked case. Lecomber said the invention had been very profitable to him. He chose the name “Decimal Chronograph” because instead of the 16,200 vph movement, which made nine ticks in two seconds, the 18,000 vph movement he used made 10 ticks in two seconds. After the passing of the Trade Marks Act of 1875, Lecomber registered “Decimal Chronograph 13th September 1875” as a trademark on 31 May 1876.

In 1883 Lecomber spotted, in the window of Mrs. Samuel’s shop in Market Street, Manchester, a watch not made by him which had “Decimal Chronograph” on the dial. Mrs. Samuel was Harriet Samuel who founded the chain of high street shops today called H. Samuel. Lecomber had a friend purchase the watch and then took legal action against Mrs. Samuel, which was stayed after she paid Lecomber £115, a lot of money in 1883.

Lecomber discovered that the watch in question had been made by Edwin John Hollins, a Coventry watch manufacturer, using a movement made by Joseph Preston of Prescot. However, it was Hollins who was making watches with the words Decimal Chronograph on the dials so Lecomber indicted him under the 1862 Merchandise Marks Act for the misdemeanour of issuing a false trade mark with intent to defraud, which carried a penalty of a fine or up to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

The case of Lecomber v. Hollins was first heard on 27 June 1883 by the city magistrates of Coventry. A witness by the name of Williams, from the town of Bury in Lancashire, stated that since 1879 he had paid Lecomber a royalty of half-a-crown a watch to use the name decimal chronograph on his own “Improved Decimal Chronograph” watches. However, William Payne, Joseph Flint and Joseph Franklin, all watch dial makers of Coventry, stated that the names Patent Chronograph, Decimal Chronograph and Marine Chronograph were widely used on the dials of watches made in Coventry, and had been for many years. In defence, Hollins' lawyer said that the words “decimal chronograph” were merely a description which could not form the subject of a trade mark, and quoted a case under the Trade Marks Registration Act, 1875, in which the Master of the Rolls held that words which simply described something could not be registered.

The case created quite a stir in the trade. On the 3rd of July 1883 a meeting of about 50 watch manufacturers was held at Coventry, under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Radges, of the Butts, and a resolution was passed that those present sympathised with Mr. Hollins and resolve to assist him in defraying the expenses for his defence. The case was reported in the Horological Journal of August.

The case eventually ended up at the Warwickshire Summer Assizes on the 2nd of August 1883 before Mr. Justice A. L. Smith, where the judge and jury agreed with the reasoning that the words “Decimal Chronograph” were purely descriptive and that, since the dial had also carried the name H. Samuel, there had been no intention to defraud. The action against Hollins was dismissed without the case for the defence even being heard.

Regestered [sic] Aug. 4th 1885

Watches are sometimes seen with the wording “Decimal Chronograph” and “Regestered [sic] Prov'ly Aug. 4th 1885”. This is a bit of a mystery, there can hardly have been anyone in the trade that did not know about Lecomber v. Hollins. There was also no such thing as a provisional registration; under the Merchandise Marks and Trade Mark Acts something was either registered or it was not. The wording probably means that an application for registration had been submitted but, given the prior events, it most likely would have failed to be accepted.

Swiss Chronographs

Some nineteenth century pocket watches are seen with the words “Patent Chronograph” on the dial and movements which have cylinder escapements, which means that they are of Swiss origin. It appears that one or more Swiss manufacturers decided to cash in on the interest in Britain in chronograph movements. These are almost certainly not the subject of a patent and the wording on the dial is false. Perhaps the Lecomber v. Hollins court case persuaded them that it was acceptable to apply this wording, although it is most likely a false description.

An 18,000 vph chronograph watch with London Assay Office hallmarks for 1887 to 1888 in the case and “Swiss Made” on the movement has been seen with a right angle lever escapement. The three quarter plate movement looks very much like an English made watch, without the Swiss Made mark it could easily be mistaken for an English watch.

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Kew Watch Trials

The Kew watch trials now have a separate page at Kew Watch Trials.

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Dutch Forgeries

Arcaded minute track: click to enlarge
Geneva balance bridge: click to enlarge
London hallmarks 1768/69: click to enlarge

The watch in the images here is of a class that used to be called Dutch forgeries. The dial has an arcaded minute track that was popular in Holland at the time and hence such watches were once thought to have been made there.

Typically, such watches have a continental movement with a bridge secured by two screws rather than a cock secured by a single screw for the upper balance staff bearing, they are engraved with an English sounding name and London, and have a sterling silver case with English hallmarks.

It is now thought that these watches were made from ébauches (movements) that were brought into England from Geneva. The ébauches might have been imported in a rough state and finished in England, in much the same way as later rough movements from Prescot were finished in London, Coventry and Liverpool. Although the watch cases often carry English hallmarks, it is not known whether they were made in England or imported.

The case of the watch shown in the images contains a watch paper with the town name of Oldenzaal, a city in the eastern province of Overijssel in the Netherlands, so it is possible that this watch was made in Holland by fitting a Swiss movement into a hallmarked English case, although by the time this watch was made, around 1768, the export of English cases was against the law. In 1698 an Act of William III made it illegal to export from England watch cases without movements, justifying this by saying that great quantities of empty cases had been exported to foreign countries where they had been fitted with bad movements carrying the names of London makers and the watches sold as English. So it appears that this probably did happen before 1698, but whether it continued after the export of empty watch cases had been made illegal must be doubtful.

The same Act of William III said that because counterfeit names, and also the names of the best known London makers, had been put onto bad watches in England, anyone making or causing to be made a watch should put on it their own name and place of abode, and made it an offence to put on any other name.

The dial has an arcaded minute track, where the pattern of lines with bars across that looks rather like a railway track is formed into outward sweeping curves between the minute numbers. This is reminiscent of an arcade, a covered passage with arches along one or both sides. The hands are gold or gilded and a fancy shape which was more used on continental watches than English.

The balance staff top bearing is in a bridge rather than a cock. The bridge is secured to the top plate with two screws, rather than the cantilevered balance cock with a single securing screw that was more usually used by English makers. The shape of the balance bridge of this movement looks like an ébauche made by Japy of Beaucourt in France, near to the Swiss border. In the eighteenth century Japy set up a factory to mass produce movements for clocks and watches and supplied these to Swiss finishers to be made into watches.

The balance bearing in the bridge is a plain hole without an end piece. Sometimes these movements have a steel plate for the end piece to take the end thrust of the balance staff, although this one doesn't. An English watch would usually have a jewel bearing and diamond end stone for the balance staff. The use of jewels by English watchmakers during the eighteenth century was one of the areas where they were ahead of continental makers, for more details about this see my section watchmovement jewels.

The movement is engraved "John Worke London". This could be a fictitious name or it might be a genuine London watchmaker. Loomes "Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World" lists a "John Worke London 1760-85" which is the correct date range for this watch. A search of the web revealed several examples of watches signed John Worke London, all with the same continental style balance bridge. One auction house even says "John Worke was active from 1760-85 making Dutch style watches". Other names used on Dutch forgeries include Wilter, Tarts, Walker, Potter and May.

The hallmarks in the case are genuine London Assay Office marks. The lion passant is correct for sterling silver and the leopard's head is a design that was introduced in 1756. The date letter is the "black letter capital N" of 1768 to 1769. The sponsor's mark "HT" is not recorded in most reference books because the London Assay Office Register of 1739 to 1758 when this mark must have been entered is missing. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is probably the mark of Henry Cleaver Taylor, free of the clockmaker's company in 1746, although it might possibly be Henry Teague.

It is possible that this is an English made case rather than an imported case. The cases of watches like this sometimes have the sponsor's mark of someone who is not known to be working as a watch case maker. It is most likely that these cases were made by someone who was not a member of the goldsmiths' guild, who asked a guild member to submit the work for assay and hallmarking under their own registered mark. The practice was called "colouring" by the Goldsmiths' Company and any guild member found guilty of it would be fined heavily. However, it did happen.

On the basis that the Act of William III of 1698 made it illegal to export empty cases, it seems likely that the sterling silver case was made, assayed and hallmarked in London. From the information in Loomes it seems likely that the name John Worke and London are genuine. It thus appears that Worke was importing ébauches from France / Switzerland and finishing them in London, and having them cased by a London case maker. These watches were probably exported to Holland and other countries where English watches were known better by name than appearance.

Watches with this type of movement are also seen in silver or gold cases without British hallmarks. These were most likely made, finished and cased in Switzerland / France.

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The Term "Chronometer"

In the HJ for January 1994 on page 250 is an article describing the purchase by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich of watch No. 36 made by John Arnold in 1778. This watch was the first to have a bimetallic temperature compensation balance. It was tried at the Royal Geographical Observatory from 1 February 1779 to 6 July 1780 and its performance was exceptionally good.

The HJ article is entitled “First Chronometer for Greenwich” and says that the watch's performance was so extraordinary that a new term “chronometer” was coined, probably by the cartographer and hydrographer Dalrymple, to describe this sort of high precision timekeeper. Arnold's No. 36 is said to be the first watch that this term was applied to and was therefore the first chronometer.

Given the simple and rather obvious derivation from the Greek "chronos", meaning time, and the English "meter", meaning to measure, it seemed unlikely that a compound word meaning to measure time would have such an origin. I decided to look into this further.

The source of the attribution to Alexander Dalrymple is “Some Notes Useful to Those who have Chronometers at Sea” (London, 1779). Now this would be a strange title for a book if the word chronometer was indeed new. If no one until the time this book was published had used the name chronometer for a timepiece, then how would those at sea know that the book was about the thing that they had if they did not know it was called a chronometer?

In “Alexander Dalrymple and the Expansion of British Trade”, Howard T. Fry advances a more plausible explanation. He says that although the term chronometer was in use for pendulum time keepers as early as 1715, it was Dalrymple who first suggested applying the term to balance controlled time keepers used for measuring time at sea.

In The Marine Chronometer (TMC), Commander Gould writes "Throughout the following pages the word "chronometer" has been used in its accepted English significance that of a machine specifically designed for the purpose of keeping accurate time at sea, and fitted with the spring-detent, or "chronometer" escapement. On the Continent the word is used indifferently to describe machines fitted with either the chronometer or the lever escapement."

Gould's definition is rather circular: "A chronometer is a device fitted with a chronometer escapement, which is a spring-detent escapement, that is called a chronometer escapement because it is fitted to a chronometer." Rather amusingly, this definition would also mean that Arnold's No. 36, supposedly the watch for which the term chronometer was coined, is not a chronometer, because it is fitted with a pivoted rather than spring detent escapement. However, Gould ignores his own definition and refers to No. 36 as "a pocket chronometer".

In an editorial note in the new edition of TMC Gould wrote Just before the outbreak of war in 1939, the Continental watch-trade pulled every string it could to get the trade in this country to adopt a definition of "chronometer" which would cover a good lever-watch also. One or two in the B.H.I. itself favoured this — but a small ad hoc sub-committee (of which I was Chairman) dug their heels in, & defined "chronometer" as "a timekeeper fitted with the spring-detent escapement". Unfortunately the Admiralty had "sold the pass" years before when they started calling deck-watches — which today are all levers — "chronometer watches" RTG 27.X.40.

This struck me as rather ridiculous. Even the mighty Oxford English Dictionary does not claim to define words, only to document their meaning from evidence of how they are used. However, the small ad-hoc sub-committee "definition" seems to have stuck in some quarters.

In the HJ September 2012 p392 D E Bryan FBHI questioned the use of the word chronometer by Adrian van der Meijden in an article about IWC Pocket Watches. Mr Bryan said "... in England a chronometer is a mechanism fitted with a detent escapement. As it happens, I have a copy of a ‘Kew A Certificate’ issued by the NPL and it clearly talks about taking the chronometer out of its gimbals. As I understand it in England, a chronometer was a chronometer, before, during and after testing, even if it failed the test. Chronometers were not tested for positional errors because they were hopeless in any other position but the horizontal. That is why, of course, they were suspended in gimbals. The implication is that a chronometer not only has to have a detent escapement but it also must be suspended in gimbals. However, it is interesting to note that Arnold's watch, the so-called "first chronometer", was not suspended in gimbals, it was cased as a pocket watch and was regularly worn by the trial judges.

The DLC Technician Grade Version 1 – Introduction – Page 20 contains the following definition:

Chronometer1. An instrument having a detent escapement for measuring time accurately.
2. A marine chronometer: used by navigating officers when determining a ship’s longitude.
3. A high quality wrist watch.

Item 1 contains a non-sequitur; a detent escapement does not itself measure time accurately, and an instrument having a detent escapement might measure time accurately or it might not. The sentence is illogical. Item 2 is fine, but item 3 is so vague that it could mean anything.

In the Oxford English Dictionary a chronometer is defined as:

An instrument for measuring time.

Etymology: Greek χρόνος (chronos - time) + meter. Compare French chronomètre (1701).

Quote: "1714, W. Derham Physico-theology. (ed. 2) i. iv. 28 According to my own Observations made with ... a very accurate Pendulum Chronometer."

Derham Physico Theology

William Derham was Rector at Upminster, Essex, from 1689 to 1735. His book Physico-theology, subtitled a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation, contained the substance of 16 sermons he preached in St. Mary le Bow Church in London between 1711 and 1712. The subject of the book allowed Derham to indulge his interest in natural philosophy and he ranged over an astonishingly wide range subjects. The figure here is from a chapter about light in the fourth edition dated 1716. It describes measuring the speed of a "bullet" fired from one of Queen Anne's Sakers, a medium sized cannon firing a round shot weighing 5.25 lb (2.4 kg). Derham used "a very accurate Pendulum-Chronometer" beating half seconds to time the flight.

So the term "chronometer" was not invented in 1780 to describe Arnold's watch. It was in use in France by 1701 and in England by 1714.

Horologists should stop pretending that they can define how words are used. If some wish to think that a chronometer must have a spring detent escapement they are, of course, free to do so; but they should also recognise that this will never be sufficiently widely used by the English speaking peoples to be documented by the OED.

I suggest that the definitions in the DLC be modified as follows:

Chronometer1. An instrument for measuring time.
2. A marine chronometer: used by navigating officers when determining a ship’s longitude.
3. An accurate watch: tested, and often certified, to meet defined standards of accuracy.

If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated June 2024. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.