3.01 – World Clockmaking History

Last Update: 07-23-2022 @ 04:31

Learn the Milestones
of World Clockmaking
From Sundial to Atomic Clock

Sundial from the Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Image by University of Basel – Sundial from the Valley of the Kings, Egypt – Public Domain
Cesium Atomic Clock
Image of Cesium Atomic Clock by Zubro, 2005, authorized under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

This first subsection on clockmaking history presents World Time’s Milestones Keeping from Sundial to Atomic Clock. It covers clockmaking from the BC era to the 21st century. Our main sources for this section are Wikipedia, De Carles 1983, and Smith 1996. See complete references in Bibliography.

3.01.1 – Birth of Time Measurement: BC

  • 16th c. BC – Babylon had a clepsydra or water clock. Also, archeologists found clepsydra in a grave in Egypt, dating from the 16th c. BC.
  • 4000 BC – According to historians, the Chinese created the water clock. Clepsydra was also found in India as well.
  • 1350 BC – Archeologists found in 1904 a water clock from the reign of King Amenhotep III in Karnak, Egypt.
  • 1450 BC – Egyptians used the sun to estimate the time. Therefore, we may say that they invented the sundials.
  • 429 BC – The first clepsydras appeared in Greece.
  • 330 A.D. J.-C. – The measurement of time using sand would have existed.
  • 885 – Alfred The Great would have used fire to measure time.

3.01.2 – 11th – 13th century

  • 11th c. – Monastery clocks didn’t have dials or hands, but they sounded the hours.
  • 1286-1292 – According to ancient records, Old St Paul’s Cathedral (1286), Westminster Palace (1288), and Canterbury Cathedral (1292) in London, England, had each a Turret Clock.
  • 1292 – As far back as we can, the first Parisian clockmaker in France was Jehan Le Aulogier.
  • Late 13th c. – In 1291, Prince Asulid of Yemen developed the first astrolabe. It is defined as “an ancient astronomical instrument of observation and analog calculation. An instrument with multiple functions allows, among other things, to measure the height of stars including the sun, and thereby to determine the time of observation and the direction of the star” (Wikipedia). Also, a time-reading machine made up of weights, cogs, and regulators existed at that time, but without a dial.

3.01.3 – 14th century

  • 14th c. in England – Clocks were installed in several church steeples in England. Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336), abbot of St Albans Abbey, designed a large astronomical clock. Built by Roger of Stoke, it had a coaxial wheeled escapement.
  • 1335 – First escapement (rope) from Villard.
  • 1350 – To attract the monks for prayer in the monasteries at the prescribed hours, clockmakers built the first mechanical clocks. They had a dial divided into chapters corresponding to each hour.
  • 1364 – Giovanni de Dondi built the Astrarium, the first astronomical clock.
  • 1368 – Beginning of clockmaking in England.
  • 1380 – First domestic clocks in Italy.
  • 1386 – The earliest clock in England, the one of the Salisbury Cathedral.

3.01.4 – 15th century

  • 1410 – The first springs appeared. Used in conjunction with the fusee, they gave life to transportable clocks.
  • 1469 – The Englishman horologist Harcourt repaired clocks. He worked at the famous Westminster clock.
  • c. 1492 – The first mechanical watches appeared in Italy, France, and Germany.
  • 15th c. – In England, the first church clocks had no dial. They were also present in Monasteries, but most of them were imported.

3.01.5 – 16th century

Domestic clocks made their first appearances in England. Henry VIII bought clocks for his use. Then, Elizabeth I had a weight wall clock, the precursor of lantern clocks. English clockmaking was highly dependent on French, Italian, and German clockmakers at that time. Nicholas Cratzer, born in Bavaria in 1487, served as the clockmaker of Henry VIII. French horologists also became crown clockmakers for Queens Mary and Elizabeth I. They built the Hampton Court clock. Bartholomew Newsam, an Englishman from Middlesex, was the Queen’s clockmaker before 1582. Later, he worked in the Queen’s Watchmaker’s Office, which he took over in 1590. But he died in 1593 and left a legacy of tools to John Newsam, a watchmaker from York. He also left a few tools to his son on the condition that he became a watchmaker.

  • 1500 – Peter Henlein, a locksmith from Nurnburg, Germany, invented the coaxial wheeled escapement.
  • 1500-1700 – Lantern clocks are gradually entering the English market.
  • 1510 – Introduction of the Stackfreeds: “Mechanism invented before the introduction of the fusee to equalize the driving-power of watch-springs. It consisted of a strip spring that was deflected by a cam on the barrel-arbor.” (Illustrated Professional Dictionary of Horology, FH).
  • 1511 – Peter Henlein invented the first portable small clock.
  • 1517 – François Premier, King of France, ordered a watch to be placed on his dagger’s end.
  • c. 1520 – In Germany, clockmakers inserted spring clocks into square metal boxes. These boxes had on one side the dial with only an hour hand, and on the other side, a canopy gave access to the spring winding and adjustment of time. Renaissance decorations, and around 1620 engravings, were characteristics of these boxes.
  • 1525 – The German Jacob Zech applied to a clock the fusee, invented earlier. The Burgunderuhr (Burgundy clock), made around 1430 for Philippe Le Bon, Duke of Bourgogne, was a typical fusee clock.
  • 1530 – First brass plates were used in a clock movement.
  • 1543 – Copernicus (1473-1543) published the De Revolutionibus orbium caelestium, placing the sun at the solar system’s center.
  • 1550 – Screws are beginning to replace nails in clock cases.
  • 1554 – Thomas Bayard, a Frenchman, was the first watchmaker in Geneva, followed later by Martin Duboule at the end of the 16th century.
  • 1565 – Beginning of the replacement of chains by cat-guts in fusee clocks.
  • 1581 – Galileo proceeds to experiment with a pendulum.
  • 1582 – Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1522-1610) introduced clockmaking to the Emperor of China’s court in Macau.
  • 1590 – Appearance of the lantern clock with balance or foliot in England.

3.01.6 – 17th century

  • 1600 – The clock dial began to have quarter-hour divisions and minute hands.
  • 1601 – Foundation of the Corporation of Watchmakers in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • 1610 – Enamel was used to finish the dials for the first time. – Glass began to protect the dial and hands of watches.
  • 1620 – The lantern clock production took off in England from 1640 to 1660. 
  • 1631 – The founding of the Clockmakers Company favored the professionalization of clockmaking. It brought together the most active watchmakers and clockmakers in England. A royal decree designed David Ramsay (?-1653) as the first Master of the company. But Ramsay had a reputation for not attending the meetings. Ramsay had an assistant, a Frenchman, Guillaume (aka William) Pettit, a metal craftsman who made and gritted the cases. But Ramsay was, it seems, getting all the glory out of it. He was a favorite of the court because he knew how to charm.
  • 1632 – Jean Toutin, in 1632, in Limoges, France, invented the enamel painting of clock cases and dials.
  • 1635 – Paul Viet from Blois, France, created the enamel dial.
  • 1640 – German clockmakers started the production of clocks in the Black Forest. It is the birthplace of the famous cuckoo clock.
  • 1655-1658 – The Englishman Robert Hooke (1635-1703) claimed the spring pendulum’s invention. But he disputed it with Christian Huygens (1629-1695), a Dutchman to whom this invention is attributed. Hooke, with William Clement’s collaboration, is also credited with the anchor escapement invention. However, what is considered to be the first anchor escapement clock, built by famous English watchmaker Joseph Knibb (1640-1711), is exposed at the Wadham College Museum in Oxford.
  • 1656 – Dutchman Christian Huygens (1629-1695) invented the pendulum.
  • 1657 – Joseph Knibb (1640–1711) invented recoil escapement. The same year, the winding clocks were equipped with endless rope or chains.
  • 1658 – Ahasuerus Fromanteel (1607-1692), a second-generation Englishman of Flemish descent, moved to London in 1629, he joined the new Clockmakers Company. In 1658, he announced in the Mercurius Politicus a new type of pendulum clock built with his son John (Ahasuerus II). The son was trained as a watchmaker in The Hague by Salomon Coster (c. 1620–1659). The latter, in 1657, was the first to build a clock after Huygens’ invention. Therefore, John learned how to build such a clock. A contract was signed between Coster and John, allowing him to build those clocks. – Ahasuerus Fromenteel introduced England his pendulum.
  • 1659 – Fromanteel also introduced the Long-case clocks.
  • 1660 – The City of London became England’s clock manufacturing nerve center. Robert Hooke had created a machine for cutting clock wheels. He also authored an article on the spring pendulum for watches. However, Huygens claimed this invention’s authorship in an article published in 1658 in the journal Horologium. – Abbé Hauteville invented the virgule escapement. – Introduction of Eight-day and Month clocks.
  • 1665 – In England, hood clocks were getting a tall base, giving birth to the Long-case clocks.
  • 1669 – Robert Hooke introduced the long pendulum with a very heavy bob.
  • 1671 – William Clement, an English horologist, introduced the anchor escapement with a long pendulum.
  • 1674 – Jeffrey Bailey, admitted to the Clockmakers Company in 1648, became its Master. He made a lantern clock like the style of Holborn, a London district, regularly active in clockmaking.
  • 1675 – King Charles II of England established The Royal Greenwich Observatory. Its mission was to prepare accurate astronomical maps for navigators. – Huygens invented the spiral spring balance for watches.
  • 1676 – Thomas Tompion (1639-1713) was the first to use the recoil-free escapement (dead-beat escapement), invented Richard Towneley (1629-1707), a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Tompion experimented with it in 1676 on two clocks, one at the Greenwich Observatory and another made for its patron, Sir Jonas Moore. Tompion is recognized as the father of clockmaking in England.
  • 1695 – Two English watchmakers, Thomas Tompion and Edward Booth (known as Barlow), proposed a repeatedly quarterly watch system.
  • Late 17th c. – Prominent English clockmakers such as Jeremy East, Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), Joseph Knibb (1640-1711), and family, and Daniel Quare (1647-1724) built clocks.

3.01.7 – 18th century

  • 1704 – Frenchman Beaufré made the first ruby watch.
  • 1714 – The British Parliament launched a competition to achieve a fully accurate way of calculating longitude at sea. The prize was a grant of 20,000 pounds.
  • 1715 – George Graham (1673-1751) introduced a domestic clock with a recoil-free escapement (dead-beat escapement). Graham, at first, the student of Tompion, and later, its partner, perfected the Towneley escapement so well that it was called the Graham escapement. A plaque fixed on the house wall where Tompion and Graham lived on Fleet Street in London honors them.  English watchmaking reached its cruising pace with the pendulum’s invention, the anchor, and the recoil-free escapement. The foreigners recognized them. The same year second hands with tails began to appear on dials.
  • 1720 – George Graham develops a weight machine that could split the second into quarters, achieving then, in principle, the accuracy of 1/16th of a second.
  • 1722 – George Graham invented the mercury pendulum.
  • 1721-1722 – The English gradually lost their watchmaking supremacy to the Swiss.
  • 1727 – Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) was born in Switzerland. He later came to France and became the most famous manufacturer of 18th-century marine clocks. Krång Andersson (1727-1799) of Östnor, Sweden, was the first clockmaker of the Mora district.
  • 1730 – An historian recognized the German Anton Ketterer (1676-1749), one of the founders of Black Forest clockmaking, as the cuckoo clock’s inventor. However, another historian attributed the first cuckoos to Michael Dilger and Matthus Hummel in 1742. But it seems that Johannes Wildi built the first cuckoo clock between 1780 and 1790. It is displayed at the Museum of German Clockmaking in Furtwangen in the Black Forest. The Black Forest, famous for its cuckoos, but not only, quickly became the center of German clock making. Clocks with brass cogs between wooden plates were also produced. The wives of the farmers who had turned into clockmakers decorated the face of these clocks with hand-painted nature scene drawings.
  • 1747 – Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823) was born. He later became, once in Paris, a great inventor in horology, with its anchor escapement with shared pulses and its compensation system for watches.
  • 1748 – Pierre Le Roy (1717-1785), a French horologist, invented the detent escapement, the temperature-compensated pendulum, and the isochron spring pendulum.
  • 1750 – First guilloche machines that produce “guilloches” are defined as “ornaments composed of lines, wavy lines that intertwine or intersect with symmetry.” (Dictionary of the French Academy, 8th ed.).
  • 1752 – Adoption in England of the Gregorian calendar.
  • 1757 – Thomas Mudge (1717-1794), a great English horologist, invented the anchor escapement.
  • 1760 – The first Swiss watch store, Beyer, opened in Zurich. In 1762, 600 master watchmakers worked in Geneva, a city of 20,000 inhabitants.
  • 1762 – Voltaire set up a clock factory in Ferney, France.
  • 1766 – John Harrison (1693-1776) won a share of the British Parliament competition prize in 1704 with his Sea Chronometer No. 4.
  • 1775 – John Arnold (1736-1799) invented the helicoidal spring (Patent No. 1113, Dec. 1775). – White or cream-painted iron dial is the trend for cheap clocks.
  • 1782 – Thomas Earnshaw (1749-1829) and John Roger Arnold, two English clockmakers, simplified the process of making the marine stopwatch with a relaxing-spring escapement (Patent No. 1328, May 1782).
  • 1790 – Jacquet-Droz and Leschot in Geneva, Switzerland, marketed the first wristwatch.
  • 1792 – A paper dial glued to a metal or a wooden piece is introduced in cheap clocks.

3.01.8 – 19th century

  • 1802 – Simon Willard (1753-1848), son of English immigrants from Horsmonden of the Kent District, England, arrived in the United States in 1634. He then produced more than 4,000 clocks in 40 years from 1802, the first handmade and the others gradually machine-made.
  • 1806 – French clock cases began to use machine-made slot screws.
  • 1808 – William Congreve presented his invention, the Congreve Clock, “a type of clock that uses a ball rolling along a zig-zag track rather than a pendulum to regulate the time” (Wikipedia). 
  • 1814Sir Francis Ronalds  (1788-1873) of London invented the first electric clock, activated by high voltage dry batteries.
  • 1815Giuseppe Zamboni  (1776-1846) perfected the dry battery electric clock. He adds an oscillating ball that could work with a battery for over 50 years.
  • 1822 – Nicolas Mathieu (1781- ??) obtained in 1781, in Paris, a patent for a second chronograph that he called “Timekeeper of the way traveled.”
  • 1824 – Victor Kulberg (1824-1890) was born in Gothland, Sweden. He emigrated to London, England, in 1851. He made several high-precision chronometers for the Greenwich Observatory.
  • 1840 – Alexander Bain (1811-1877), a Scottish clockmaker, obtained a patent dated October 10 for a clock driven by a standard electric current.
  • 1841 – Bath with John Barwise, two specialists in chronometers, obtained a patent on January 11 for an electric clock with an electromagnetic pendulum.
  • 1843 – A German clockmaker, Matthus Hipp (1813-1893), marketed the first mass-produced electric clock.
  • 1858 – Under Henri Grandjean’s leadership, the brand new Neûchatel Observatory could transmit the exact time by telegraph. It was also the first cable telegraph link between Newfoundland and Ireland.
  • Mid-19th c. – The German clock industry faced fierce competition from low-cost, mass-produced clocks by American manufacturers.
  • 1860 – Westminster chimes began to appear in domestic clocks.
  • 1865 – A German horologist, Georges Frederick Roskopf, invented the pin-pallet escapement.
  • 1870 – A Canadian engineer from Scotland, Sandford Fleming (1827-1915), defined the first time zones.
  • 1872 – First patent for water-resistant watch cases. – First patent for shockproof jewels.
  • 1875 – First Postman alarm clocks in Black Forest, Germany.
  • 1875 – Nemitz discovered the substance that allows hands and numbers on a watch or clock dial to be luminous, calcium sulfate.
  • 1876 – Switzerland recognized at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia that Americans could produce high-quality clocks more efficiently, thanks to mechanization. Alexander Graham Bell made the first remote phone call in Boston.
  • 1877 – Charles-Auguste Paillard (1840-1895) invented the palladium spiral.
  • 1880 – The Curie brothers discovered the piezoelectric effect of quartz.
  • 1880 – Arthur Junghans from Germany found a way to respond to the American clock invasion. He developed an inexpensive and easy-to-repair alarm clock movement, the W10. The movement equipped the Junghans’ alarm clocks for 50 years. It has been copied many times.
  • 1880 – First 400-day clocks in Germany.
  • 1880 – The United Kingdom adopted the Standard Greenwich Mean Time.
  • 1884 – Thanks to Canada and the United States, particularly to Stanford Fleming, the 24 time zones were established, Greenwich becoming the original Meridian.
  • 1892 – Auguste Verneuil (1856-1913) invented synthetic ruby in France.
  • 1896 – the U.S.A. obliged the exporting clock companies to mark the country of origin (Made in…).
  • 1897 – Charles-Édouard Guillaume (1861-1938) invented the full pendulum. The previous year, he had created the Invar, an alloy of nickel and iron with minimal thermal expansion coefficient. It allowed the improvement of scientific measuring instruments. Guillaume also created the Elinvar. This nickel-iron alloy that does not undergo temperature changes was used in mechanical balances of watches and chronometers. In 1920, Guillaume received the Nobel Prize for his inventions.

3.01.9 – 20th century

The 20th century is characterized in horology by its greatest developments, quartz, electronics, and miniaturization. Switzerland and Japan were certainly the champions in developing non-mechanical watches and clocks.

  • 1900 – The first wristwatches.
  • 1905 – Clock case makers began to use plywood.
  • 1906 – First appearance of the Eureka clock.
  • 1916 – Introduction of the Summertime by the German and Austria-Hungary Empires.
  • 1918 – The American Henry Ellis Warren (1872-1957) invented the synchronous electric clock where the pendulum is replaced with the alternating current’s oscillations.
  • 1921 – William Hamilton Shortt (1882-1971), an English Railway specialist, invented an electromechanical clock with clockmaker Frank Hope-Jones (1867-1950). Synchronome Co. Ltd. from London manufactured and marketed the clock. It became the most accurate clock in the 1920s and 1940s, with an accuracy of one second per year. The clock consisted of two parts, a vacuum-operated master clock and a receiver clock synchronized to the master by electromagnets.
  • 1921 – Dr. Warren A. Marrison, a Canadian who became an American citizen, began his work on a quartz crystal clock.
  • 1924 – The BBC began the Six Pips time signal diffusion on February 5, 1924.
  • 1927 – The world’s first talking clock was installed in the U.S.A.
  • 1929 – Le Coultre marketed the perpetual motion Atmos clock.
  • 1931 – The first synchronous electric clock, the Synclock, is marketed in Great Britain. It will also be trendy in the United States. The Synclock will become the clock of choice from the 1930s to the 1960s. Therefore, it replaced mechanical clocks in most homes, businesses, and government buildings.
  • 1933 – Invented in 1880, the talking clock is put into service at the Paris Observatory. The phone lines could not meet all the requests on the first day.
  • 1934 – Inauguration of a talking clock in The Hague, Holland.
  • 1935 – Inauguration of a talking clock in Switzerland.
  • 1936 – The Royal British Post Office was developed and put in service on the 24th of July, with its Post Office Speaking Clock. One has to dial TIM to hear the time.
  • 1937 – The Greenwich Observatory introduced quartz clocks.
  • 1946 – The Greenwich Observatory moved to Herstmonceux in Greenwich Park overlooking the Thames River.
  • 1949 – Harold Lyons developed the first ammonia-molecule atomic clock.
  • 1955 – Dr. L. Essen of the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, England, developer of the Caesium Atomic Clock, made his invention public.
  • 1957Hamilton Watch Co., U. S. A. marketed the first electric wristwatches.
  • 1967 – Definition of the second – 9,192,631,770 periods of radiation. Presentation of the first watch with analog quartz, made by the Electronic Watchmaking Centre in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The first long-life lithium battery watch and the first solid-state watch with a digital display were marketed.

Next: 3.02 – Clockmaking in Germany

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