Early Watch Manufacturing

Earliest ways of telling time
Clocks and Astronomy
The Sundial
The Water Clock
The Hourglass
Clock Origins
The de Vick Clock
Invention of the Watch
Watches and Navigation
Early Watch Manufacturing
Early French Watch Making
Early Swiss Watch Making

Early English Watch Making - The Clock-makers' Company

FROM the beginning, there are two sides to the history of timekeeping. The first is the story of discovery and invention--how men labored for thousands of years to produce a contrivance that would really tell the time. But if only a few such machines existed in the world, it would be of very little use to humanity in general, however perfect each might be. Accordingly history must now recount how clocks and watches came to be made in sufficiently large numbers and at sufficiently low cost to be within the reach of all who needed them.

The turning-point from the inventive to the industrial side of the development was reached about the year 1800. Timekeeping has always been a part of history, and history a part of timekeeping, and this opening of the nineteenth century was a period when history itself was changing, for the progress of civilization is like a journey over a mountain road; one must needs turn occasionally or one can rise no higher. The American Revolution had ended but a few years before, and the thinly settled states were trying the strange experiment of having the people govern themselves without a king. In the old world, the people of France had suddenly risen up and seized the power from their king, and a bloody struggle had ensued in which many of the old nobility had been beheaded. In England, the power of the throne was growing less and the power of the people greater. In fact, the whole world was becoming more and more filled with democratic ideas and ideals than ever before.

Now, this same democratic idea that set up republics was getting ready to put a watch into every man's pocket. At first, everyone had told the time for himself, and had told it badly. Now, after thousands of years, it had come about that a few had the means of telling time accurately. The great inventors mentioned in the last few chapters had contributed one idea after another, until, among them all they had worked out clocks and watches that would keep correct time. But these timepieces were not yet convenient in form, and they certainly were not yet convenient in price for the average man. They still were made by hand in small quantities, and such a condition would have to be changed before it would be possible for everyone to tell the time and to tell it well.

Naturally, the industrial and business development of watch making began long before 1800, long before, indeed, the time at which the inventions were all complete. For centuries the two sides of the story, the inventive and the industrial, had progressed side by side, but for the sake of clearness, we have described the inventions first. Now we must glance back again to the time of Shakespeare, when the period of modern inventions was just beginning, in order to see how the business side of watch making started upon its growth.

Four nations have been concerned in this development--England, France, Switzerland, and the United States. The English worked in one way; the French worked in another; the Swiss, in still another; while the Americans took up the final organization of the work in a manner that was thoroughly typical of their peculiar genius.

The mechanical improvements and inventions were mostly made, as we know, by the English. But for the beginnings of the watch industry in England one must go back to a time before the days of Hooke and Huyghens, to the year 1627, the year of incorporation of the Worshipful Clock-makers, Company. Imagine such a name being chosen to-day! The Worshipful Clock-makers' Company was the original trade-organization of the business in England. It was not at all like our modern companies but was one of those great trade "guilds" which played such an important part in the development of European industry.

People sometimes think of the medieval trade-guild as something like the modern trade-union, but this is a mistake; it was in many ways quite different. Perhaps one might call it a sort of a cross between a labor-union and a manufacturing trust. Within a certain district, all who were occupied in a particular business were required to belong to the guild; otherwise they were not allowed to do business, and the "district" might include the whole country. In order to gain an idea of a guild, imagine in this country a single association of jewelers to which everyone connected with the jewelry business was forced to belong, whether he were manufacturer or retailer, employer, or employee, the head of his firm or the last new clerk behind the counter. Or, to look at it in another way, imagine a trust controlling the whole industry and a union including all the workmen under a closed-shop system, and then suppose that the trust and the union were one and the same. That would be like one of the great medieval guilds. It was easy for such an organization to create a monopoly of the entire national product.

Sometimes the guild would forbid the importation of foreign goods and would not permit workmen to come from other countries. It usually regulated, to some extent, the conditions of wages and labor. It fixed its own standards of quality of the product; if goods did not come up to this standard, they might not be sold, and the rules of the guild had practically the force of law. But it did not attempt to control prices, nor to limit the quantity of production, nor to interfere, except very indirectly, with free competition among its own members.

Thus, it was not, in our modern sense of the conception, a company at all, but an association of independent manufacturers or tradesmen, each in business for himself, each in competition with his fellow craftsmen, and all kept upon a tolerably even footing by limiting the amount of labor that each one might employ. Its members were the master craftsmen, each the head of his own house; through them were associated the journeymen, or skilled workmen in their employ, and the apprentices. These latter might rise to be masters, in business for themselves. But no one without such a connection could engage in the business at all, in any capacity whatever.

The Worshipful Clock-makers' Company, under its charter granted by Charles I, had the power to make rules for the government of all persons following the trade within ten miles of London, and for regulating the trade throughout the kingdom. Its first master, or president, was David Ramsay, who was mentioned as having been "constructor of horologes to His Most Sacred Majesty, James I," and is one of the characters in Scott's novel "The Fortunes of Nigel." Its wardens or executives were Henry Archer, John Willowe, and Sampson Shelton; and there was, besides, a fellowship, or board of directors. The company proceeded at once to forbid all persons "making, buying, selling, transporting, and importing any bad, deceitful clocks, watches, larums, sun-dials or cases for the said trade," and full power to search for, confiscate and destroy all such inferior goods, "or cause them to be amended."

This company limited the volume of business by forbidding any one master to employ more than two apprentices at one time without express permission; and, since all journeymen must first pass through the stage of apprenticeship, this tended to keep up wages by limiting the labor supply and to keep competition on a fair basis. The coat of arms of the company represented a clock surmounted by a crown, the feet resting upon the backs of four lions, all of gold, upon a black ground; on either side were the figures of Father Time and of a king in royal robes; and the motto beneath read: Tempus Imperator Rerum, or "Time, the Emperor of Things." These matters sound rather quaint to us, but perhaps the quaintest of them all is the idea of a monopoly concerning itself so jealously with the quality of the product, and letting prices and competition practically alone.

It was under such conditions that the English work was done and the inventions made. Huyghens was, of course, not an Englishman; and Hooke was rather an inventor and a scientist than a manufacturer. Both these men themselves made clocks and watches, but they made them only as instruments to assist them in their researches, or as working-models of their design. It was often said of Hooke that he never cared to develop an invention after he had proved that it would work. But once these first inventions had been adopted, the real production of timepieces was in the hands of the Clock-makers' Company, and the great names were those of clock-makers.

These were the days when the leaders of the industry worked with their own hands as well as with their heads. We may imagine the master seated in the front room of his shop studying over a new model, or putting together and decorating one already made; or, perhaps, making with his own hands some of the most delicate parts. From the back rooms would come the sound of tapping or filing as the journeymen and apprentices were hard at work upon their various tasks. Meanwhile, perhaps some apprentice, standing outside the door, would call out to passers-by and urge them to step in and buy. This was a favorite form of advertising in that time. For that matter, we still have our "barkers" and "pullers-in" at Coney Island and elsewhere. Everything about the small business was carried out under the personal direction of the master and, where necessary, by his own hand. The phrase "clockmaker to the King" meant something more when applied to such a man than merely that royalty had purchased some product of his craft.

Such a one was Thomas Tompion, often called "the father of English watch making." He was the leader of his craft in the time of Charles II and he, more than anyone else, worked out the inventions of Hooke for actual manufacture. He left his father's blacksmith shop to become a clock-maker, from this he went on to the more delicate work of making watches, and at last became a famous master of his guild. It may fairly be said of him that he set the time for history in his day, for most of the royalty and great men of Europe timed all their doings from banquets to battles by Tompion watches.

Meanwhile, he, too, was making watchmaking history by his improvements. Tompion made watches with hairsprings, balance-wheels and escapements with various improvements. His design of the regulator is nearly that in modern use. His cases, too, were as famous as the movements that he made. The so-called "pendulum watches" were then much in fashion, and Tompion met the demand by making a number of them. They did not, of course, work with a pendulum; but one arm of the old foliot balance could be seen through an opening in the case or dial, and looked like a pendulum swinging to and fro. To read the advertisements of that day one would think that all lost or stolen watches were of Tompion's making, so often does his name appear in them.

Many legendary stories are told about Tompion's work. It has been set down in cold print that Queen Mary gave one of his watches to Philip II of Spain, and that he made watches for Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately for such stories, Tompion was not born until 1638, by which time both Mary and Elizabeth had been dead for some years. But though the legends themselves are untrue, yet they do shed some light upon their subject, for such stories, true or false, are not told about unimportant men. And it is true that Tompion grew so celebrated that at his death, in 1713, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where only the great may have resting-places.

Another famous watchmaker was George Graham, the inventor of the mercury pendulum. He first was Tompion's journeyman, then his partner, and at last became a well-known astronomer, having become interested in astronomy through making astronomical clocks. But his great contribution was the invention of the dead-beat escapement, which, in one form or another, is in use in all the best clocks and watches of the present time, and which has had more to do with making their accuracy possible than has any other improvement since the discovery of the isochronism of the pendulum and hair-springs. Graham, also, is buried in Westminster Abbey; his body lies beside that of Tompion, his teacher and friend.

Another famous figure was Daniel Quare, the first to devise the mechanism for driving the two hands as we have it to-day. Quare was a Quaker, and was no less prominent in the Society of Friends than in his business. As a Quaker, he was opposed to taking an oath of any kind, and was what we now call a "conscientious objector" to warfare. Therefore, at the same time that he was being honored by royalty for his work, he was being prosecuted and fined for his refusal to pay taxes for the support of the army and of the Established Church. When he was made clock-maker to King George I, means had to be devised for excusing him from taking the oath of allegiance.

It was Quare who originated the practice of giving to each watch a serial number, so that it could always be identified. This is, of course, a common custom with us; we also number automobiles, and many other manufactured articles of value, and Quare's device of numbering watch-movements may very well have given the start to all this.

Still other famous watchmakers were Harrison and Arnold and Earnshaw, who between them developed and perfected the marine chronometer that we discussed in the last chapter; and Mudge, in whose hands watch-movements really became modern in type. Men of this kind thought first of producing reliable work which would give service; ornaments, curiosities of workmanship, and even convenience, were secondary. Some of these men were extremely independent; for example, Arnold, in his early days and by way of establishing a reputation, made a repeating watch less than a half-inch in diameter-so small that it was worn set in a ring; but when King George III had bought the masterpiece, and the Empress of Russia offered one thousand guineas (more than five thousand dollars) for a duplicate, Arnold coolly excused himself on the plea that he desired the specimen to remain unique.

Time passed; machinery began to be employed in manufacturing and hand-work declined. The guild system in every line slowly changed into our modern organized industry. This was only natural, for factories were becoming larger, their output was increasing and the head of the business was no longer likely to be himself a master workman. The greater part of this change, of course, took place in the nineteenth century, and was primarily owing to the increased use of machine-power and improvement in transportation. But as regards watchmaking in England, the substitution never became complete, for the bulldog quality in the Englishman has always made him hold fast to his ideas. Habits died hard, and the old methods were changed slowly and under protest, even when these changes spelled progress.

At first, as we have seen, the watch was the work of one man and of his assistants, and was almost entirely handmade. In those days, the trade was supplied by a multitude of small independent manufacturers. To make a single watch might take weeks or months; and every one must be made separately and patiently, regardless of labor or expense. So long as this method could hold its own, the English watchmakers led the world; their watches were good, but they certainly were not cheap.

After a time, other countries began to use more modern methods, and English watches could no longer stand competition in the world's markets. However, the bulldog quality still held; English manufacturers preferred to lose ground rather than change their methods. The introduction of machinery and the employment of women operatives were each bitterly opposed. Factory production was never adopted on a large scale, nor was there much combination of small independent manufacturers. Necessarily, these things did, at last, come to be done; but half-heartedly, and without much success. At one time, for example, there were some forty small factories making various parts which each watch manufacturer assembled and adjusted for himself.

The Clock-makers' Company had along existence, although eventually it developed into a society or association of manufacturers. Under pressure of change and competition, English manufacturers were compelled unwillingly to change their system of production, but the character of the watches they would not change. The same country which had made so many of the mechanical inventions finally settled down into satisfaction with its models at a time when other nations were continuing to make improvements, as, for example, when they clung to the fusee after watchmakers abroad had found a better substitute.

The English watch has remained heavy, substantial, and reliable; it is an excellent mechanism produced regardless of expense. Such a watch cannot be made cheaply, least of all by British methods. There has been something obstinate in the maker's attitude; if the law of supply and demand called for something different, so much the worse for the law. The English were slow to see the possibilities in the cheap watch. They have not realized that a watch need not be expensive in order to keep good time. They started to put the watch into universal use, but left to other nations the completion of the process.

DISCLAIMER: PLEASE READ - By printing, downloading, or using you agree to our full terms. Review the full terms by clicking here. Below is a summary of some of the terms. If you do not agree to the full terms, do not use the information.  The information is "AS IS", "WITH ALL FAULTS". User assumes all risk of use, damage, or injury. You agree that we have no liability for any damages. We are not liable for any consequential, incidental, indirect, or special damages. You indemnify us for claims caused by you. This site and its contents are (c) 2002 by LoveToKnow Corp.