An Early Watch



The Research, Design and Creation of a watch

in the Style of one of the Earliest types of

Portable Timekeeper


Using the Tools, Techniques and Materials of the Period






The decision to make a reproduction of an early 17th. century watch was inspired by two factors - a request for me to carry out some restoration work on a watch of around this period (but with later conversion to balance spring) and discussions with other members of the Antiquarian Horological Society on the probable timekeeping accuracy of such early watches. This was several years ago and the project has been pottering along ever since, hampered along the way by the need to work for a living, my other extramural and family committments and the advent of the internet!

My early researches involved a great deal of reading, not only about the technicalities of making such a watch, but on the social history of the time and on the various tools, materials and techniques used then in watchmaking, jewellery and many other trades. One of the difficulties is, of course, that little practical information survives from the early 17th century and so it is necessary to glean whatever is possible from all related or similar types of trade. Inevitably this led to many detours as snippets of information sent me off on very interesting but often abortive forays into the detail of obscure trades.

Visits to museum and private collections was, of course, a very important part of the knowledge acquisition process and I was considerably helped by some of the museums which made items in their collections intimately available for my close inspection. Indeed, I was even allowed to dismantle several original watches to measure and photograph the individual parts and determine the actual construction methods of difficult to access parts. In this I would particularly like to thank the National Watch and Clock Museum at Prescott, Lancs. England and the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, England who were both more than helpful.

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The first consideration in designing a watch is, of course, its final appearance - should it be plain or fancy, round, square, or shaped. In this case the choice was simple - I just love the oval shaped watches of this period. The next question was the ornamentation. Obviously the dial would have to be engraved as they all were to a greater or lesser extent but I could make the case relatively plain as this would be in keeping for the first quarter of the 17th century. It is, however, slightly less plain than the 'Puritan' style which became popular towards 1630. So, with these basic parameters in mind I set about the external design. As I had a wish to sign the watch with my own name and locality the first question I had to ask myself was 'As a person living well outside the main watch and clockmaking centre of London, how would I have learnt to make such a watch and where would I have seen one?'

During the period in question watches were still so much in their infancy that only the richest people would have been able to afford them. This somewhat limited their ownership to Nobility and the Clergy. Sheffield in the 17th century was not a very large place and the only firm association I could find with nobility was the improsonment at Sheffield Manor of Mary, Queen of Scots for a period during her last fateful journey to Fotheringay Castle. The period was right but I felt that it would be unlikely that I or anyone else from the town would have had access to her and that by the time she arrived here it would be unlikely that she would still have any of her valuable possessions.

This left the clergy. On the southern border of Sheffield, within two miles of my house, stood Beauchief Abbey which, in its day, was very popular with high ranking clerics and formed a regular stopping place for monks and Bishops passing through the region. Voila, the perfect scenario - a visiting bishop damages his precious watch on the journey from London to Northumbria, stops for a while at Beauchief Abbey and sends his watch to the local Mr. Fixit for repair. That's me, and, while I have it in my workshop, I examine it and subsequently make a copy! So, I now know where the watch came from and so I can design the decoration. As I said, the style of case I chose is representative of the beginning of the 1600's. The dial is of silver, quite small compared to the overall watch and has a central engraved scene. This is mounted on a brass dial plate which also has an engraved scene and has two buttons protruding through it to secure the movement into the case. Belonging to a religious man, the engravings obviously had to have religious connections and, after much research, I decided upon two engravings from bibles published in 1547 reasoning that, by the turn of the century, such books would probably have percolated as far north as Sheffield and could have been seen by my former self. The dial centre is a depiction of 'Spring' - a shepherd with his sheep and a lamb,

Dial engraving

whilst the dial backplate has 'David being shown the Promised Land'

Dial Backplate engraving

David is on a cliff at the top right with an angel who is pointing out to him a decidedly western looking town with a steepled church and pitched roofed houses!, all at bottom left amid luxuriant vegetation.

watch dail view

The design of the watch mechanism itself was relatively straightforward. The majority of watches from the period which I examined were very similar in terms of wheel counts and layout and so I followed the 'standard'. The running period of these watches was only 6 hours and the hour wheel carrying the single carved steel hour hand was driven by a four leafed pinion formed on the end of the fusee arbor. This then allowed calculation of the number of turns necessary on the fusee and therefore, using standard diameter gut line, its height. Having thus established an overall size for the movement, the other wheels and their placing could be worked out. I used the standard tooth counts I had found in the other watches as I had no idea of the time period of the finished balance (or foliot), this being dependent not upon a balance spring / balance wheel couple for which a period of oscillation could be worked out mathematically as in a modern watch, but upon a combination of the balance mass and inertia, the mainspring force, the depth of engagement of the verge and crown wheel and all the frictions in the movement. In other words a totally incalculable whole. As I worked out the sizes of each wheel I jotted them down on the side of the rough plan which formed the basis of my whole design!

watch plan

The central focus of the back plate, of course, is the pierced and carved brass balance cock and I designed this freely using an asymetric floral motif as was common at the time. The only other decorative items on the back plate are the signature in which I have adopted the old place name for the district in which I live, Hallam, and the carved and blued steel set up spring and ratchet. I chose to use a ratchet rather than the perhaps more common worm and wheel set up because it fitted the period and its rugged decorative qualities appealed to me. The only other design element which may deserve comment is the method of fixing the movement into the case. The two earliest watches I was able to examine both had spring latches at the sides of the dial to hold the loose movement into the case, the later ones having the movements hinged from the top with a spring latch at the bottom. Unfortunately, I was not able to dismantle these two earliest watches and the exact construction was not very clear. All I was able to determine from a close examination was that the front plate and dial plate were separated by the thickness of the latch blades and that the operating buttons passed through elongated slots in the dial backplate. The design I ended up with which I am fairly sure must be as the original is very simple. It consists only of a single piece of spring steel in a 'c' shape with the securing latch blades formed as a block on each of the arms. Also here are riveted the operating buttons and, in use, squeezing the buttons together simply nips the arms of the 'c' together and releases the movement from the case in a very effective manner.

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Unexpectedly, the first task necessary for constructing the watch was to learn how the engrave! What I hadn't appreciated before researching this type of watch is that the backplate almost immediately becomes awkward to handle as the large lower balance cock has to be riveted to the plate very early in the construction process and, with this sticking out 1/2" or more from the plate, holding it to engrave a signature on becomes difficult. So, this was one of the first tasks and was probably the most trying of all as the final look of the watch depends largely upon it. I'll not say I am totally happy with the result but I think it is adequate and will look alright when the watch is finally finished.

As I said earlier on, my intention was to use original tools and materials wherever possible and so most of the brass parts started out as parts of very old brass locks which are not too difficult to locate and provide a source of good sized lumps of old cast brass. This was cut to approximate size and hammer hardened to toughen and consolidate the metal. Any pieces with casting flaws or obvious inclusions were discarded straight away as were any that showed any signs of cracking under the hammer. This is not the best brass for engraving on but does make good bearings. The pinions were made from a low grade steel - little more than iron whilst the springs were made from file steel.

In the manner of the time, as far as I could make out from the available documentation, the pinions were hand filed and polished. This was done without any mechanical contrivance by holding the marked out blank between the finger and thumb of the left hand and filing the leaves in freehand. this sounds very 'iffy' I know but it works and very nice five leaf pinions could be produced in a very short time which worked smoothly with the wheels. The wheels with the exception of the crown wheel were cut on a home-made dividing engine as these are thought to have existed at the time. Certainly larger ones did for the production of clocks and so it is perfectly feasible that a smaller version could have been made. The crown wheel was again hand filed. All the turning necessary on the watch was carried out either on turns powered by a hand bow or on a hand powered lathe, all using a hand held graver.

Whilst I used a set of turns for all finishing work it is known that handwheel powered turns did exist at this period and so I felt justified in using a watch lathe for between centre turning using hand power.

The case initially presented some puzzles as I didn't have casting facilities easily available, nor could I believe that oval turning lathes existed as early as this. However, ingenuity prevailed and I realised that, being a little devious, I could achieve the desired result. Consequently the case is made up of several pieces silver soldered together. A band of brass sheet was formed into a cylinder and mounted on a wooden former in a clockmaker's throw. The outside of this was then turned to the desired profile using hand tools and the brass was removed, annealed and cut through on the original joint. Next, an oval wooden former was made to the shape required for the case and the profiled brass was wrapped round it and cut to length and soldered together, making the correct shaped band for the case. The case back was beaten out of sheet brass and soldered onto the band whilst the case lid was also beaten out of sheet and soldered to an oval brass ring made to fit closely over the lip turned on the case band. Then the lid was hinged to the case and a snap catch made. The suspension pendant was turned and a ring made for the neck cord but this has yet to be riveted and soldered in place.

Finding suitable mainspring material posed some problems but, after months of searching I suddenly realised that I had just the right material in the workshop all the time - longcase clock suspension strip and so I am in the process of fitting this. Then, when the last few problems are sorted out and I have made a new balance to suit the mainspring I shall finish the movement and get it gold plated.

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