No book review last week - I was too busy snowboarding! Anyway, straight back to it.
This week I read through Timepieces by David Christianson, a renowned horological historian, certified master watchmaker of 25 years and a past president of the American Watchmakers and Clockmakers Institute. Timepieces chronicles the various developments - across different cultures over thousands of years - that produced watches and clocks as we know them today.
Interestingly, most of the critical developments were not concerned with time at all. The incredible hydro-mechanical astronomical clock tower built by Chinese polymath Su Song (1020-1101 AD) was not built to tell the time, but rather to track celestial bodies as they hurtled through space - crucial for calculating dates in the Chinese calendar and for interpreting astrological signs. The most important technical development related to mechanical watches - the marine chronometer built by John Harrison - did not tell the time per se, but rather used differing times and spherical trigonometry to allow sailor’s to calculate their longitude while at sea.
Indeed, in its early years, mankind was mostly content with letting time flow by. It was only with the onset of prayer requirements from religions such as Christianity and Islam that man began to require more fine-grained structure in their lives, facilitated by clock bells ringing out across the town.
These events are carefully related in Timepieces along with many, many others. Whilst the first half of the book details pre-modern developments, the second half focuses on those that have occurred in more modern times. The fall of the American industry and rise of the Swiss are touched on, the author detailing the conflicting forces that shaped the landscape. Technical advancements such as the coaxial escapement and the electronic watch are weaved into a narrative that helps the reader understand the interplay of factors that led to each one’s development.
The selection of photographs, paintings and diagrams chosen for display in the book are excellent; the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the field enabling him to select the perfect photos required to properly illustrate the topic at hand.
The photos used in the section on some of the earliest watches are but one example of this. Early watches were hugely expensive, fragile and terribly inaccurate - losing minutes or even hours each day. They were objects reserved only for the particularly well-to-do. Owing to this, they were often extravagantly crafted - engraved, enameled, jewel encrusted, oddly shaped (sometimes made to resemble religious symbols) and built to reflect fashion trends.
Sure, watches are still made this way today, but it’s worth noting that the earliest watches were not really made to be worn. They were seen as objects used to decorate, and so were much more delicate, better resembling an ornament you might place on the mantle than wear on one’s person.
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a watch exquisitely painted in the manner found on this French necklace watch from the 16th century:
Timepieces is not just a book for horology nerds. The story of how modern timepieces came to be is a fascinating one and should be of great interest to anyone with an interest in science, engineering or fine craftsmanship.
Understanding the history behind that faithful mechanical wonder on your wrist will leave you in awe at the sheer audacity of it. Shock, corrosion, friction, magnetic/electrical fields, temperature, gravity - every phenomenon imaginable is pitted against it, willing it to stop ticking.
The defiance it displays to function in spite of it all is the result of an unbroken chain of toil stretching back hundreds of years. Reading Timepieces gives you some insight into that process. You'll smile each time you glance at your watch – though I’m sure you do that already.
|The graves Astronomical watch by Patek Philippe. It remained the most complicated watch from its creation in 1933 until 1989.|