Welcome to Merritt's Antiques

Spring Driven Clocks

Preceding the application of the principles of the pendulum to clocks, a wound spring was developed during the middle of the 15th century to provide the power for a clock. A hundred years would pass before the traditional weights that provided the power for a clock would be challenged by this new power source. Yet, Spring Driven Clocks were primarily responsible for moving the clock out of the tower and into the home by making smaller mantel clocks and wall clocks possible. This miniaturization, at least compared with tower and floor clocks, produced near the beginning of the 16th century watches to be carried in the carriages of 'gentlemen', further miniaturization to the pocket was still years away. As wonderful as the new spring driven clocks were, they were at least as prone to inaccuracy as the weight-driven tower and floor clocks. At the center of this inaccuracy was the very nature of the spring itself. The clock ran faster when the spring was tightly wound, and then ran slower as the spring unwound. In fact, documents from the time often state that those who carried a watch also had with them a small sundial and compass to be sure of what time it actually was!! A partial solution was found with the development of that is called a "fusee" in the early part of the 16th century. A fusee essentially functioned as a pulley used with a barrel to equalize the uneven pull of the mainspring, which was, of course, tighter when fully wound than when slack. It would be over two hundred years until advances in metallurgy would allow horologists to dispense with the fusee. What was needed was something similar to the escapement used in a pendulum clock to control the release of energy from the weights, which, when combined with the use of the fusee, would bring the desired accuracy to spring driven clocks and watches. This was not to come for half a century.

It was the Dutch mathematician, Christian Huygens, credited with applying the parameters of the pendulum to timekeeping, who also patented the use of a balance spring to control the release of energy from a spring. His patent was applied to a pocket watch at about the same time as a British inventor, Robert Hooke, was doing the same thing in England. Whoever was first, the application of a balance wheel to the release of energy from a mainspring to power a clock or watch, along with the fusee, brought the same accuracy to smaller timepieces as the escapement and pendulum had brought to the weights. With the means now available to provide a steady transfer of power from the mainspring to the clock's counting mechanism, spring driven clocks exploded throughout Europe and America. As the cost went down, the popularity and proliferation of spring driven clocks and watches went up. Spring driven watches continued to be miniaturized over the years until they no longer needed to be carried in the hand, but could be put in the pockets of "gentleman". By the late 18th century most upper-class men carried a pocket watch, some stylishly carved silver ones, which survive as valued antiques today. Pocket watches were used regularly until they were supplanted by an even smaller and more convenient means to carry accurate time keeping: the wristwatch.

Since it has no striking mechanism to sound the time, a wristwatch is "officially" a timepiece and not a clock. The spring driven mechanism and balance wheel are the same as found in any spring driven clock, however, and given it's universal usage and availability as antiques, a bit of its history seems fitting. Originally created in the late 19th century as a timepiece for upper class and noble women, it would take a French designer and a war to put the watch on the wrists of men. The idea of a woman taking out a pocket watch on a fob was not thinkable, nor, in some ways in the 19th century, was the idea that a woman would have to know what time it might be anyway any more thinkable. However, the movement of the industrial revolution and creation of a "class" where luxuries were more status symbols than utilitarian created a market for a watch, often bejeweled, to be elegantly worn on the wrist of those women. As the 20th century dawned, many men were seeking ways to fly, we all are familiar with the Wright Brothers. One of those early pioneers of "flying machines", Alberto Santos-Dumont, so the story goes, was having difficulty checking the time on his pocket watch while keeping his hands on the stick and throttle of experimental aircraft. Reportedly, a friend of his, Louis Cartier, gave him a spring driven watch on a leather band to put around his wrist so he would just have to turn his wrist to see the time. The use spread in Europe, mostly due to the reputation of Cartier and his jewelry empire. It was, however, WWI and the need for easy view of time on the battlefield and co-ordination of artillery fire with infantry movements that thoroughly established the wristwatch as a portable timepiece of choice for the thousands of men returning home from that war. Some of those Government Issue watches from WWI are still available as specialty items in some antique dealers. Companies began producing spring driven wristwatches by the thousands after the war, for both men and women, in affordable designs as well as maintaining the elegant style for women. The balance spring continued to be the means of power for wristwatches, whether wound daily by the owner or "self-winding" with the addition of a rocker beside the mainspring, until the coming of universal electric power in the home and battery power on the wrist. Very expensive, intricately styled, and collectible, wristwatches continue to use highly refined balance springs in such models as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tag Heuer, and, of course, the company that started it all, Cartier.
Home Clock Parts & Suppies Clock Shop Quick Order Form Monthly Flyers Related Articles Sitemap Privacy / Terms