An extraordinary exhibition is currently running in London - if you hurry you’ll catch it just in time!
Curated by two expert horological connoisseurs and collectors, “Innovation and Collaboration” is a unique exhibition demonstrating the extraordinary revolution in the development of clocks 400 years ago. In our present era, an inability to know or calculate the time is almost incomprehensible.
The hours of the day were first measured by monks, called by bell to pray regularly throughout the day. The clocks were powered by coiled axels wound with string and with weights tied to their ends, harnessing the power of gravity as as the weights pulled down to the ground.
These early clocks were fitted with the verge escapement mechanism with either a swinging foliot, or a balance wheel. These oscillated back and forth, effectively catching and releasing gearing connected to the axel and thereby winding out the strung weights which powered the clock at a more or less regular rate until it needed rewinding. Time telling was so imprecise that a minute hand on a clock was not even a requirement. Clocks had to be regulated and reset by the sun’s position on a sundial at noon almost daily.
The pendulum changed all that. Galileo’s studies of pendulums established that, due to the inherent energy in its swing, a pendulum is isochronic, meaning it will always take the same amount of time to travel from left to right. He designed but never completed a pendulum clock just before his death in 1642. The mantle was taken up by the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, whose ground breaking clock was completed in 1656. The exhibition features a very rare diagram of a pendulum clock by Huygens within a printed pamphlet.
Replacing the foliot or balance wheel with a pendulum increased the offset in accuracy of clocks from hours a day to seconds a week, and triggered a tsunami of subsequent innovations . John Fromanteel working in London was an early master of Huygen’s secret and the exhibition displays his commercial contract to teach the Coster workshop in The Hague.
Ingenious innovations followed over the next fifty years which resolved and improved precision and size, and allowed for increasing complications such as second hands, alarms, calendars, moon phase and other astronomical features, repeat striking and musical chimes.
Remarkably, many of the magnificent creations commissioned during this period survive and a dizzying array of over 100 are assembled here. All five of the only clocks known to have been made by Samual Knibbs are displayed together perhaps for the first time ever. An early wall clock c1658 by Ahaseurus Fromanteel utilises technically advanced fusees to even out torque in the spring and side by side wheel trains which set the standards of later clocks. A unique miniature full grande sonnerie by Jonathan Puller c1690-5 outclasses pieces by his more illustrious peers, Fromanteel, Knibbs, and Tompion, in its exquisite manufacturing. A musical clock by Christopher Gould c1705-10 was also without equal in its era, playing a choice of tune on the hour. A beautifully ornate Boule-work long case clock by Daniel Quare c1695 is only wound once a year yet strikes faithfully upon every hour. The exhibition’s closing piece is the most accurate clock in the world for 150 years: a long case clock with temperature compensated pendulum and friction reducing naturally oily wooden parts. This clocks’s maker went on to devote himself to winning the Longitude prize - it is, of course, by John Harrison.
What makes these clocks even more extraordinary is the fact that the century that ushered in this dramatic step change was also one of the most turbulent and deadly eras in London. Execution of King Charles I in 1649 led to Civil War under Oliver Cromwell. The 1660 Restoration coronation of King Charles II led to changing patronage. Unrest followed Charles II’s death when, in 1685 at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Duke of Monmouth attempted to sieze the throne from James II. Shortly after, in 1690, James II lost his throne to the incoming Protestant joint monarchs, William and Mary. Natural disasters stalked London. The river Thames froze in a mini ice age from 1663, the Great Plague of 1665 slaughtered 200,000 Londoners, and a third of Londoners lost homes and businesses in the Great Fire of 1666.
However Royal scientific patronage boosted clockmaking and this period was also an important period for science and astronomy - and in 1675, Charles II appointed the first Astronomer Royal and laid the foundation for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Learned discussion and debate thrived in London’s new coffee houses and societies sprung up.
The exhibition also gives an opportunity to make another important point, that these clocks’ expensive and decorative cabinetry emphasised their pioneering innovation. By encasing them in rare and expensive ebony, and later with veneers of exotic woods such as walnut and olivewood, and finally inlaid within patterns of rich marquetry, it set them apart from the surrounding plainer oak furniture, as the dazzling, covetable innovations they were.
A beautifully illustrated and comprehensive catalogue has been prepared, running to nearly 400 pages, complete with four scholarly chapters.
Details: Innovation and Collaboration: The early development of the pendulum clock in London
Bonhams New Bond Street London W1S