Right from back in the days, when people used sundials or water clocks to the modern “systematic” clocks, man has always been playing around with time instruments. It may seem quite unusual today, but the world’s first clock used gravity pulled weights. These weights moved gears, which moved the hands of the clock!
It was just a matter of time before small domestic clocks started to appear. These were aptly called ‘table clocks’, as a general name to describe clocks placed on a table, mantel or other horizontal surfaces except the floor, on which the bigger grandfather clocks were placed.
In 1504 Peter Heinlein invented the first portable timepiece in Nuremberg, Germany. Replacing the heavy drive weights permitted smaller (and portable) clocks and watches. Although they slowed down as the mainspring unwound, they were popular among wealthy individuals due to their size and the fact that they could be put on a shelf or table instead of being mounted on the wall. These advances in design were precursors to truly accurate timekeeping.
Most of these early clocks had four key elements common to all clocks in subsequent centuries, at least up to the digital age. Firstly, the power, that was supplied by a falling weight, and later by a coiled spring. Secondly, the escapement, a periodic repetitive action that allows the power to escape in small bursts rather than drain away all at once. Third, the going train, a set of interlocking gear wheels that controls the speed of rotation of the wheels connected between the power supply and the indicators. Lastly, the indicators, such as dials, hands, and bells.
In around 1540, screws were used for clocks, enabling much smaller designs that kept time much better than the earlier models. In 1577 the minute hand was invented by Jost Burgi for Tycho Brahe, an astronomer, who needed accurate clocks to track stars. In the mid-fifteenth century, the spring-driven clock was developed, and this technology was used in table clocks as well, again paving the way for a variety of smaller clock cases. Many different materials were used in clocks. Wood was popular, including mahogany, oak, pine, walnut, and cherry. It also made possible the development of the watch.
Another invention changed the tracks for watchmaking. This had to do with the then controversial scientist, Galileo. In the 17th century, Galileo designed an instrument that enabled clocks to progress from an error of several minutes per day to one of just a few seconds. The escape wheel that he designed is recognised as the first free escapement in history. The trace of the original machine has been lost, but what remains is a drawing that illustrates the structure and the principle of operation of this instrument. In fact, in a move to honour this historical gem, Officine Panerai designed “The Pendulum Clock” which is based on the model made by the Florentine clockmaker Eustachio Porcellotti in 1887 from Galileo’s original drawing. The new Pendulum Clock by Officine Panerai has deeprooted historical antecedents and is a faithful reproduction of the instrument designed by Galileo. The invention of the pendulum clock is heralded as the next development in accuracy after 1657.
As the domain of horology expanded, could electric clocks be far off? It was in 1840 that the first electric clock was created by Edinburgh clockmaker Alexander Bain. In 1895 Frank Hope-Jones created the first modern electric clock which became the base of all modern clocks that are created today.
Today, if one clock deserves mention for ingenuity, it is the Atmos. This ingenious clock was invented in 1928 by Jean-Léon Reutter, and then perfected and manufactured by Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Atmos came close to fulfilling the ancient dream of perpetual motion.
It is based on the principle that tiny fluctuations in temperature alone are enough to supply its movement with energy. The balance is a subtle one, and a single degree difference within the range of 15 to 30°C is enough to keep the Atmos running for 48 hours. The explanation? The beating heart of the system is composed of a gaseous mixture contained within a capsule that dilates or contracts in step with temperature differences, much like the bellows of an accordion. Each of its movement supplies power to a mainspring that in turn delivers its force to an extremely sparing horological mechanism of which the balance performs just two oscillations per minute – around 150 times less than the customary rate of a wristwatch.
The Atmos makes light of the passing of time. Its mechanical principle, which embodies an extraordinary technical and poetic approach to perpetual motion, lives on the alternation between daytime warmth and the cool of the night, as well as the rhythm of the seasons. For over half a century, this tiny technological marvel has been the official gift of the Swiss Confederation to its most eminent guests.
Table clocks are a mere part of the huge variety of horological instruments. They are part of an industry that constantly reinvents itself. Despite the astounding inventions in the realm of clocks, the life story of the humble table clock yet has many milestones to reach!