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History On the usefulness of a watch movement

What is the point of a watch or clock movement? To give the time, of course!

It is certainly true that when one thinks of horology, one automatically thinks of watches and a means of displaying the passing of time. In this early 21st century, the only customary form of horological expression resides within a few cubic centimetres that we wear on our wrists and drives the hands tirelessly sweeping around dial indications.

However, this has not always been the case. Not very long ago, watch and clock making had a multitude of applications, ranging from the most practical to the most entertaining. A visit to a watch and clock museum is enough to help one grasp this. In a nutshell, the main parts of a mechanical movement are the power source (a weight in old movements or the mainspring in more recent constructions); the escapement, which prevents the weight from dropping or the spring from unwinding in one go; as well as the regulating organ, which imparts the rhythm, so that the gear train can make not only the hands turn at the correct speed, but many other things as well…

It is for this reason that clock mechanisms had their place in the kitchen for several centuries. In order to keep an eye on the cooking time, you might well ask? Not at all! They were used as spits to slowly turn joints of meat over the fire. This usage spread from the Middle Ages onwards and has persisted almost through to the present day.
In certain cases, a horological movement became quite simply essential, as in the case of the marine chronometer on whose precision the survival of an entire crew depended up until the relatively recent emergence of GPS technology.


Girard-Perregaux ww.tc


It is worth recalling at this juncture that we owe this particular concept to John Harrison (1693 – 1776). In his era, although sailors already knew how to work out the latitude (North – South) accurately by using sky charts, there was no reliable means of knowing the longitude (East – West). Harrison had the bright idea of turning to horology to solve this problem by suggesting that ships should take on board two timepieces: the marine chronometer, responsible for maintaining the time of the home port (or Greenwich), whose exact position was known; and the on-board chronometer, which was systematically reset to the local noon where the boat was. Knowing that a difference of one hour corresponds to 15 degrees of longitude degrees meant that the ship’s position could be determined precisely.


Girard-Perregaux Jackpot


Horological movements also served as a means of entertainment, a usage that was very fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, it operated all kinds of automatons such as androids, singing birds or other musical boxes. Today, this application has almost completely disappeared, give or take a few exceptions, one of which is Girard-Perregaux’s famous “Jackpot” model. In addition to a a tourbillon, its movement is equipped with a random mechanism modelled on those in the famous one-armed bandits of casino fame. Like them, it was operated by a lever on the side of the case. When this amazing watch was presented, I noted a lot of doubtful expressions and raised eyebrows indicating that they thought it was complete rubbish! Why would you have something like that in a watch? The answer is very simple: to entertain its owner, like other mechanisms have done in the past! It therefore fits perfectly into an historical logic that is very peculiar to watchmaking…

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