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Observatory competition

Competition in which an award is given for the best results. The observatory competitions give awards for the best timing results.The Astronomical Observatory of GenevaThe observatory was established in 1772 by Jacques-André Mallet, partly at his own expense. Marc-Auguste Pictet took over its directorship on his death in 1791. The first timing competitions were held around 1790-1792, under the aegis of the Geneva Society for the Arts, awarding a prize for the best current watch. The first rule stipulated that the watch had to keep time to within roughly 1 minute a day. Although 19 timepieces were submitted, none were awarded the prize. The rules were revised to roughly 2 minutes per day. On 16 December 1816, two prizes were offered for the timing competition, one of which was for marine chronometers, yet only two watches were entered for competition on 31 December 1818. On 2 March 1819, the Genevan watchmaker Antoine Tavan was awarded the prize. Alfred Gautier was appointed as director in 1819. In 1829 a new observatory was built. Until 1874 everything operated by trial and error, with manufacturers free to choose when to submit their chronometers. 1874 saw a complete overhaul of the rules of the Astronomical Observatory of Geneva, marking a real turning point in the status of these competitions. Like those of other European observatories, these competitions play a key role in the advancement of precision watchmaking.Longitude determination, chronometry, observatory competition and the "Geneva Seal"The invention of the regulating spring in 1675 allowed horology to claim the status of an exact science. Although timing improvements became standard practice for timepieces by the early 18th century, the quest for absolute precision was only just beginning.The importance of precision in clocks and watches was paramount because, through them, it was possible on board a vessel to determine longitude and to pinpoint the ship's location on the high seas. The seafaring nations of the day (England, Spain, France and Holland) were appalled by the disasters resulting from longitude errors. They lamented not only the human losses but also the ships and their precious cargoes. One such instance was the fleet led by Sir Cloudesley Shovell which he believed was entering the Channel but which instead struck rocks on the Scilly Isles (1707). This caused such a commotion that a few years later the English Parliament launched a competition to find "any method capable of determining a ship's longitude", offering a prize of 10,000 pounds sterling for a result within one degree of error, 15,000 pounds sterling for 40 minutes* and 20,000 pounds sterling for within one-half a degree (equivalent in today's money to 20 million euros or dollars). This was Queen Anne's famous longitude competition of 1714.In London, Henry Sully (1680-1729), George Graham (1673-1751) and John Harrison (1693-1776) made their mark with their work in the early 18th century. Harrison won the prize with his "H1" sea clock in 1735, although he had to wait until 1751 before receiving the first part of the prize following the construction of a fourth chronometer, and only received the second half of the prize for his fifth chronometer in 1773, with the backing of King George III (1738-1820). It was also in London, in 1757, that Thomas Mudge (1715-1794) developed the first watch fitted with a lever escapement, a mechanism that would be universally adopted in the clock and watch industry.In France, the longitude problem was also of great concern to clock and watch makers. In 1766, in Paris, Pierre Le Roy (1717-1785) unveiled his first chronometer. It was built on an entirely new principle which to this day remains the basis of modern chronometry (detent escapement, isochronous spiral, self-compensating balance wheel with adjustable and compensating weights, mercury rectilinear compensation). He also came up with a balance with a bimetallic balance wheel and established the "Pierre Le Roy rule" whereby each spring must have a particular length to make it isochronous. His great rival Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) completed the first of his marine chronometers to determine longitude in 1768 and invented a compensated balance wheel. In 1770, Pierre Le Roy was awarded two prizes in succession by the Royal Academy of Sciences for "the best method of measuring time at sea". In 1772, John Arnold (1736-1799) of London built the first bimetallic compensated balance - based on Pierre Le Roy's principles - and successfully modified the spring detent escapement in 1790. Another English watchmaker, Thomas Earnshaw (1749-1829), developed a marine chronometer so perfect that his basic design remained unchanged until the advent of quartz watches. The rivalry between these two watchmakers was as great as that between Le Roy and Berthoud.While marine chronometry grew to industrial proportions in 19th century England, production also took off in France under the iron rule of Pierre-Louis Berthoud (1754-1813), Ferdinand Berthoud's nephew and pupil who invented a pivoted detent escapement and perfected a chronometer calibre.The Age of Enlightenment saw marine chronometers judged and tested at sea, during long and perilous journeys. The 19th century ushered in an era of precision competitions held at astronomic observatories where several chronometers were scientifically tested at the same time according to set rules and for specified periods of time. Statistical analysis procedures were thus established to process the plethora of statistical data yielded by the tests, where a single parameter or a small set of figures had to characterise the accuracy of a timepiece with precision. These data varied over time, becoming increasingly demanding as advances were made in science and the art of watchmaking.By 1766, the Royal Observatory of Greenwich near London organised the first timing competition. In 1823, the British Admiralty launched a competition with prizes of 300, 200 and 100 pounds, in the hope of acquiring the best chronometers for its fleet. Similarly, in France, the Royal Navy paid 2,400 francs for prized chronometers. In 1790 and 1792, the first chronometer competitions began in Geneva. In 1816, the Astronomical Observatory of Geneva founded a timing competition for testing pocket chronometers, although these competitions were too sporadic to warrant much attention. It was not until 1873 that annual chronometry competitions would begin. The value of these competitions and the international influence they were able to bring to the development of the clock and watch industry had finally been understood.The likes of Patek Philippe met with remarkable success when they entered their watches and, as a result, these competitions soon grew in stature domestically and internationally.In 1879, the points system introduced by the Geneva Astronomical Observatory to assess the degree of perfection of each watch was permanently adopted by Emile Plantamour (1815-1882), Director of the Observatory. This system, with its prizes (1st, 2nd, 3rd prize with or without an honourable mention) and its different categories (marine chronometers, deck or pocket chronometers, with or without complications), was followed in 1884 by the competition at the Astronomical Observatory of Kew (later at the National Physical Laboratory of Teddington) in Great-Britain, then in 1885 by the Besançon Astronomical Observatory, in France. The observatory competitions of Neuchâtel, Hamburg and Washington also enjoyed great acclaim. Unfortunately, the tests were never standardised among the different countries and, as a result, no proper comparison of their results is possible today. As well as publishing the ratings in official papers, the prized timepieces received a "Bulletin officiel de marche" (official rating certificate) and gold, silver or bronze medals.Patek Philippe won the "limited edition" prize for the five best pocket watches in 1884 and 1895. From 1900 to 1939 - the year in which the company celebrated its hundredth anniversary - it won no fewer than 764 prizes in Geneva, 187 of which were first prizes, accounting for more than one-half of all distinctions awarded during that period. The Genevan firm jumped at the chance to take part in competitions held by foreign observatories. This was especially true in the 1960s, when it received England's highest accolade, the Craftsmanship Test, first awarded in 1951. Only twelve watches can boast such a distinction, with the Patek Philippe tourbillon pocket watch No. 198'423 attaining the best result ever recorded. Testing at the Geneva Observatory was interrupted in 1967 by the advent of quartz watches. Today the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse de Chronométrie) alone conducts rating tests and issues certificates.A law was introduced on 6 November 1886 governing pocket watch rating tests at the Geneva Observatory. It laid down the terms and conditions for applying the "qualité de Genève" standard to certain watches, as certified by an official seal. This seal is equivalent in value to an "official rating certificate" and allows watches to qualify as a chronometer. After one or two amendments and supplements in 1891, 1931 and 1955, prompted by advances in technology, the rules and regulations governing the testing of mechanical watches appeared in their final form on 5 April 1957.