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Clocks and Watches

Updated on August 22, 2014

The forerunner of the modern clock was a rather clumsy, weight-driven mechanism used mainly in observatories, churches and public buildings.

The discovery by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) of the laws governing the motion of a pendulum led the Dutch physicist, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1693) to the construction of the first pendulum clock, containing a mechanism which could operate at sea. Still powered by weights, it proved unreliable, and it was not until Robert Hooke (1635-1703), English chemist and physicist, had established the laws governing the stretching of springs that a good marine clock became a possibility.

To encourage interest in the design of a reliable and accurate clock the British government, in 1713, offered three prizes to anyone who could invent a suitable means of measuring longitude. To win the first prize of £20,000 the rules stated that the method must be able to predict the longitude of a ship to within thirty miles after a voyage to the West Indies. Not an easy job, in view of the variations in clock time caused by different temperatures on the voyage.

A Yorkshire carpenter, John Harrison (1693-1776), dedicated his life to the task and after a number of attempts submitted a clock which, in 1761, proved its worth on a number of voyages. Harrison was very badly treated by the government of the day, who brought up various trivial objections to his invention but eventually agreed to pay half the reward. Only after a long legal action was Harrison given his just reward in 1773 after forty years of determined effort.

As clocks, and eventually watches, became more accurate, scientists were able to study the laws of motion in greater detail. The introduction of the canon and rifle into warfare was, no doubt, an added stimulus to the study of dynamics (the science of matter and motion) and the invention of even more reliable clocks. The Industrial Revolution caused life to move at a quicker pace. The engines of the new age moved faster, factory life worked to the clock and time eventually became the master of man.

In the 20th century discoveries in electronics and atomic physics have demanded clocks which can measure millionths, yes, and even billionths of a second. Only through the invention of electronic clocks could such measurements be obtained. Until very recently, however, the hair-spring watch, with its mechanical movement based on the principles first discovered by Galileo and Hooke, has remained the ordinary man's timekeeper.


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