Clocks, Watches and Automobiles

Did you know that many of the technologies we enjoy in modern automobiles were created by clock and watchmakers in the 17th to 19th centuries? These mechanical inventions along with the development of the American system of manufacturing spawned the industrial revolution and the production of the automobile. Here are a few examples:

Worm Gears
Worm gearing, first found in clockwork calendars and astronomical devices, was later used in hoists, speed reducers and critical-control devices, providing a means to advance a gear by a measured fraction of a gear tooth, instead of one tooth at a time, giving fine control to measuring devices and instruments. The worm gear system is used to reduce noise in engine-driven gear systems. In a reverse application it is used as a speed governor in music boxes.

The Block Chain
The block chain was first used in fusée watches. It’s most familiar to us in its application as bicycle and motorcycle chains, and timing chains in automobiles. Invented by a Swiss watchmaker named Gruet, in 1664, it is now used in assembly lines, machinery and the heavy-trucking industry to transmit a powerful, even flow of power under heavy load conditions.

Variable Speed Gearing
Variable speed gearing, a clockwork principle, provides for automatically programmed variable speeds in production lines without the need to control the speed of the power source. The system uses gear wheels powering elliptical, triangular and lobed cams, another clockworks invention, to vary speeds, essential to valve train management. Early examples of both the variable-speed gearing and the use of cams can be found in the early astraria and celestial globes.

The Frictional Clutch
The frictional clutch was used originally to allow the hands of the clock to travel around the dial as the clockworks ran, but then permitted the resetting of the hands without disconnecting them from the continually running clockworks. Although there are many examples of frictional clutches in used today, the most familiar is the manual transmission of the automobile.

Differential Gearing
First used in an equation clock by Joseph Williamson (d.1725) of London in 1720, differential gearing showed the difference between solar and mean time. Today the differential gear system is most commonly used in the rear end of automobiles, allowing each drive wheel to travel at the same speed when moving in a straight line, but then allowing the two wheels to travel at varying speeds when turning a corner—all the while allowing both wheels to maintain traction.

Roller Bearings
Used in heavy machinery and even in toys, roller bearings help reduce friction, heat and wear in running objects. Henry Sully (1680-1728), an English watchmaker practicing in France, used roller bearings in his chronometers in the early 1700’s. John Harrison (1693-1776), the English chronometer designer, used them on his early clocks. It was from roller bearings that ball bearings evolved.

Governors to control or govern speed can trace their origin to the stop-and-go action of the clock escapement. Governors have been used to control the speeds of ringing bells, continuously running engines, stem generators, music boxes and star-tracking transits. The steam governor, attributed to James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish-born engineer and inventor, can be traced to his early apprenticeship as a clockmaker.

Jeweled Bearings
Jeweled bearings are used to reduce friction and to retain oil where metal pivots turn in jeweled holes. Nicholas Facio (1664-1753) invented the jeweled bearing in about 1704 for use in watches; it is now used in all precision instruments in every industry.

The Universal Joint
Another mechanical invention by clockmakers, the universal joint, is used in automobile drive shafts and other power applications to transmit power from the engine to the drive wheels through minor angles in the drive shaft. Called a d’Cardon joint after its inventor, d’Cardonal, an Italian clockmaker, in 1525, it is still referred to as a Cardon shaft in propellers, and constant velocity (C.V.) shafts in today’s automobiles. Gimbals, used to stabilize moving objects, are a form of universal joint, and have their origin in the clockmaker’s shop. Even the mainspring has had numerous applications beyond clocks and watches.

Interchangeable Parts
One of the key components of successful and cost effective manufacture of automobiles was the making of interchangeable parts. Until uniformity of components could be achieved every part had to be adjusted and hand fitted by highly skilled machinists and assembly workers in order to produce a working machine of any type.

This principle was pioneered in the watch industry from the dark ages and finally perfected by American watch companies in the 19th century, when they nearly put the Swiss watch companies out of business by producing the most automated and accurate watches in the world with a minimum of human labor.

The Assembly Line
Most historians credit Henry Ford as the father of assembly line production, but fail to note the origin of this brilliant, world changing revolution in manufacturing. Henry Ford was a watchmaker by trade and learned the all important lessons of interchangeable parts and assembly line production during his apprentice and journeyman days in Swiss watch factories. He applied all of the principles of his watchmaking training to the design of his automobile and maintained a watchmaking bench – which is still on display at Greenfield Village – in his home throughout his lifetime.

The modern assembly line, the steam engine, the steam locomotive, the steamship, the sewing machine and the linotype can all be attributed to inventors who had their mechanical training and technical education as watchmakers.

Clocks are prototypes of all the greatest inventions since the beginning of time, not only as timekeepers, but as tributes to the ingenuity of man. Those who collect timepieces amass more than timekeeping devices; they possess the source of ideas and inventions upon which all other industries depend. The study of clock and watchmaking is the study of both invention and the developing inventive mind. It is an undeniable fact that clock and watchmakers have contributed more to inventions than any other single source.

Adapted from Timepieces—Masterpieces of Chronometry by David Christianson

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