Meet some of Britain’s greatest timekeepers


Following on from our history of British watchmaking, let us introduce you to some of the key players from the era in which England was the centre of all timekeeping – Robert Hooke, John Harrison and Joseph and Thomas Windmills.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703): “England’s Leonardo”

Robert Hooke was considered one of Britain’s greatest minds during his lifetime in the 17th century, with a body of work that spanned physics, astronomy, mechanics and horology.


He was at one time simultaneously the curator of experiments of the Royal Society for science in London and a member of its council; a professor of geometry and a surveyor to the City of London after the Great Fire of London.

As a youth, Robert Hooke was fascinated by observation, mechanical works, and drawing, interests that he would pursue in various ways throughout his life. Even as a child, he reportedly dismantled a brass clock and built a working wooden replica.
In the late 1650s, according to his own notes, Hooke began to acquaint himself with astronomy and applied himself to the improvement of the pendulum, and the effect of gravity and other forces on their movement. In 1598 Hooke recorded that he conceived of a way to determine longitude (then a critical problem for navigation), and attempted to patent it. In the process, Hooke demonstrated a pocket-watch of his own devising, fitted with a coil spring attached to the arbour of the balance.

There is some dispute as to whether the balance spring was invented in 1660 by Hooke or by Dutch scientist Christian Huygens 15 years later. The likelihood is that Hooke first had the idea, but Huygens built the first functioning watch that used a balance spring.

Joseph and Thomas Windmills (1640-1723)

Joseph Windmills was probably born between 1640 and 1650, although this cannot be accurately verified. During the earliest years of his clock making in London, he was based in St Martin’s Le Grand, just around the corner from today’s St Paul’s Cathedral (it was merely St Paul’s Church at the time).

His London business was so successful that in 1699, Joseph Windmills was elected as the youngest Warden of the Clockmakers’ Company. Meanwhile his son Thomas had completed his apprenticeship and then worked as a journeyman, becoming a freeman of the Clockmaker’s company in 1695/1696.

Joseph was considered one of the finest clockmakers in late 17th century London, and produced a prolific number of lantern clocks of all sizes and qualities. His earliest known watch was created before 1680 and did not feature a balance spring; this is his rarest watch and is displayed in the British Museum.

The development of the sprung balance by Thomas Tompion turned the watch from an ornament to a functioning,
accurate timepiece.

The exact date of Joseph’s partnership with his son Thomas is unknown; however from the numbers of timepieces produced it would appear that the firm became even more prolific with the arrival of Thomas, especially in terms of watch making.

Joseph last attended Court at the Clockmakers’ Company on 24th October 1723, which completed an active membership of the Court that lasted more than 32 years. After 52 years in the trade, he passed away in 1724. Thomas then took over the company working at different times with four partners until his death in 1737. He left no children and was the last of the Windmills’ male line.

John Harrison (1693 – 1776)

John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter and later a clockmaker. He invented the marine chronometer, a long-sought device in solving the problem of establishing the East-West position or longitude of a ship at sea, thus revolutionising and extending the possibility of safe long distance sea travel in the Age of Sail. The problem was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million in modern currency) for the solution.

Harrison built his first longcase clock, with a wooden mechanism, in 1713, and continued to manufacture these, and even larger clocks, for the next 20 years.

During the mid-1720s, John and his brother James designed a series of remarkable precision longcase clocks, to see how far they could push the capabilities of the design. By inventing a pendulum rod made of alternate wires of brass and steel, Harrison eliminated the problem of the pendulum’s effective length increasing in warmer weather, slowing the clock. As a result,

Harrison’s regulators from this period achieved an accuracy of one second in a month, a performance far exceeding the best London clocks of the day and thought by some to have been the most accurate clocks in the world.

Harrison’s first recognised marine chronometer, the H1, was constructed between 1730 and 1735, H1 was a portable version of Harrison’s precision wooden clocks. The moving parts were controlled and counterbalanced by springs so that, unlike a pendulum clock, H1 was independent of the direction of gravity.

The timepiece that bagged the £20,000 prize was Harrison’s fourth attempt, the marine chronometer H4, and the first created in the style of a pocket watch. – albeit a very large one at 13 cm in diameter and weighing 1.45 kg. Harrison’s son William set sail for the West Indies, with H4, aboard the ship Deptford on 18 November 1761. They arrived in Jamaica on 19 January 1762, where the watch was found to be only 5.1 seconds slow.


This article was taken from the January 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read the magazine online, click here.


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