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What does the Queen of England use to tell the time? Likely a limited edition time piece from Britain's most prestigious clock makers, COMITTI.
As with many great achievements there were humble origins. This company began with the aspirations of an Italian instrument maker, Onorato Comitti, who in 1845 was drawn to England by the unprecedented prosperity generated by the Industrial Revolution. In 1850 he opened a workshop in London and quickly built a reputation for his craftmanship in instrument making. During the late Victorian periods the company gained renown as one of the finest clock makers in England. The company was awarded a Diploma of Honor in 1888 in recognition for their workmanship and luxury timepieces.
I think it would safe to say that Onorato Comitti was successful instrument maker and businessman in his own right.
More then 150 years later, Comitti is still a family-owned business run by the fifth generation. Comitti maintains its international reputation for luxury timepieces by still using the finest traditional methods of English clock making. What a family, what a story!
Historically, the Industrial Revolution gave birth to many innovations we still use and love today. Many of the great innovators made their mark during this period, such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. The area of time pieces was no exception. John Harrison (1693 - 1776) was an English clock maker who made his innovative mark by fixing a problem for sea navigators.
Lets talk a little more about sea navigation to better understand the ingenuity of John Harrison in his marine chronometer invention.
Determinting your precise location is done by using the combination of three measurements: longitude, latitude and altitude. Latitude is calculated by measuring angles between the obserfer and the suns position at noon or between a star constellation and the horizon. Longitude is calculated using the known factor of earths rotation and units of time. For the purpose of sea travel, altitude can naturally be ignored as the ship is at sea level.
Until the mid 1750’s Accurate navigation at sea, out of sight of land was an unsolved problem due to the difficult in calculating longitude. Why would that be you ask? You would be right if you assumed accurate time pieces had already been around since themed 1600’s, after Christiaan Huygens invent ted the pendulum clock in 1656. However the simple gravity based pendulum clock was useless at sea with the rolling of a ship and up to 0.2% variation in gravity of the earth on the high seas!
Now we see the predicament sea navigators faced. To calculate their longitude position they needed an accurate time piece that wasn’t effected by its position or relative change in gravity.
Desperate for a solution to this problem to allow further ships to explore further out of sight of the coast line, in 1714 the British government offered a “longitude prize” for a method of determining longitude at sea. Awards were ranging from £10,000 to £ 20,000 (that’s approximately between £ 2 to 4 million pounds in 2020 terms) for an innovation to fix the problem. Shouldn't be too hard, right?
John Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter began his quest of engineering and ingenuity to solve the problem. He submitted around 5 different prototypes over the course of 31 years. Its safe to say it became his life’s work! I am also happy to say he succeed in claiming his 20,000pound prize in 1761.
John had to combine many different aspects of engineering to create an accurate time piece that was not influenced by gravity or the motion of a ship. His first two prototypes used a counter-oscillating weighted beams connected by springs (image below). You might start to notice a similar resemblance in appearance to The Navigator Clock made by Comitti in honor of John Harrisons work.
However, without delving too much into the physics, John found that this movement was still sensitive to other more subtle forces such as centrifugal force which meant it would not be accurate enough at sea.
And so began decades of experimentation to find the perfect combination of elements and engineering to offset all forces that might impact the accuracy of the time piece. It wasn’t until he invented a much small design (about the size of a pocket watch) and combined the technology of a fast beating balance wheel controlled by a temperature compensated spiral spring, that John found success!
John Harrisons manuscripts demonstrate his expertise in clock movements and engineering.
It's always fascinating during the process of innovation that more problems are discovered or created before you arrive at the solution. The story behind each chosen element to the first marine chronometer is no exception. Let me break down for you the reason of choice for each component.
The balance wheel, harnessed to a spring solved most of the problems associated with the ships motion.
Unfortunately, the elasticity of most balance spring materials changes relative to temperature. So to then compensate for the ever changing spring strength due to temperature changes, he then added a bi-metallic strip to move small weights towards and away from the centre of oscillation. This allows an alteration in balance to match the changing force of the spring with temperature and humidity changes that would be encountered at sea.
The escarpment (a feature of many time pieces) allows the momentum of the oscillation of the movement to be maintained and counter any tiny losses from friction. Hard gems like the ruby, sapphire or Dimond are frequently used as jewel bearings to decrease friction and wear on other parts of the movement.The weakest link of any mechanical timekeeper is the escapement's lubrication. When the oil thickens through age or temperature or dissipates through humidity or evaporation, the rate will change.
This is why we recommend servicing your mechanical clock every 7 to 10 years to keep parts like the escapement lubricated over time.
John Harrison combined the best individual elements of engineering to fix a complex problem. John had to individually address each challenging component from the motion of a ship to subtle gravity changes and their effect on timepiece accuracy. He also then had to address the effects of temperature changes on the movement materials. In 1976 with his final successful prototype submission, he collected his £20,000 prize. I take my hat off to the gentleman, just incredible!
Marine chronometers are the most accurate portable mechanical clocks ever made and his invention allowed a new age of discovery abroad for sea explores.
Comitti, a company that represents ingenuity, craftsmanship, history and luxury have honoured John Harrisons invention with their Limited edition navigator clocks.
Here at The German Village Shop we have a Limited Edition #14 of 25 made, Rose gold plated and carbon fibre base Navigator clock for collectors and investor to purchase.
We believe this is the last one commercially available in the world. The other 24 models have been purchased and placed in private collections. #14 resides in our store until it finds itself a permanent home.
At a glance you will be wowed by the unique rose gold plating contrasting with a lacquered carbon fibre base. A crystal glass mitred canopy protects the movement.
The clock face has silver plated roman numerals. The carbon fiber base has a piano high glass finish and also features a key draw.
Only 25 pieces made world wide, this limited edition time piece is numbered (#14) and supplied with a certificate of authenticity. Dava Sobel’s book ‘longitude’ is included with each timepiece to reflect the historical significance of the origins of the movement. Finally this #14 limited edition clock will reach your home safely with a customised mahogany finish presentation travel case.