My namesake, John Arnold, was an 18th century genius and developer of the fine art of mechanical watch-making. He was the first to design a watch that was both accurate and practical. Along with his friend and contemporary, Abraham-Louis Breguet, John Arnold is credited with inventing the modern mechanical watch.
John grew up in Bodmin, Cornwall, England and was apprenticed to his father, a clock-maker. He also probably worked with his uncle, who was a gunsmith. In 1755, when he was 19, he went to Holland to stay with his relatives (my ancestors). He worked as a watchmaker in the Hague, returning to England around 1757.
In 1762 John Arnold met William McGuire for whom he repaired a repeating watch. Arnold made a sufficient impression so that McGuire gave him a loan, enabling him to set up in business as a watchmaker at Devereux Court, Strand, London.
In 1764, Arnold obtained permission to present to King George III an exceptionally small repeating watch mounted in a ring. A similar repeating watch by Arnold has survived. It is of interest that the basic movement is Swiss in origin but finished in London. The escapement of this watch was later fitted with one of the first jeweled cylinders made of ruby.
Arnold made another watch for the King around 1768. It was a gold and enamel pair cased watch with a movement that had every refinement, including minute repetition and center seconds motion. In addition, Arnold fitted bi-metallic temperature compensation, and not only was every pivot hole jeweled, but the escapement also had a stone cylinder made of ruby or sapphire. Arnold designated this watch “Number 1”, as he did with all watches he made that he regarded as significant, these numbering twenty in all.
Arnold also appears to have been the first to think of the concept of the Tourbillon; this must have derived from his known work on the recognition and elimination of positional errors. In the Tourbillon device, the balance and escapement is continuously rotated and virtually eliminates errors arising from the balance wheel not being perfectly balanced whilst in vertical positions.
Arnold appears to have experimented with this idea but died in 1799, before he could develop it further. It is known that Breguet made a successful and practical Tourbillon mechanism around 1795 but, nevertheless, he acknowledged Arnold as the inventor by presenting his first Tourbillon in 1808 to Arnold’s son John Roger.
As a tribute to his friend Arnold Sr., he incorporated his first Tourbillon mechanism into one of Arnold’s early pocket chronometers, Arnold No.11. An engraved commemorative inscription on this watch reads:
- “The first Tourbillon timekeeper by Breguet incorporated into one of the first works of Arnold. Breguet’s homage to the revered memory of Arnold, given to his son AD 1808.”
This important and significant watch is now in the British Museum’s collection of clocks and watches. By the time of Arnold’s death in 1799, he was the most famous watchmaker in the world, recognized for his preeminence as the inventor of the precision chronometer.
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