Hooke vs. Huygens

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Whoever coined the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” was only mostly right. Necessity is important, but many of the world’s great mechanical inventions have been moved to production because of another force entirely: competition. These kinds of technological rivalries spring up in every arena, and the results become part of cultural memory. There’s Tesla and Edison. Microsoft and Apple. McDonalds and Burger King. Even the world of clock-making is not exempt; in fact, some of the most important pieces in the modern watch came out of one of these rivalries.

After centuries of time-keeping devices like sundials, water clocks, and sextons, people in the 1600s were anxious for more accurate, more mobile clocks. Astronomers and sailors in particular felt the need for consistent, accurate measurements to help them chart their courses and make better maps of both the sky and the ocean. As a result, much of the excellent technology now available in our watches is owed to Dutch astronomers and scientists who set their minds to the problem of time-keeping nearly four hundred years ago.

Chief among these astronomers were Christiaan Huygens and Robert Hooke: astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists both. Using Galileo’s early concepts of a pendulum, Huygens was the first person to work out the mathematical formula for designing a consistent and accurate clock pendulum, and brought its use into prominence. For those interested in the math, his calculation looks like this:

On the other hand, Hooke invented a new escapement that made the pendulum clock accurate enough to demand the addition of a minute hand which then became common on clocks. These historic breakthroughs by Huygens and Hooke are still used in many mechanical clocks today. Despite the advantages of a pendulum clock for the astronomer, however, this form of time-keeping had little use for a sailor on board the deck of a moving ship. Another more accurate time-keeping device needed to be invented—one which could hold up to travel and the constant movement of a ship at sea.

The race for a new kind of clock was on, and Huygens and Hooke’s real competition began. Independently of each other, both men invented a type of a spring-balanced watch. By exactly measuring the shape and tension of a spring tucked inside the watch, Huygens and Hooke both created small, mobile time pieces that kept accurate time even when they were jostled. Though there were still inaccuracies, the method itself was an unparalleled success, and the method is still used in many modern watches today that include a detached lever escapement.

Hooke and Huygens raced to get the patent for the spring-balance watch, and both men had credible claims to having invented the mechanism first. Unfortunately, Richard Hooke, who was a notorious hothead and continual dueler, ended up cutting his own case short. Hooke was embroiled in any number of disputes with other inventors about his claims to particular theories and inventions; he even argued with Isaac Newton over his claim to gravitational theory.

In the end, Hooke’s argumentative nature got the better of him. He was killed in a duel in 1703 before he could prove his side of the story. In the end, Huygens got the credit for the spring-balance watch and the patent on the pendulum clock. Huygens also went on to patent a pocket watch in 1675. That same year, he also designed a type of internal combustion engine that ran on gunpowder. (The watch worked better.)

Why does all of this matter, you well may ask? In the end, it may turn out to matter entirely. There is an element of impersonal detachment that has become a trend in modern Western consumerism, which tends to tell us that a watch is, in fact, just a watch. And so it might be, but the small crystals and wheels and springs within the timepiece on your wrist were the product of great sweat and blood and tears, and quite a lot of human personality. It is a piece of history: diverse, sometimes conflicting, but still beautiful. The timepieces that we use today, for all their apparent simplicity, are an elegant and compact reminder of the deeply personal nature of clock-making, and a lasting monument to the products of human ambition, intelligence, and initiative.

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