In the mid-1800s, watchmaking was much different from what we are used today.
Horology spread throughout the world at the beginning of the 1800s. Still, watches were quite costly. One of the main problems was that the escapement used was still quite complicated to make.
The most used was the cylinder escapement, which was less complicated and costly than the verge-fusee that was in use precedently. Still, it had its drawbacks all the same.
The problem was with the escapement wheel. It was very tiny – and still, it had a very complex shape, as the teeth at the end of each “arm” had to be placed in an orthogonal position – that is, with an angle of 90°. You understand by yourself that making such a complicated exploit of micro-mechanics was not a small feat back then.
More, the shape of the balance wheel staff rendered it more prone to breaking while in use.
The result of this two concurrent factors is predictable.
The watches made with this kind of escapement were still quite costly to make and to buy, so they were reserved to the most affluent classes.
The alternative to the cylinder escapement was the lever escapement, which was still very costly. It used a two-pronged anchor, which had to be fitted with two jewels so to ensure the best performance. And until the invention of synthetic gemstones in 1902, these jewels were made of real gems, which had to be cut appropriately for the task.
So, the escapement mechanism had to be simplified more and made more affordable and robust to render it suitable for mass production.
This feat eventually happened with an almost forgotten watchmaker, who instead deserves a primary position in the watchmaking Hall of Fame. Along with Breguet and the others who revolutionized the industry.
The industrial development of the pin-pallet
His name was Georges Frederic Roskopf (1813-1889), the inventor of the pin-lever escapement and the so-called Proletarian Watch.
By splitting the function of the cylinder escapement in two simpler elements (an escapement wheel and a pin-pallet), Roskopf rendered them much easier to make and lowered the production costs of movements significantly.
In 1860 Roskopf began to design such a watch, with just 57 parts instead of the usual 160 parts or more.
His timepiece could be manufactured industrially and could be sold for 20 francs (which was about two weeks of wage of the average worker) while remaining simple, robust, and of good quality.
This radical approach was met by hostility, as Roskopf and his democratization of time-keeping were considered “dangerous” for the status quo of the industry, and he was openly boycotted. Eventually, he managed to produce his watches in 1867, using ebauches and cases from the Malleray Watch Co., and assembling them in Damprichard, Doubs, France, by M. Chatelain.
Roskopf watches were not fantastically accurate, but they were finally affordable, and everybody could eventually afford to buy one.
From 1867, when they were presented in the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the Roskopf watches sold like crazy through Europe and the USA.
The pin-pallet watches helped bring down the cost of the high-end timepieces as well, which had to be rendered more affordable through the refinement of the so-called Swiss anchor escapement: the one we still use today.
Watches and mass-production
The history of Roskopf and his Proletarian Watch matches with another very particular one: the story of an American in Switzerland, who founded a company known as International Watch Company in 1868. He was an engineer and watchmaker called Florentine Ariosto Jones.
And yes, we are talking about the modern-day IWC.
He aimed to combine the Swiss watchmaking excellence with the modern techniques of mass-production, and to export the final products to the USA, a vast market which highly regarded the quality of Swiss watches. It was the beginning of the great industrial boom that would take the USA to become a world leader for 150 years. And the booming internal market of the USA offered lots of possibilities for the most adventurous and bold manufacturers.
The plan of Jones was spot-on. Back then, Switzerland was a rather poor country. People carried out their watch-related activities in rather small, family-run labs, and still had little idea about how to industrialize their skills.
Jones’ plan of opening a modern factory in the traditional watchmaking area was revolutionary. So much that it raised the firm opposition of the French-speaking community who lived in the cradle of Swiss horology, the region around Le Locle. This was the main reason why he would select another place for his dream to come true: Schaffhausen, in the German part of the country.
Finally, in 1875, a modern factory was built – a 45-meter long edifice that could accommodate 300 workers under one roof.
Jones introduced the American mass-production concept, defined as the “sequential series of operations carried out on successive special-purpose machines that produced interchangeable parts.”
We need to make it clear that he did not invent this system by himself: Jones – then a young man – went to work for one of the best watchmaking firms in America, E. Howard & Co. He eventually rose to the rank of the superintendent of the factory. Still, in 1867 he applied for a passport, and he traveled to Europe, looking for a place to establish a watchmaking business, using the so-called “American System” of watchmaking that he had learned professionally when in the USA.
This system derived from the manufacturing methods developed for the Federal armories at Springfield and Harpers Ferry. And the aim was quite similar: high precision, interchangeable parts were needed for assembling weapons – something that made the system perfect for watchmaking as well.
Jones, though, was more an innovator than a manager: he went bankrupt, and had to sell his company in two years. Still, his contribution was fundamental to launch a business model that would render Switzerland the powerhouse of watchmaking that it is today.
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