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Michael Larsen, GG
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Published: 9 March 2017

The 17th Century Computer

A Journey Through Time
We’re all accustomed to modern computers and smart phones that are capable of an incredible array of functions, which have increased exponentially in the last decade. But if we were to journey back 400 years, the state of the art technology of the time was the watch movement. It’s only computation: to measure the passage of time.

In the 1600s, there was nothing as advanced as the movement of a watch. There was no electricity, the arrival of the industrial revolution was still 100 years away, and all transportation was horse powered. Weapons and war generally drew the most attention for progress, financial research, and development. Yet all weapons still consisted of single-shot guns with no rifling which had to be hand loaded, where the sole moving parts were the trigger and the hammer.

What set timepieces apart was the existence of finely made multiple-integrated moving parts.

Advancements like the mainspring allowed the introduction of seconds hands. Many of these improvements were spurred on by the maritime industry, as a great majority of long distance travel and shipping was carried out via the world’s waterways, and oceanic travel necessitated accurate timekeeping in conjunction with the sextant to guide sailors across the vast oceans.

Getting Complicated
In the centuries to follow, clock and watchmaking constantly improved in both accuracy and complication. No other technological advancement of the time incorporated the precision and delicacy involved in the production of a watch movement.

In an era when large scale mechanical developments were groundbreaking during the industrial revolution, watch movements were by far the highest form of technology.

Timekeeping now included complications above and beyond simply hours, minutes and seconds. These complications included repeating movements that would chime out the time, moon phase displays to indicate the lunar cycle, and stopwatch functions (referred to as a chronograph). All of these required detailed mechanical production on an extremely small scale in order to fit into a portable and compact case, and all were executed in a time when lighting was provided by gas or oil lamps and the next most modern implement was the telegraph.|

Many of these complications, like the moon phase or an automaton, were novelties, features that were unnecessary for everyday life. Automatons are tiny figures that move when activated and were powered by the same mechanism that provided power to the timekeeping function. One common automaton is the Jacquemart, which shows two opposing figures striking a bell. A more risqué version is the erotic automaton, which was commonly hidden under that back case cover, for obvious reasons, as it displayed a couple in an amorous situation (we will leave the rest of the description to your imagination).

Still Ticking
Though other technology accelerated its progression and surpassed the timepiece as the leader of modernization, the watch still remains a highly sought after creation and is more akin to a piece of fine art than a modern marvel of manufacturing mastery.

While the precision and craftsmanship involved in producing a modern watch is of extremely high quality, watch buyers are in search of both the timeless piece as well as the unique. Vintage watches remain very active in the market as collectors look to purchase a nostalgic piece from the past or to own something rare that is no longer produced.

Browse & Bid Now | The April 7 Auction Watches of Distinction

Have questions about how to buy at auction? Visit our Buying at Auction page for more information, or contact our Client Services team at clientservices@freemansauction.com for help with bidding and registration.

Images: From the "Martime Collection," a group of ship's chronometers sold 2005; an 18 karat yellow gold half hunting case chronograph pocket watch, John Bennett; sold 2011

 

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