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Watch History

1. Perrelet 1770

Abraham Louis Perrelet working on a watch

The Swiss watchmaker Abraham Louis Perrelet invented a self-winding mechanism in 1770 for pocket watches. It worked on the same principle as a modern pedometer, and was designed to wind as the owner walked, using an oscillating weight inside the large watch that moved up and down. The Geneva Society of Arts reported in 1776 that fifteen minutes walking was necessary to wind the watch sufficiently for eight days, and the following year reported that it was selling well.

Breguet: 1780

Perrelet sold some of his watches to a contemporary watch making luminary, Abraham-Louis Breguet around 1780 who improved upon the mechanism in his own version of the design, calling his watches "perpetuelles" the French word for perpetual. They did not work reliably and Breguet stopped producing the around 1800.

2. 'Bumper' wristwatches: 1923

'Bumper' wristwatches: 1923

Self- winding mechanisms by August Ritter von Lohr of Austria patented inthe 1880's

Self winding mechanisms were more successful in wristwatches because a person's arm moves much more during daily activities than his torso, where a pocketwatch is kept; the rotor could operate every time the owner moved his or her arm. The first self-winding wristwatch did not appear until after World War I, when wristwatches became popular. It was invented by a watch repairer from the Isle of Man named John Harwood in 1923,who took out a UK patent with his financial backer, Harry Cutts, on 7 July 1923, and a corresponding Swiss patent on 16 October 1923. The Harwood system used a pivoting weight which swung as the wearer moved, and which in turn wound the mainspring. The ratchet mechanism only wound the mainspring when moving in one direction. The weight didn't rotate a full 360°; spring bumpers limited its swing to about 180°, to encourage a back and forth motion.This early type of self-winding mechanism is now referred to as a 'hammer' or 'bumper'.

When fully wound, Harwood's watch would run for 12 hours autonomously. It did not have a conventional stem winder, so the hands were moved manually by rotating a bezel around the face of the watch. The watches were first produced with the help of Swiss watch manufacturer Fortis and went on sale in 1928. 30,000 were made before the Harwood Self-Winding Watch Company collapsed in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression. 'Bumper' watches were the first commercially successful automatic watches; they were made by several high grade watch manufacturers during the 1930s and 1940s.

3. Rolex

The Rolex Watch Company improved Harwood's design in 1930 and used it as the basis for the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, in which the centrally mounted semi-circular weight could rotate through a full 360° rather than the 300° of the 'bumper' winder. Rolex's version also increased the amount of energy stored in the mainspring, allowing it to run autonomously for up to 35 hours.

By the 1960s, automatic winding became standard in quality mechanical watches. Because the weighted rotor needed in an automatic watch takes up a lot of room in the case, increasing the thickness of the watch, some high end watch companies, such as Patek Philippe, continue to design manually wound watches, which can achieve a case thickness as low as 1.77 millimeters.

4. PERRELET - Abraham Louis, Le Locle

PERRELET - Abraham Louis, Le Locle
  • 1729: born
  • 1826: died

Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826), "l'Ancien," was the son of Daniel Perrelet. He has been considered the greatest master of Le Locle horology. He was apprenticed to a master watchmaker and then set up on his own. He first made tools (his father was a well-known tool-maker). He invented the rounding-up tool and other tools.

Perrelet was a founder of the precision watch industry in the Neuchâtel mountains. He became the master of all the watchmakers of that era in Le Locle. He modified the watch mechanism by using novel combinations. He was the first watchmaker in Le Locle to work on cylinder and duplex escapements. These were excellent, and he also made watches with an hour ratchet for striking the hours. Perrelet made the first repeater in the mountains.

Records showed that he supplied the PHILIPPE DU BOIS factory with watch movements, train wheel bridges, repeaters, etc. It is interesting that he did not sign his watches but it was not customary to do so in those days in Le Locle.

Perrelet was one of the inventors of the so-called 'perpedual or 'self-winding' watch, 1770-1776;

A report to the Geneva Society of Arts in 1776 by H. B. de Saussure said, that "Master Perrelet, watchmaker, has made a watch in such a way that it winds itself in the wearer's pocket as he walks; fifteen minutes walk suffices to make the watch run eight days. Owing to a slopwork, continuation of the walking motion cannot damage the watch."

The next year it was reported that "This timepiece is sold at twice the price of a good ordinary watch, and Mr. Perrelet already has many on order." The Society bought one of the watches in order to examine the mechanism.

Perrelet's first perpetual watch ran for eight days. Although this was the first serious attempt to do away with the winding key, the hands still had to be set with a key. The watches were very large. Perrelet also made a device to wind the watches with a key while they were not in use.

After his invention of the pedometer-wind "perpetual" watches ca 1780 Perrelet made several of these watches for BREGUET and for RECORDON in London, both of whom made new and improved versions. He also sold to PHILIPPE DU BOIS, and the JAQUET-DROZ.

In 1900 Abraham Perrelet's face was on the notes issued by the Neuchateloise bank.

The Robert Collection in Fontainemelon had a watch that Perrelet made at age 95.

5. BREQUET Abraham-Louis, Neuchatel, Paris

BREQUET Abraham-Louis, Neuchatel, Paris
  • 1747: born at Neuchatel
  • 1823: died

Started in Paris 1776, but watch No. 1 is of 1787. Breguet attracted the attention of Louis XV and set up in Paris on the quai de l'Horloge. He became a member of the Academy des Science.Very soon Kings, Princes and European celebrities were buying his watches. Breguet made the first "perfect&hibar; automatic watch, capable of running for eight years without being overhauled and without going slow. This watch still keeps perfect time today. Breguet's inventions meant that it was possible from then on to make watches accurate to within a tenth of a second. Thanks to him, considerable progress was made in marine navigation, astronomy and physics, and his contemporaries began to look at the time in the way you look at a jewel. Breguet signed his watches in the way that Boulle signed his furniture and Rembrandt his paintings.

The extra-flat watch was one of Breguet's inventions. The perpetual or automatic watch, the perfecting of so-called "multiple complication" watches, the balance spring, were all Breguet. The "tact" watch, the constant-force escapement and the tourbillon watch were also by him. It would take hours to list all his inventions. Many watches bearing his name were made outside and finished in his workshop. There are innumerable watches being his name in forgery. He made many improvements, including the parachute ca.1790, and the tourbillon in 1801, also many self-winding watches. He was the first to make lever escapement with lift partly on the pallets and partly on the teeth. The over coil balance spring is known by his name. Draw was absent from early levers, but used after 1814.

Most important collections contain genuine and forged watches. The late Sir David Salomons had a collection of 102 watches and 6 clocks by Breguet.

Subscription watches: British Museum, London, Guildhall Museum. British Science Museum, S. Kensington.

Striking cylinder watch and musical. Repetition.Cylinder watch: British Science Museum, S. Kensington.

Tourbillon watches: Guildhall Museum and Ilbert collection. The latter, of 1808, was the first made.

Verge watch: Dennison collection.

Pedometer winding repetition watch No. 27 (1791), several watches and pedometer: Ilbert collection.

Regulators: Buckingham Palace and Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, Paris.