The ship’s chronometer in the history of the world


The chronometer from the HMS Beagle

Last year the venerable BBC ran the radio programme “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, created in collaboration with the equally venerable British Museum. It is a terrific 100 part series that chronicles the history of the world by examining 100 different objects – one item per 15 minute episode – from the British Museum’s collection. Each episode details how an object, even one that is immensely ordinary, shaped history and countries. The series is fascinating and vast in its scope, but presented in an accessible manner.   Episode 91 was dedicated to a marine chronometer, specifically a clock (there were 22 of them onboard) from the HMS Beagle – the ship made famous by Charles Darwin – made by Thomas Earnshaw, circa 1800.

As explained in the wonderful 15 minute broadcast, the marine chronometer, originally invented by John Harrison for the British Admiralty, is possibly the most important mechanical timekeeper of the modern age, inextricably tied linked to the heroism of the high seas and the relentless progress of technology. It changed the way we live and think. In fact, as the narrator, British Museum director Neil MacGregor, grandly but correctly puts it, the marine chronometer ultimately “[changed] our idea of ourselves and our understanding of humanity’s proper place in history.” 

You can listen to the programme or read the transcript.


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A layman’s view of watchmaking in The New York Times


Nick Hayek of Swatch Group Photo from The New York Times

The New York Times just ran an article on The Swatch Group that is upbeat and appropriately reverential, detailing how strongly the watch industry is growing and how Nick Hayek aims to “reach 10 billion francs of sales just by internal growth”. But there is also plenty of nonsense inside.

Jean-Frederic Dufour of Zenith is quoted as saying “100 years ago… each brand really differentiated itself from others by the quality of its movements”, in the context of Swatch stopping delivering of ebauches to the rest of the industry. That opposite is true – the industry is more “in-house” today than it was 100 years ago. A century ago the industry operated on the etablisseur model where specialists like LeCoultre and Valjoux made almost all the parts and ebauches so even top brands like Patek used Valjoux ebauches. 

And then there is Mr Hayek proclaiming the importance of being truly Swiss made. Of course all entry-end Swiss made watches are 100% Swiss made. The Federation of Swiss Watch Industry details the laws governing the “Swiss made” mark and you can see how fool proof they are.


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