Thomas Tompion. A very fine and historically important early balance-spring silver key wind pocket watchCirca 1675-7
Lot 7
Thomas Tompion. A very fine and historically important early balance-spring silver key wind pocket watch
Circa 1675-7
Sold for £ 8,750 (US$ 11,647) inc. premium

Lot Details
Thomas Tompion. A very fine and historically important early balance-spring silver key wind pocket watchCirca 1675-7
Thomas Tompion. A very fine and historically important early balance-spring silver key wind pocket watch
Circa 1675-7
Gilt full plate verge movement with pierced and engraved winged balance cock, signed Tho. Tompion on the potence-plate, and with later inscription 'Tho Tompion LONDON,'and traces of scratched 'No.1' also on the potence-plate, fine balance-cock pierced and engraved with a tri-partite design with small irregular foot, 3-arm steel balance, the balance-spring pinned by square wedge, silver regulation disc, four large tapering Egyptian pillars (two engraved, two left plain) silver dial with Roman and Arabic chapters, signed engraved centre, lacking hands; polished silver inner hinged case, outer square-hinged silver case of slightly later date 46mm.


  • This is one of the earliest Tompion watches recorded, a very rare survivor from the fertile period of English watch-making which followed the introduction of the spiral balance spring in 1675. It is listed as the second earliest of just six which are known to have been made by Tompion between July 1675, when John Flamsteed told Richard Towneley that 'Mr Tompion is now makeing a watch in the forme they have resolvd on for sale ...', and c.1681 when he began numbering his watches in a series.

    The Dutchman Christiaan Huygens' invention of the spiral balance spring, the most significant advance in the history of watch-making since the mainspring had first enabled watch production, was communicated to the Royal Society in January 1675. Upon hearing the news an indignant Robert Hooke was fired into action. Hooke, the scientist and Curator of Experiments to the Royal Society had, some years earlier, been testing timepieces using a variety of springs of simpler form. Hooke employed Tompion when experimenting to produce a watch to challenge Huygens' design and his diary contains many references to the work. None of Hooke's efforts were successful and although he had initially dismissed Huygens' invention with the comment that it was not worth a farthing, it is thought that he was soon employing Tompion to use a spiral spring (though interpretations of evidence from Hooke's diary differ) in a watch made for Charles II and finished in August 1675.

    Of the six Tompion timepiece watch movements surviving from this period, no two are alike.

    Three of them, including this example, have no fusee. This is a clear indication that it was thought that the balance-spring could enable timekeeping which would not be too affected by the diminishing power of the mainspring as the watch wound down. In designing these movements Tompion was determined to get the best possible service from the mainspring, to which end in two of them he used a barrel of larger diameter than used in a more conventional verge movement. The provision of stop-work ensured that the lower end of the mainspring was rendered redundant, and it is possible that the very upper end of the spring was not used as well; it would have depended upon how the watchmaker set the spring up. In the earliest of this group Tompion used a going-barrel with stop-work incorporated into the recessed great-wheel. This example has a pierced and engraved standing barrel with stop-work on the potence-plate. The design of movement forbade the use of a conventional centre wheel, so the second wheel arbor was extended through the pillar-plate and squared to take a wheel which drives the canon wheel carrying the canon pinion, mounted floating on a central stud. The design also determined that the train would, in effect, run in the opposite direction than in a movement with more conventional arrangement. Interestingly, Tompion used a comparable arrangement –-reversed direction of train with floating motion-work - in a small group of month-going longcase clocks of about the same period.

    Three of this group, including this example, have a regulation disc which was originally fixed. A small hand indicated the setting, but the arrangement was later altered so that the disc revolved and the hand was dispensed with.

    Tompion cannot have been satisfied with their performance however, because the fusee was soon reinstated - as seen in the other three members of the group. All of the six have rudimentary examples of the arrangement which has come to be known as 'Tompion regulation', one of them being operated via a capstan mounted between the plates. It is interesting that whilst three different pillar styles may be counted amongst the six watches (early tulip, late tulip and Egyptian), all have a balance-cock with a small, very irregular foot and with table finely pierced with the tripartite design. Along with a number of later movements, each of these movements was signed, probably by the same engraver, in a fine early flowing style.

    The search for a successful sale model was the objective which demanded priority during the experimental period of the Hooke/Tompion collaboration, but just how many of each of these surviving types was produced cannot be assessed. Tempting though it might be to describe any of the six as an experimental model, it would probably be incorrect to do so, because each may be the sole survivor of a group of a type whose design had been settled upon as suitable for retail. Clearly, however, none of the models continued in production for long and so in that sense it was, indeed, the most experimental and transitional period of Tompion's watch-making career, even if individual surviving examples may not be the original experimental models in the true sense of the description.

    Nevertheless, of the six survivors, this is the only example which can currently be shown to display some indecision during construction. There are two unusual features. Firstly, work had begun to cut a four leaf pinion into the great-wheel arbor to engage the stop-wheel, but this was abandoned in favour of a separate pinion of larger count squared onto the arbor. Secondly, the awkward positioning of the signature – squeezed in around the cock-foot whilst there was ample space on the other side of the plate - where the second signature was added some time later, might suggest that a different arrangement of potence-plate components had been planned but abandoned. In common with other inner cases of the same period this one is of unusual construction in that it has a separate band between hinge and pendant – possibly evidence of modification from a pre-balance spring case?

    The movement of this watch is believed to have been the first illustrated example of Tompion's watch-work (apart from escapements) – published as an engraving in the Horological Journal of November 1890. It was then in the famous collection of Evan Roberts of Manchester who had lent it to Robert Gardner to write and publish a description. Gardner was most impressed with the movement, suggesting that it contained the "earliest example of the resting barrel in existence", and comparing it to a watch patented in America in 1857, and also to the Roskopf movement. The engraved illustration shows what might have been the original blued-steel stop-work, but it is more likely that it originally had an engraved silver disc like all of the contemporary Tompion movements. The engraver of the illustration omitted one of the pillars and the "Tho" of the earlier signature.

    Assuming that his pre-numbering watches have an even lower survival rate than later watches, say 4% to be generous, the six timepiece watches recorded could illustrate that Tompion might have made as many as one-hundred and fifty during the period of six years or so between the introduction of the spring and the start of serial numbering, ie.c.1675-c.1681. This would represent an average of twenty-five per year – roughly two per month, but in reality, bearing in mind that Tompion's business arrangements must have improved as his reputation spread, and as methods of production were updated, the annual figures might have been closer to, say, ten or fifteen in 1676, rising to perhaps thirty or forty in 1681. There was a significant rise in output from the moment he began numbering – the average annual production during the period 1681-90 being in excess of one hundred and twenty watches.

    Evan Roberts Collection.
    Williard H Wheeler Collection.
    Timex Watches.
    Camerer Cuss.
    Burton Collection.
    Martin Ball Collection.
    Horological Journal, November 1890, p.35/6, description by Robert Gardner.
    FJ Britten, Former Clock & Watchmakers, 1894, figs 48/9.
    FJ Britten, Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers, 1st ed., 1899, fig.187/8 (2nd ed., 1904, figs.412-3, and also in subsequent editions, ie. 6th ed., 1932, figs.455-6).
    Exhibited 1895 Royal Aquarium and Summer and Winter Garden, St James', cat. no 380 (CC Library, Guildhall, pam.21.).
    By 1911 it was in the Willard H Wheeler Collection which was sold Sotheby's (property of Timex Watches) 10:10:1961, this watch was lot 28.
    Stanley H Burton, The Watch Collection of Stanley H Burton Warts and All, 1981, 34/5.
    M Ball, Bringing the Work On, 1675-1680, published privately 1988.
    Sotheby's London 4:6:1992, lot 57; Antiquarian Horology, Winter 1993, p.159, report of sale.
    M Ball, 'Pendulum Watches for the Pocket', published privately 2005.
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