The 2013 NAWCC Ward Francillon Time Symposium and Special Exhibition of Spectacular Clocks, Watches, and Sundials
by The Pre-Eminent Master
Thomas Tompion (1639–1713)

California Institute of Technology Pasadena, California

7-9 November 2013

Jonathan Betts

Senior Curator of Horology, Royal Museums Greenwich (U.K.)

Precision Crunching,
1650-1900: Measuring Time Accurately over 250 Years

  • Biography
  • Presentation
  • Further Information
  • Jonathan Betts was born in Suffolk, England, in 1955 and studied for the British Horological Institute’s examinations in Technical Horology at Hackney College, London between 1972 and 1974. He then spent five years in business on his own account as a freelance antique clock restorer, and in 1979 was appointed Senior Conservation Officer (Horology) at the National Maritime Museum (now Royal Museums Greenwich, RMG). He has been Senior Curator of Horology there since 2000.

    In his own time he has, since 1980, been Horological Adviser to the National Trust of Great Britain; Horological Adviser to the Wallace Collection (London) since 1983; Curatorial Adviser to the Harris Collection at Belmont in Kent since 1984; and Curatorial Adviser to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers since 1992. He is a Council Member of the Antiquarian Horological Society and is on the Court of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, of which he will be Master in 2014.

    Apart from many articles in the horological press, publications include The National Trust Pocket Guide to Clocks (1985), the small book Harrison (1993, new edition 2011) and Time Restored (2006), the biography of the great horologist and polymath Lt. Cdr. Rupert T. Gould (1890-1948). He has just completed a catalogue of the collection of marine chronometers at the RMG.

    In 1989 he was awarded the National Maritime Museum’s Callender Award, in 2002 the Clockmakers’ Company’s Harrison Gold Medal, in 2008 the BHI Barrett Silver Medal, and in 2012 an MBE in the Queen’s Jubilee honours “For Services to Horology.” He lives in Greenwich.

    It’s a curious concept: a machine with toothed gears and a powerful driving force, created to measure something as ephemeral as the passing of time. To make a clockwork machine that did so with extreme accuracy seems even more bizarre. Yet for two and a half centuries, leading scientists and inventors brought their greatest powers of thought and inspiration to bear on the subject, and horological history is blessed with one of the most extraordinary and technologically important series of mechanisms in human history.

    It is self-evident that the better and more accurately such a machine is made the better it will perform its function, and precision timekeepers, both for land-based and portable use, known respectively as regulators and chronometers, were always the most carefully designed and built. The great 18th-century chronometer maker Thomas Earnshaw described chronometers as representing the “top-most bough of the tree of mechanism,” and they were indeed the “aristocrats” of all clocks and watches. By definition these developments were the state of the art, and there were high stakes scientifically, commercially, and politically in their creation and in their use. No wonder then that the stories behind them are not only exciting and inspiring, but are fraught with argument, prejudice, misappropriation, and deception.

    So often in technological advance new concepts which enable improvements in scientific endeavor eventually filter down to become hardware of real and commercial value in society as a whole. In this way these “high tech” horological developments soon formed articles of commerce in those countries concentrating on their improvement, and saw healthy trade in the watch- and clock-making industries as a result.