Robert Hooke, Thomas Tompion and the clockwork universe

The mechanical philosophy, a term first used by Henry More in 1659, a year after Fromanteel announced his pendulum timepieces, sought out the image of the clock’s complications as a means to understand the world. As historian Stephen Shapin notes ‘Of all the mechanical constructions whose characteristics might serve as a model for the natural world, it was the clock more than any other that appealed to the many early modern natural philosophers’.

Within the shifting plates of these intersecting ruptures, the clock was more than just an ornament, it was an exemplary object: a commodity, a symbol, a tool of precision measurement. It now offered an image of a mechanical explanation of all things, ordered by regularity and repeatability. It also offered the idea that while Man might be able to understand how the laws of Nature work, and may even be able to adapt the complications, this was also proof of the existence of a master clockmaker who first put the parts together.

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In August 1664, the curator of experiments at the recently established Royal Society, Robert Hooke, clambered amongst the rafters of the tower of old St Paul’s Cathedral in order to conduct a series of precarious tests that he had been cogitating for the previous two years or so. He wanted to drop different weights from the highest point and to measure how they fell. Did objects fall at the same acceleration, or did heavier masses fall faster? Or slower? He had devised a machine, a pendulum, that could record in half seconds the descent. Thus, tying the weights to a length of string of measured length, he recorded how long it took until the string went tight as they fell to the ground. Within the same season Hooke was part of a team of philosophers who determined to set up a 200 ft pendulum within the body of St Paul’s to perform a more impressive set of experiments.

The historical echoes of such experiments are palpable. The first natural philosopher to study pendula was Leonardo da Vinci, but his work was buried in a series of notebooks. Therefore, when the young Galileo observed the apparent uniform swaying of the large brass lamps hanging in the nave of Pisa Cathedral, he must have felt that he was the first to measure the motion, checking it against his own pulse. This story was later set down in his first book, The Discourse and Mathematical Demonstrations relating to Two New Sciences. (It was translated into Dutch in 1638 by the leading Leiden publisher Louis Elzevir). At the same time, Galileo also started to use the pendulum’s supposed isochronic motion in his astronomical observations using a ‘time counter’ that marked the swings. This was set down in an illustration five years later, that gave us the first glimpse of a mechanical ‘pin-wheel escapement’ pendulum-powered counter.

Meanwhile the question of measuring time more accurately was being discussed by natural philosophers across Europe. And although news travelled no faster than a horse, this was a international conversation. In the Netherlands, in 1643, the French philosopher, Rene Descartes was writing to his clockmaker, to work on an early example of a weight-driven chain clock. In July that year he came to Amsterdam to visit the workshop and also see his friend, the distinguished courtier Constantyn Huygens, father of Christiaan. This, in turn, influenced Descartes’ own, more famous thinking about the relationship between the body and the mind: in which he reduced the body to a series of interlocking parts, much like clockwork.

In England, after 1646, a small cluster of philosophers gathered in Oxford to sit out the Civil Wars. They were similarly fascinated by the motions of the pendulum and the potential for creating an efficient instrument to measure time. Called ‘the Invisible College’, these intellectuals and experimenters set themselves the task of rethinking the universe itself: to uncover the discernable laws of nature by a new method of mechanical philosophy. Everything, they proposed, should be reduced to motion, or body; and there was no higher authority than that which one had observed oneself. Therefore modern science originated in the search for the accurate means to measure distance, weight, speed, volume, and time. And the quest for accurate scientific instruments to measure and understand these quantities was paramount.

After Charles II’s Restoration of May 1660 many of the philosophers from the Invisible College in Oxford gravitated to London, including Hooke, hoping to set up what became the Royal Society, the first society dedicated to the exploration of natural philosophy. The founders, although keen to establish ‘the settling of an universal, constant and impartial survey of the whole creation’ were not interested in new knowledge for its own sake. Instead, knowledge, they declared, should be ‘useful’, dedicated to practical considerations and profit. Hooke, who was named Curator in 1663, was commissioned to ‘furnish them every day that they met with three of four considerable experiments.’.

And to such ends, the following year, the curator began his series of precarious explorations of the rafters of St Paul’s cathedral, hoping to gain a better understanding of how gravity affects the motions of a pendulum. Furthermore, as the history of the Society records, he was also presenting to the fellows ‘several new kinds of pendulum watch for the pocket, wherein the motion is regulated, by Springs, or weights, or lodestones, or Flies moving very exactly regularly.’ In 1667 he presented plans for a mechanism whose motion ‘should be reduced to an exactness, which it had not had before.’ He also set out ways in order to check a dial’s accuracy against the sun. And here, Hooke sought the knowledge and skill of a young clockmaker who worked on Water Lane, just off Fleet Street: Thomas Tompion, who would later be called the father of English clockmaking.

Born in 1639, the son of a Bedfordshire blacksmith, the young Thomas grew up in the tumult of the Civil Wars, learning a trade at his father’s forge, as recorded in the 1719 Weekly Journal obituary: ‘the Great Tompion had never made Watches, had he not first made hobnails’. How he became a clockmaker is less clear. Biographer Jeremy Evans conjectures that the young artisan was connected through his family with Edward East, who came from the same part of the country. Evans also speculates that Tompion worked as a journeyman for the Fromanteels, and may have done some service for Samuel Knibb. Fromanteel notes in a letter to the Court of Assistants of the Clockmakers’ that he has an employee who ‘could do that in the Trade that no five of the Assistants could do’ which is a beguiling if inconclusive possible description of a young man who came to be considered one of the master of his craft.

In 1671, Tompion moved to Water Lane, just off Fleet Street. This area was still popular amongst clockmakers, with Thomas Harris, the maker of the St Dunstan’s clock on the same thoroughfare, and others scattered throughout the neighbourhood. Water Lane itself was less than salubrious, however, leading down to the Thames via Dung Wharf, where the city’s night soil was dispatched onto barges for disposal. The whole neighbourhood had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, so the new streetscape and housing followed the strictures of the First Rebuilding Act. The street itself was slowly emerging from the ashes of the Great Fire; gaps along the streetfront revealed plots that remained undeveloped.

Within a few months, the residence was inspected by the Clockmakers’ Company, conducted by a group of worthies including Edward East, and revealed little of interest, incurring only a minor fine of 4d. Six weeks later Tompion was called to the Company court and ‘was admitted and sworne a Brother of this Company’. The records also notes, that Tompion was named ‘a great Clockmaker’, a title that Evans suggests referred to his work as a maker of turret clocks.

This would certainly correspond to his first recorded work in London, the clock on the Wardrobe Tower, within the Tower of London complex at the eastern end of the City. This was commissioned by Sir Jonas Moore, the Surveyor General of the Ordinance as well as a leading figure within the Royal Society. This placed Tompion within a group of natural philosophers such as Edmund Halley and John Flamsteed who, in a few years, was named the first Royal Astronomer. He may have also been involved in developing a number of instruments, from fire squirts to barometers, and must have been working on a variety of timepieces, although no individual device has been attributed to the craftsman alone. He may have done work for both East and Fromanteel during this period. It was also during this period that he first met Robert Hooke.

From 1676, Tompion’s workshop could be found at the Dial and Three Crowns, on the corner of Fleet Street and Water Lane. Sir William Petty, when he noted one visit to Tompion’s workshop, highlighted the very early example of the division of labour and specialisation within the team, and the effect on cost: ‘if one man should make the wheels, another the spring, another shall engrave the dial-plate and another shall make the cases, then the watch will be better and cheaper, than if the whole work be put upon any one man’. This division of labour was not necessarily all to be found at the workshop. There is plenty of evidence that Tompion bought in parts from nearby reliable craftsmen, or bought in expertise and specialised serivces from other artisans. There is also evidence of a store room that housed standard ‘blanks’ that allowed for hasty assembly. This would include ‘pillars, latches, train-wheels, click-wheels, cock and flies . . . [and] steel rods for arbors.’ And in May 1674 there is discussion of ‘making an engine for finishing wheels, and a way of how to make a dividing plate.’ Later, the philosopher John Locke reported that Tompion had a machine: ‘I have not seen it but he told me it is a very big machine fixed to the building and not moveable.’ The enterprise was large enough that he also hired a group of clerks — ‘William Smith, Francis Ferris and C Powell’ — who handled the payments and receipts for such a complicated business. Later he banked at Hoare’s around the corner on Fleet Street.

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In April, 1674, the clockmaker appears for the first time in Robert Hooke’s diaries, the beginnings of a fruitful and inventive relationship, despite Hooke misspelling Tompion’s name for at least the first month. Over the course of their long relationship, Hooke and Tompion built some of the most ground-breaking instruments of the era, but also took part in wide-ranging studies that included ‘the properties of metals, magnetism, mechanics, arches (probably with respects to tooth forms), bladders and bellows, mills, muscles, fire engines, pumps, clepsydra, barometers, flying chariots, optics, monkeys, the North Passage, universal joints’ and so on.

The previous month, March, 1674, Hooke had claimed to the gathered fellows of the Society that he could produce an accurate quadrant for less than £10, and then had set about finding a craftsman who could perform to his exacting conditions. A plan for the quadrant appeared in Hooke’s Animadversions, published the same year. The book’s main subject was an attack on the work of the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius who believed that one could accurately make naked eye observations of the stars. Tompion’s instrument, as well as new improvements in telescopes, pendula and timepieces, was proof of the benefits of human ingenuity in uncovering the laws of God’s Creation, perhaps, as Francis Bacon had proposed, even offering a ‘second creation’, a rediscovery of the tools lost at the Expulsion from Eden.

Over the next months, Hooke revisited Water Lane repeatedly, revising plans, discussing a plethora of mechanisms, sharing his infective fascination with every details from ‘founding shrinking and swelling of metal, bells, screws etc’ to ‘dividing compasses screw upon a rule, as also for making all manner of spyrales of the posyd watch swimming in water’, and even ‘invented the way of printing with the common press pictures made with pinns’.Together Hooke and Tompion worked on the quadrant, which was completed in July 1674.

They then turned their attention to a new balance spring watch. That January, news had arrived at the Society that the Dutchman who had done such pioneering work on the pendulum, Christiaan Huygens, had also devised a spring to regulate the complicated of a watch. Huygens was looking for a patent, with the backing of some of the grandees within the society.

Hooke immediately questioned the priority of the Dutchman’s innovation. He claimed that he had been working on such devices for decades and reminded the Society that seven years before he had first announced that he had ‘lately contrived a new way of wheel-work for clocks., watches etc. which I think does much excel all the ways yet known.’ He had not produced any clear designs and later abandoned the work as his imagination was distracted by other pursuits, nonetheless he now demanded his due. His later biographer Waller noted that it was common for the Curator to make claim for inventions that he had not completed, and call foul when another requested recognition.

On this occasion, Hooke was right to smell a conspiracy. When he went back to the Society records to prove that he had already presented his ideas, he found that they were missing. Hooke became convinced that the Society Secretary and President were promoting Huygen’s right to the patent. Hooke notes in his diary that the debate even reached the King, who refused to acknowledge Huygen’s plans. As a result, the demonstration of the timepiece itself was what was necessary to gain the proof: paper sketches and equations were no longer enough.

On March 8, 1675, Hooke sat with Tompion in Garaway’s coffee house as he sketched out a new balance spring: ‘I shewd my way of fixing double springs to the inside of the Ballance spring’. And in haste, on April 7, they presented their designs for the new watch to Charles II who was ‘most graciously pleas’d with it and commended it far beyond [Huygens]’ But still the King insisted that they had to complete the actual timepiece itself.

Over the next ten days, Hook notes numerous debates and experiments with Tompion. A month after their royal conference they were working with different types of springs and balances. On 17 May, they had a device to show to the King, which was presented and ‘locked up in his closet’. The next Hooke met Charles in the park, who ‘affirmed it very good’. The next day, however, Hooke was obliged to take the watch back, but it was not reported why, but most probably for adjustments. The curator and the clockmaker spent the next few month trying to perfect the motion, the watch handed over to the King on occasion and then passed back for improvements. At the same time, Hooke and Tompion made a similar watch for Moore and Flamsteed, but they were not able to observe the inner workings as, according to Stephen Inwood, ‘the catch that released the back of the watch was filed down so they could not open it and see how the spring was fixed to the watch mechanism’

At the same time, Huygens was trying to gain attention with his own watch, which arrived in London in June. However, it did not work and had no minute hand. He had already suffered the misfortune previously of giving his watch to a British captain, Sir Robert Holmes, to test at sea, only for the sailor to turn pirate and, furthermore, to keep a very sloppy logbook. It was said that his unwarranted attacks on Dutch ships at sea started not only the second Anglo-Dutch war, but also the third. In a lecture in 1676, Hooke relished the news that Holmes’s report ‘giving indeed a very favourable account of their performan[ce] but concealing all their faileurs & miscarriages whereas another person that was in the same ship gave a relation very differing.’

Hooke returned his improved piece to the King in August, 1675, and it was later reported to work to within a minute’s accuracy a day, although the actual formation of the balance and spring is still debated. It also had a seconds hand, which outplayed Huygens for good. However, the design would not become popular, despite orders coming to Tompion from The Duke of York, Prince Rupert and the Dauphine who asked for two copies. Hooke and Tompion would continue their experiments until 1677, and then both turned their attention to other instruments.

While the double balance spring watch itself did not change the world of horology, in the same way that the pendulum clock, it did have an impact on the Mechanical Philosophy. Despite his prodigious inventiveness Hooke only had his name attached to one scientific field: the theory of springs. Hooke’s law shows that there is a linear relationship between the force and the distance that compresses or extents a spring. This emerges out of his work during this period. As a result he was able to explain to Charles II in October 1775 why the weather might alter the speed of the watch. And as a final rebuttal to Huygens’ claims to precedent, Hooke rushed to print, adding his updated designs for springs and watches in the postscript of his survey A Description of Helioscopes and some Other Instruments, which was already at the printers.

Hooke and Tompion’s collaboration was proof of the interwoven nature of the clockmaker’s art and the ingenuity of the natural philosopher in this extraordinary period. Yet it was more than the laurels for scientific knowledge that were won here. The improvement of the mechanics of time-keeping was not of superficial interest to experimenters and courtiers alone. However, the pursuit of an accurate timepiece also became useful in the international race to chart the night sky. And, here, Hooke and Tompion were once again central to this quest.

By the end of 1675, Hooke had become exasperated with Tompion’s slowness. He called the clockmaker ‘a slug’ and announced on December 31 ‘Tompion a clownish churlish dog.’ and that he would ‘never come neer him more’. Yet by February 1676, they were working together on the Age’s most important commission, at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

At the cusp of a new age of discovery and imperial ambitions, there was glory as well as a prize to whoever could help steer ships across the oceans safely. Such a discovery also brought trading advantage, the edge in naval battles and bragging rights amongst princes. An accurate timepiece was needed to allow a ship, beyond sight from land, to calculate their position along the east-west line. An empire could be built, and managed, on the power of such a measurement.

Hooke had hoped that his watch might bring him the recognition he felt he was owned and was loathe to see it fall into the hands of a privileged foreigner such as Huygens. Yet neither man created an object fine enough to seal the universal applause of his fellows. The mechanism was inadequate (still needing the bi-metallic compensated balance that was to be developed off the back of Harrison’s work); it was not able to adjust to the vagaries of changing humidity, friction, or the movements found at sea. It was not be until John Harrison’s 1750s H4 marine chronometer that a mechanical solution to the problem was won. Perhaps there was another way?

In 1674 Charles II was surprised to hear that the French were getting close to the solution to the Longitude problem. A French adventurer, Le Sieur de St Pierre had suggested that he had developed a method based on the positions of the moon. And as a result Louis XIV had rushed forward with the creation of the French Royal Observatory outside Paris. In response Charles appointed his own Astronomer Royal, James Flamsteed, and alongside Sir Jonas Moore, they set about plans for constructing their own observatory on the hill above the recently abandoned royal rebuilding project of Greenwich Palace. The task was to create ‘tables of the motions of the heavens, and the Places of fixed stars, so as to find out the much-desired longitude at sea.’ Swiftly, Moore brought in Christopher Wren, Hooke and Tompion to design, build and furnish the new observatory, all done at great speed.

There was little money to pay for the building. Bricks and iron had to be purloined from the abandoned work site nearby, and Moore was able to rustle up £520 from the sale of some spoilt gunpowder. The main structure was completed in the most modest style in ten months between August 1675 and July 1676. Flamsteed was also informed that there was no spare cash beyond his £100 annual salary for equipment, so he came begging to the Royal Society to borrow Hooke’s quadrant. Two clocks were also commissioned at Jonas Moore’s expense from Tompion; Flamsteed needed two clocks just in case one of them broke down. A third was later added from Flamsteed’s own collection. Perhaps with cost in mind, both clocks were constructed without cases, and then embedded behind the wainscott. Each had a 13 ft pendulum that ‘make each single vibration in two seconds of time; and their weights need only be drawn up once in twelve months.’

Evans et. al. speculate about how, on July 13, 1676, Tompion was able to transport his delicate object from Water Lane to Greenwich. Was it placed upon a carriage and then led through the city, across London Bridge and out to Greenwich across the marshes at Deptford. Or did the clockmaker risk the water, carrying the contraption by barge from Dung Wharf to the Palace Steps. By this route, the clock would have had to survive the dangers of shooting the rapids that churned between the arches of London Bridge as well as the trepidations of the moment of moving from land to water and back again.

Once installed, however, there were teething problems. Because of the way the clocks were set in the wainscot, it was thought that the workings were affected by condensation in the closed room and so the workings were encased in thin board. After that Tompion himself made adjustments, removing an escapement that had been designed by Richard Towneley. As Flamsteed reported, the clockmaker wanted to claim ‘the whole was his device.’ The Observatory became the first state-run scientific research facility in Britain, and still operates today. Tompion’s clocks were removed after a dispute following the astronomer’s death, but both have survived. One was acquired by the British Museum, the other was returned to the Royal Observatory in 1994.

Flamsteed never did find the solution to longitude in the stars. But this was hardly the fault of the timepieces that sat on his walls. The final solution was found not in the charting of the skies but with John Harrison perfecting the complicated works within his marine chronometer in the eighteenth century. Harrison had been helped by George Graham, Tompion’s former business partner. All three clockmakers now have memorials in Westminster Abbey, signal of the importance of their work in national culture.

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In 1700, as Christopher Wren was attempting to finalise the west front of St Paul’s Cathedral, he sought to have a clock in the south tower. The newspapers announced that Tompion was working on plans for a dial that would run for a hundred years without winding. It would perhaps have been a fitting combination of all the threads that have run through this essay. St Paul’s Cathedral itself was an architectural, engineering feat — the unique work of scientist/artificer — that reflected but also transformed its times. So it was too with the devices that were emerging from the clockmakers’ workshops on nearby Fleet Street and beyond.

In the forty or so years since work had begun on reviving the principal church of the City, London had gone from a capital reduced to ashes following the Great Fire of 1666 to the most powerful, and populous, city in the world. Within a generation the metropolis, and its people, had experienced a revolution: in politics, economics, and science. The social fabric and the spatial organisation of the city was altered too. All these factors made London the forcing ground of modernity: the conditions of everyday life that we encounter today.

The author of Inheritance, coming in May 2021, The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, and Stones of London, and the bestseller, Cities are Good for You.

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