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The father of English clockmaking

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Thomas Tompion, regarded as “the father of English clockmaking”, died 300 years ago this week. His work includes some of the world’s most historic and important clocks and watches. Examples still working today can be found in Buckingham Palace, the British Museum and the Science Museum.

Tompion probably worked as a blacksmith until 1664, when he was about 25 years old and became an apprentice to a London clockmaker. His most important early patron was the scientist Robert Hooke, which would have opened doors to royal patronage as well as giving him access to the latest technology.

When the Royal Observatory was established in 1676, King Charles II asked Tompion to build two identical clocks based on Hooke’s idea of a very long pendulum swinging in a small arc. These clocks, which only needed to be wound once a year, were extremely accurate and important tools in the calculations required for astronomical observations.

Tompion’s relationship with Hooke enabled him to build some of the first watches with balance springs, which were much more accurate than earlier watches.

During his career Tompion’s workshop built around 5,500 watches and 650 clocks, which were known for their ingenious design and robust construction. Tompion’s numbering system for his spring and long-case clocks is thought to be the first instance of a serial numbering system applied to manufactured goods.

The Mostyn Champion, possibly Tompion’s finest clock, is a year-duration spring clock with “grand sonnerie” striking (which strikes the number of hours on a gong every quarter hour, then the number of quarter hours since the hour on a second gong). It can be seen in the Djanogly Horological Gallery of the British Museum. One of Tompion’s first watches with a spiral balance spring is on display in the Science Museum.

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