Industrialization, invention, education, craftsmanship, and exploration.
The history of American watchmaking is captivating and compelling, but not as well documented as Swiss watchmaking history. Even so, there are stories that should be told, inventions that we can learn from, and people whose lives must be remembered. This history is still around us, but it isn't necessarily a quick and easy Google search away. The five watchmakers documented below lived across two centuries and all shared a common trait: They all worked to make a positive contribution to the watchmaking industry and did so from American soil.
Aaron Dennison (1812-1895)
Imagine you are repairing a watch and notice that the fourth wheel has a broken pivot. What do you do? Most likely you would replace the broken fourth wheel with a new one from the factory. (Let's put aside the current issues with spare parts ordering.) If you were repairing this watch in the early 19th century, a spare part that just worked "out of the box" likely did not exist. Probably the only way forward would be to manufacture a new fourth wheel yourself or find a suitably close fourth wheel that could have its pitch diameter modified to work in your movement. The American system of watchmaking, pioneered by Aaron Dennison, made mass produced watch movements with interchangeable parts a reality.
Dennison was born in Freeport, Maine, in 1812. Dennison apprenticed to clockmaker James Cary, and during his apprenticeship made an automatic machine for cutting wheels. No one knew it at the time, but this would be the start of the American system of watchmaking. In 1850, Dennison started a watchmaking company that would focus on the use of interchangeable parts from the start, known as the American Horologe Company. The company went through a number of changes in name and ownership until it was eventually named the Waltham Watch Company – it would go on to become one of the most prolific and successful watchmaking companies in history.
Today Waltham Watches are not manufactured in the USA, but their legacy lives on. Dennison's unique approach to watchmaking through industrialization spurred an entire industry to change and enabled high quality mechanical watches to be sold to a much broader audience, worldwide.
Charles Fasoldt (1819-1889)
Industrialization was a huge part of the development of the American watchmaking industry in the 19th century. But this does not mean that there was no innovation happening beyond interchangeable parts. There was an early American watchmaker who was well-known for his technical expertise. He was the first American to incorporate duo-in-uno hairsprings and safety barrels in his movements, and he pioneered the damascene finishing style that was so prevalent in American watch movements. Last, but not least, he invented a co-axial escapement. His name was Charles Fasoldt.
Yes, you read that right: There was a co-axial escapement in use before George Daniels invented his version. This fact has created a fair amount of confusion and controversy over the years. First, co-axial is simply a description of two or more wheels that share a common axle. The center wheel in the watch you are likely wearing right now could be considered co-axial as it shares an axle with the hours and minutes wheel of the dial-side motion works. Fasoldt and Daniels both made co-axial escapements, but they were different in key ways. Fasoldt understood that separating the locking and impulsing actions of the escapement would lead to better frictional performance but his co-axial provided an impulse to the balance in only one direction. This means that it was not self-starting and therefore not optimal for use in a mass-produced watch. A small twist or shake was necessary to start the watch once it had run down, similar to a detent escapement. In comparison, Daniels' co-axial provides two impulses to the balance and is self-starting. In Daniels' patent for his co-axial escapement Fasoldt's co-axial is cited as prior art.
Fasoldt was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1819, but he immigrated to the USA when he was 30, and lived and worked in New York. Fasoldt has many patents to his name, including his co-axial escapement, regulating mechanism, and a specialized microscope. Fasoldt’s clocks and watches still fetch high prices at auctions around the world. For example, a unique desk clock by Fasoldt sold for $68,500 at Sotheby's in October 2010. Fasoldt's inventions show that there was more to the story of early American watchmaking than industrialization, and they continue to inspire and motivate both watchmakers and collectors to this day.
Henry B. Fried (1907-1996)
All three major horological associations in the United States have something named after Henry B. Fried. The Horological Society of New York awards the Henry B. Fried Scholarship annually; the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute's library and clock tower is named after Fried; the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors bestows the Henry B. Fried Watch Award. So, who was Fried, and why does he have so many things named in his honor?
In his obituary, the New York Times described Fried as "the dean of American watchmakers." The word dean is an apt description for Fried, as he devoted much of his life to horological education. Fried came from a watchmaking family, with both his father and grandfather working as watchmakers. Watchmaking was at one point a popular elective class to take in high schools, just like woodworking, cooking, and band classes are today. And of course, Fried was the first watchmaking teacher for the New York City public school system. Fried was president of the Horological Society of New York, president of the New York State Watchmakers Association, and vice-president of the Horological Institute of America (a precursor to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute.) Fried was also a prolific author – he wrote 14 books on watchmaking that continue to be in demand today.
The word "watchmaker" in the English language is a bit of a misnomer, as most watchmakers don't make watches. Fried was no exception. He did not make watches in the sense that others in this article did. What Fried did was share his love for all things horological with everyone he possibly could, and as a result sparked the imagination for countless students who today are practicing watchmakers.
Gene Clark (1948-2006)
It is exceedingly rare to find a watchmaker who can manufacture most of a watch themselves. Watchmaking has always been an industry that relies on specialized suppliers to some extent. Even for brands that advertise their watches today as "in-house" there is almost always some parts that they cannot make themselves (hairsprings are the most common). With that in mind, what if I told you there was a watchmaker working in the late 20th century who made his own dials, cases, plates, bridges, screws, wheels, mainsprings, escapements, balance wheels, and even jewels, all by hand, without the help of CNC? You would probably think I am describing George Daniels, but I'm not. I'm describing Gene Clark, who lived and worked in Colorado and made some of the most spectacular, rare, and unique American watches in history.
Gene Clark was born in 1948, and had a successful career in restoration of antique guns. In 1974, Clark became interested in watchmaking, and proceeded to teach himself the art by taking on watch restoration work. In 1986, Clark began work on his own watches. Clark worked by himself and used a non-sequential numbering system. It is believed he made seven watches, each taking thousands of hours to complete. Clark went as far as smelting his own gold to get the color he desired for his cases. The only parts of his watches which were not made by his own hand were the hairsprings (which were shaped and vibrated by Clark, but not manufactured from scratch), the crystals, and the engraving.
It is important to note that Clark was not merely copying Breguet or Daniels. Instead, he was persevering to improve on the function and performance of the mechanical watch. This is easily seen through his development of his unique hacking system for the tourbillon, constant force device, and improved detent escapement. Gene Clark's work is craftsmanship at its finest.
Charles Sauter (1922-2016)
On December 7, 1972, NASA's Apollo 17 mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was the final Apollo mission and the astronauts were tasked with carrying out many scientific experiments while on the Moon. The Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment was planned to examine the Moon's crust by detonating a series of explosives once the Lunar Module had safely taken off from the Moon. The key word here is safely. How could NASA be sure that explosives did not detonate early while the astronauts were still on the lunar surface? To ensure safe operation, NASA hired Bulova Watches to design, engineer, and test the mechanical watch movements that would be used to time the detonation. The man in charge of the project was Charles Sauter, a watchmaker living in New York.
The details concerning Sauter's work with Bulova and NASA are fascinating, but they represent only a small portion of his impressive career. Sauter was born in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, in 1922. He studied mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University and later studied watchmaking at the Hamilton Watchmaking School. After a stint in the U.S. Army, including time at the Manhattan Project, Sauter joined Bulova Watches as an instructor. His years at Bulova encompassed many different positions, including working as the Principal Engineer for the Accutron watch and as the Principal Engineer for the Apollo 17 Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment. Sauter has two patents to his name, for a micro-miniature stepping motor and an anti-backlash gear. In addition, Sauter was an active member of the Horological Society of New York, writing frequently for the Horologist's Loupe.
When we think of NASA's Apollo missions and their relation to horology, Omega comes to mind right away. But American watchmakers were involved, as Charles Sauter's work clearly shows. Sauter's contributions to American watchmaking went far beyond the wrist, ending up on the lunar surface. We can all learn from his scientific rigor and commitment to exploration.