How were watches adjusted?

Thread: How were watches adjusted?

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  1. #1
    Member Shangas's Avatar
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    How were watches adjusted?

    I'm curious to know how were watches adjusted? (As in - "Adjusted to X positions"). How was this done and how hard was it to do?
    "Pipes are occasionally of extraordinary interest...nothing has more individuality save, perhaps, watches and bootlaces."

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  2. #2
    Member Ray MacDonald's Avatar
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    Well first of all let's make the distinction between regulation (moving the regulator so the watch gains/loses time) and adjustment (getting the watch to run consistently under a variety of conditions.) Adjustment was done at the factory, and regulation by a jeweler or the owner.
    The first three adjustments are for heat, cold and isochronism. These are done by design of the balance and use of special alloys in the hairspring. Isochronism means the ability of the watch to run consistently when fully wound or not so fully wound.
    Now the other adjustments are for position and try to get the watch to be consistent in a number of orientations. The most important of these for a pocket watch are crown up and dial up. The others are dial down, crown left, crown right, crown down.
    Most pocket watches were built by unskilled labor and then a skilled watchmaker fitted and poised the balance and made the adjustments with tiny screws and washers on the balance wheel. The watch had to run in each of the adjusted positions while this was done. It was a tedious process and labor intensive so the more adjustments made, the more a watch would cost.
    This is a simplified version of what happened but you get the idea.

    There are fathers who do not love their children; there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson. ~ Victor Hugo

  3. #3

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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    I have seen Up to eight adjustments. Positions, temperature, isocranism. Most will be at least three positions, like dial up, dial down and stem down as that is how you would typically wear a wrist watch. That would involve the fine adjustment of the hair spring. The temp. adj. would mostly involve old pocket watches using a split rim balance and the position of certain screws on it. More so getting into required rail road timing. Many think besides the time and cost involved many are not marked to save on import duties.

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  5. #4
    Member Shangas's Avatar
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    Yipes!

    I'd heard that adjusted watches cost a lot of money...now it sounds like they costed a fortune!

    I understand what regulating is, I was just curious about adjustments. Are all watches adjusted so that they'll keep time regardless of the mainspring's level of tension?
    "Pipes are occasionally of extraordinary interest...nothing has more individuality save, perhaps, watches and bootlaces."

    - Sherlock Holmes.

    'The Yellow Face'.

  6. #5
    Member Ray MacDonald's Avatar
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    They try. Obviously a balance will swing further when a watch mainspring is fully wound than when it's almost totally let down. Tricks like a Breguet overcoil on the balance spring help overcome this. What is attempted is to keep the period of oscillation independent of the amplitude of oscillation. Not easy.
    It's less of a problem with automatics since in theory they should be kept pretty well wound up.
    With a manual wind it's best to fully wind it every day at the same time.

    There are fathers who do not love their children; there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson. ~ Victor Hugo

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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    That sounds involved. Question is, back in the old days, what did they use for a time standard? We have vibrografs today that can give error per day readings in seconds but what did the pre-quartz watchmakers do?

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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    We have vibrografs today that can give error per day readings in seconds but what did the pre-quartz watchmakers do?

    I am not clear on this. As far as the 1800s? I have seen antique tube type Ticko print style timing machines at NAWCC Marts with large microphones for pick ups. They usually sell. When was the first introduced? I did catch a program on PBS showing the English noon-solar time standard that is still used. When the sun light focused perfectly in the circle a tone sounded. Now we have atomic clocks. My teacher told the story of the town where the Army base fired a cannon and the jewelry store sounded the noon whistle. But each said they were waiting for the other to go first. Possibly you can figure the time with a navagation Sextant? Not to practical in the wild west days.

  9. #8
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    In the 1800s?! Only one way: note the time against a large clock known to run acurately, wait for a day and note the time again! In the old days, adjusting wasn't too much more difficult, it just took a hell of a lot more time!!

    Hartmut Richter

  10. #9
    Member JohnF's Avatar
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    Hi -

    This is both easy to answer and very hard to do.

    As others have already explained, having a watch adjusted to x positions has everything to do with fine-tuning the performance of the watch. As with any mechanical, electrical and electronic devices, improving performance at the margins is an expensive proposition, regardless of what we're talking about: it's those small margin improvements that make a car much more expensive, or an electrical device that much better, or electronics perform better (think of what it costs to get an extra 20 HP out of an engine that is already optimized, or smoothing out AC current in very-high end audio equipment, or overclocking PCs, such as getting a 3GHz CPU to run at 4.5GHz by using an industrial-quality refrigeration device to lower the temperature of CPU to -40°).

    The same is true for watches. Your modern-day watch is in many ways the culmination of a learning process for movement manufacturing that has led to mass production of extremely accurate watches for the price: take the lowly 2824-2, for instance.

    If you take the TOP version straight out of the box, you can expect accuracy within a 20 second variance range that will show extremely good isochronism (i.e. stability of time-keeping over time). Take the elabore version (next one down), and the accuracy is the same, but with slightly worse isochronism; take the basic version and the accuracy stays about the same, but the isochronism worsens further (i.e. the movement will show some ideosyncrancies aboit keeping time.

    Now, the reason that the TOP version shows such great time-keeping qualities is that it uses better materials than the other versions, which are not nearly as sensitive to temperature changes and material wear over time.

    Regulating a watch to x positions (and 8 is the max: 6 positions, temperature and isochronism) means nothing less than adjusting the watch so that it performs extremely consistently and as accurately as possible, given the basic design, in all of these positions, regardless of temperature.

    Basically, way back when watches were a major purchase and were important status symbols, watch manufacturers would deliver watchs in various degrees of quality to watch sellers, be they watchmakers or jewelers who also sold watches and employed a watchmaker.

    You could see these watches directly, but manufacturing quality control was such that it really made sense for a watchmaker to work on the watch before it was sold, so that customers wouldn't be disappointed. Sort of like having a mechanic check the motor before the customer drives away with the car.

    Pocket watches were invariably worn on a chain, but would move around in the pocket quite a bit over a day (Gruen's pentagon case was an attempt to fix the watch in place, worked nicely, but was only sold on their more expensive models, which didn't need it!), from crown up to crown left or crown right or anywhere in between.

    Hence many pocket watches were adjusted to three positions: crown up, right and left. All good watchmakers had a fairly precise pendulum clock that was extremely accurate - these could reach accuracy of several second a week or even per month - to compare their watches against. The watchmaker would put the watch into a holder and start comparing the time-keeping of the movement against the pendulum clock; he'd note the time and how much it varied over a set period (usually an hour), then adjust the regulator to compensate. Once this was set, he changed the position, repeated, and then once again changed the position and repeated. Then he'd repeat until the regulation of the watch had reached an equilibrium between these three positions. That is regulation in three positions.

    Of course, with a good movement this is usually done in about 1 day (and doesn't take all his time whilst doing it), but with an erratic movement, the watchmaker may have to do some disassembly and post-manufacturing polishing of roughly cut gears, poor lubrication, geometries that were slightly off (especially escapements), or any combination of the above. Some movements are simply not capable of improvement post-manufacturing (so-called dollar movements, for instance), and a watchmaker can be driven to distraction trying to figure out what is wrong with the movement.

    Face down, face up, crown down are the other three positions. These were added when wristwatches were introduced, as all of these six positions cover the basic degrees of freedom that a wrist provides: rotational and y axis movement (x and z are not relevant here).

    Here the watchmaker would simply extend these positionings. Given that we're now talking 6 rounds of adjustment, this takes a LOT longer to get into equilibrium, meaning that the watchmaker spends a few days on the watch. Time is, of course, money, and that is why the vibrograph machines were developed: by listening to the movement via a microphone and being able to chart how the moving parts were interacting, you could drop the time involved from several days to several hours (if there were no major adjustments to be made), which rapidly paid for the considerable cost of the machines and all those reels of paper tape that have been used (one watchmaker that I talked to about this reckoned that he spent around 5 times what he paid for the original machine for paper tape and ribbons over a 20 year period).

    The vibrograph also meant that you could check isochronism, as the machines measure for this: slight variances show up clearly and distinctly, and a good watchmaker can identify what the problem is rather quickly. Temperature is usually equivalent to putting the watch in the refrigerator or under a blow-dryer set at low (there are machines for this...), and usually temperature and isochronism are the last things tested for, as the positioning is the most difficult.

    So, how hard is this to do nowadays? Pretty easy, to be honest: if I had a vibrograph, I could adjust a watch to 6 positions in about 1 hour if there were no major problems; the master watchmaker I sometimes use adjusts in about 15 minutes and then - only for automatics - runs the watch on a winding machine for 48 hours and then does another round of testing (usually about 5 minutes).

    But, and this is the key point: to what accuracy are we talking about? Adjusting watches this way to have perfect accuracy is, bluntly, virtually impossible, as there will always be differences due to gravity in the six positions (unless you've got a tourbillion...). Remember the 20-sec variance as per above?

    A watchmaker can easily halve that, and may get to COSC standards without too much difficulty. A movement may be blessed and play along; many will not, and that's where the real work begins. You can identify which positions create problems and then disassemble the watch to inspect surfaces and maybe polish a few, check oilings, true the balance because it's slightly off, or any number of steps to improve the accuracy, and this is where the true ability of a watchmaker starts to shine: being able to quickly identify the problem and do something about it makes all the difference between an average watchmaker and a really good one. This usually comes from experience, but there are those who are natural talents and who can review the possibilties in their head before even opening the case (sorting of like solving differential equations with 8 variables without using a computer...).

    Hence: adjusting a watch like this can take forever if the customer is willing to pay for your time, equipment and knowledge to ensure that he can have the best possible time measuring instrument available and demands extremely high accuracy (like seconds per month, rather than days). Most watchmakers will roll their eyes and sell this person a HEQ instead...

    And for the historical record: there is a reason why the first contests for watch accuracy were done by observatories. An observatory can determine each and every day "true noon" for the date and location of the observatory, providing a perfect reference for any time piece. This was one of the reasons why observatories were subsidized by the government, be it crown or republic, and both Greenwich and the US Naval Observatory (where the Vice President, interestingly enough, lives...) continue to provide such observations to this day.

    And while you can determine the latitude with a sextant, you cannot determine the longitude: for that you need an accurate timepiece, which is what got Harris started.

    JohnF
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  11. #10
    Member Ray MacDonald's Avatar
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    Re: How were watches adjusted?

    This might be an article for the sub-forum, John.

    There are fathers who do not love their children; there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson. ~ Victor Hugo

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