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Transformation in Time: The National Watch and Clock Museum

Review by Adam Harris

My first visit to the National Watch and Clock Museum was in 2009. Before my visit, I had been studying horology for some time and had miraculously stumbled on a great mentor; I gained from him a little knowledge and some outstanding wristwatches.

 

I have traveled a great deal in my retirement, and I like to visit museums of horology. On this trip in 2009 to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I decided to visit the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, and present my collection to them. I contacted Museum Director Noel Poirier, and we agreed on a date to meet.

 

I was impressed when I first saw the Museum and still marvel today about how magnificent the building is. Noel Poirier greeted me and we went to the board room where I showed him my collection of early Rolex, Harwood, Rolls ATO, Eberhard hermetic, and my modern Dubey and Schaldenbrand wristwatches. As my collection unfolded, Noel called in other members of the Museum staff to see what everyone agreed were magnificent vintage wristwatches.

 

Afterward, even though it was a Monday and the Museum was closed, they opened it up and allowed me to view all the pieces on display.

The adventure begins display sign.

Photo credit: NAWCC.

The first reproduction of the Antikythera Device. Photo credit: NAWCC.

Table clock circa 1660. Photo credit: NAWCC.

Table clock circa 1570. Photo credit: NAWCC.

Make no mistake, this Museum has the most varied and complex collection in the world. Does it have some of the magnificent and exotic pieces like the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneve? No, but this is a Museum of timepieces, and it holds its own against other horology museums, such as the Musee International D’Horologerie – La Chaux De Fonds, Switzerland.

 

The Museum exhibits begin with early timepieces. It owns a unique and perfect copy of the Antikythera Device, a mechanism discovered in 1900 during an excavation of a ship that sank around 80 BC; the device was named after a small Greek islet.

 

The most amazing feature of this mechanism from circa 80 BC is its complex array of dials, gears, and differentials, which shows that the Greeks were developers of scientific instruments, among other things.

 

Clepsydras, early sundials, and other very early instruments for measuring time were also featured in the early timepieces.

 

Because I am a wristwatch enthusiast, I skipped all these items and searched for wristwatches. In my pursuit I saw a table clock from 1660 and an amazing table clock from 1570. Because I had studied the beginning of mechanical timepieces, I was intrigued.

Then I spotted a Thomas Tompion tall clock. Wow! He invented the cylinder escapement in 1695 and was called the “Father of English Clock Making.” Surely, I must be getting close to a wristwatch.

The table clock on the left is from circa 1660. The iron case is extensively inlaid with silver, depicts allegorical and mythological themes, including griffins, servants, animals, and gods. The three (yes, three) dials on the clock indicate the time (hours only), day of the month, and day of the lunar month. In addition, three apertures provide additional calendrical information.

 

The circa 1570 table clock on the right has an alarm mechanism. The dial on the front indicates time, while dials on the back indicate alarm setting and power reserve—not bad for 1570!

 

Then I spotted a Thomas Tompion tall clock. Wow! He invented the cylinder escapement in 1695 and was called the “Father of English Clock Making.” Surely, I must be getting close to a wristwatch.

 

I traveled on. I saw some pocket chronometers from John Arnold, dated 1810. Arnold, with Thomas Earnshaw, invented the detent escapement for chronometer accuracy in 1776—and here was one of his handmade pieces!

 

I passed European tall clocks, American tall clocks, European wall clocks, American clock production, American railroad timepieces, tools, and exhibits on American manufacturing in the early 1900s.

 

Nearly one hour and I still did not see a wristwatch. Were they the Holy Grail of the Museum?

 

Venturing on, I came to regulator clocks, American pocket watches, and European pocket watches from some of the greatest horologists who have ever lived: Thomas Tompion, Thomas Mudge, Daniel Quare, Leon Leroy, George Graham, and Abraham Louis Breguet. The Museum’s collection of pocket watches is  extensive and outstanding—but still to my tiring legs and spirit—not a single wristwatch!

 

Next was a beautifully laid out turn-of-the-century jeweler’s shop followed by an array of ship’s chronometers—all great pieces.

 

Tower clock mechanisms were next, along with novelty clocks and car clocks. Then low and behold, 1.5 hours into my tour, I spotted some wristwatches—a display of Hamilton watches.

 

Before I reached the gift shop, I saw a handful of forlorn pieces that were okay but would never satisfy the appetite of a hungry horologist or inspire any wristwatch researcher.

 

And inside these cabinets were the wristwatches below.

 

 

Tompion tallcase clock. Photo credit: NAWCC.

Forlorn wristwatches. Photo credit: NAWCC.

Wristwatch exhibit, 2009.  Photo credit: NAWCC.

That was 2009 and all these photos were taken on that trip. Since 2009 I visited the Museum and Noel many times  to update my collection and tour the Museum. Then in late 2011, with the generous sponsorship of Gallet Watch Co. Inc., a grant was offered for a Guest Curator of Wristwatches. I duly applied and in 2012 became the first Gallet Guest Curator at the NAWCC.

 

My first task in 2012 was to photograph and catalog every wristwatch. I was amazed to see that we actually had more than 1,600 wristwatches, but many were not cataloged and most were never photographed. I photographed and cataloged each one in 2012.

 

In 2013 I was invited back again to install the first permanent wristwatch display. Armed with my knowledge of the collection from 2012, we installed The History of the Wristwatch—1900 to Present. It comprises 126 timepieces, seven display cabinets, and is complemented with outstanding graphics along the walls. This display surely portrays the best overall coverage of the history of wristwatches.

 

I also added a Novelty Watches display.

Wristwatch exhibit, 2013.  Photo credit: NAWCC.

I am superbly proud to be part of this transformation of the Museum. These changes and a new mindset in the Publications Department promoting wristwatch news at watchnews.nawcc.org, I believe will bring a new and fresh spirit to the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

James Bond exhibit, 2015.  Photo credit: NAWCC

Bulova exhibit, 2015.  Photo credit: NAWCC.

In spring of 2015, Dell Deaton, jamesbondwatches.com, added a magnificent James Bond display titled James Bond Wore—The Quartz Revolution. This fall we opened a six-month Bulova display, Bulova: A History of Modern.

 

Finally, to show the Museum Director’s desire for change and improvements, we have also installed a display of Vintage Rolexes–1930 to 1945. These watches, which I have already bequeathed to the Museum, are now on loan for display. This display will rotate every three or four months to allow my whole collection to be viewed and enjoyed by visitors.

 

The Museum now has a wonderful and exciting area dedicated to the wristwatch: from the mundane Timex to wristwatches with multiple complications from 1900 to the present—all beautifully laid out with clear descriptions. I improved the cataloging descriptions of these pieces so that correct research can be carried out on all the watches, displayed or not.

 

I am superbly proud to be part of this transformation of the Museum. These changes and a new mindset in the Publications Department promoting wristwatch news at watchnews.nawcc.org, I believe will bring a new and fresh spirit to the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

 

Acknowledgments: Photographs are the property of the NAWCC and  may not be used without prior permission.

 

Adam R. Harris

Guest Wristwatch Curator

Rolex display, 2015.  Photo credit: NAWCC.

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