Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!

There have been a couple of articles here on Georges Leschot in the past few years.
And here:

But in this article, I wanted to give a rather larger overview of an era, full of change and revolution in watchmaking, in which Leschot played a crucial part.
It was a time in which the industrial revolution was afoot. Major social and technological changes were occurring. A great movement from rural to urban life was taking place as well, sometimes with calamitous effects. The rise of a middle class was creating demands for goods including “luxury” goods  and that meant watches! But it was not just for watches, but quality watches which people in general could afford.

How the watch industry in Switzerland and elsewhere responded is a fascinating story, and I will concentrate on only part of it.

This was an exciting time in watchmaking. The “industry” consisted of loosely aligned cottage workshops, each with its own artisans and each making watches almost entirely by hand including all the parts. In fact, each watch was a unique piece. Watchmaking was a family business, that is each family household made watch parts. However, there were two very large problems: the demand was far exceeding the ability of the industry in that form to supply watches, and a large part of the production lacked reliability and accuracy.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
The Geneva watchmakers in their "cabinet" or small workshop usually located in the upper floors
of a building to maximize available light.

The Cabinotiers of the 18th Century by Christophe François de Ziegler 1879

The skills and craftsmen were certainly available in Switzerland by the end of the 18th century to make this “great leap forward “. But the Swiss had developed the system of  établisseurs who were watchmaking entrepeneurs. They utilised many family, home operations, each making several different watch parts. The établisseurs provided the raw material and the home manufacturers made the parts. The finished items were then returned to the établisseur who then had them assembled by a watchmaker. They were then sold. However, in such a situation, the quality was not controlled and the end result was of uneven and often of inferior quality.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
Frédéric Japy
The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th saw a real struggle between the established cottage industry production and the rising new technologies of the Industrial Revolution. One of the first to step into the fray was Jacques Jenneret-Gris (same name as Le Corbusier) from Le Locle who had designed machine tools to produce interchangeable parts. Unfortunately what seemed a wonderful concept on paper met a stone wall of resistance in practice. He was reviled as someone would ruin the lives of working families and throw them into destitution. Dismayed and distraught over this negative criticism, he went no further. He eventually transferred his machines to his pupil, Frederic Japy, who had the foresight to escape the Swiss criticism. His father had set up a small factory in Beaucourt across the border in France in 1750 and in 1777 he had the machines installed in a new facility to manufacture verge escapement ébauches.  By the end of the century, Japy had ten separate patents for machine tools to make watch parts. The factory by 1780 employed 50 workers and produced 2400 ´bauche per year. By 1805, there were 500 employees and were producing 12,400 per year. Japy also looked after his employees, improving working conditions, providing social benefits , shops, schools and housing.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
A model of the Japy factory in Beaucourt 1777.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
The Japy factory and workers in the 19th century.

Some of the  Swiss soon realized their shortsightedness and quickly sought to establish their own ébauche factories in Fontainmelon (1793) and in Geneva which was unsuccessful. This shift to a factory, semi-mechanized setting was strongly resisted and the company ultimately failed.  The Genevoises were not yet ready for the “machine age”.

The new ébauche manufacturing system was simpler, more organized, more efficient and much more productive. But although the ébauches were “identical”, they still needed to be finished (now much easier); but alas, they were not interchangeable.

So now we turn to one of the most important individuals of that era, Georges-Auguste Leschot.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
Leschot began his career in watchmaking at a relatively early age. From the age of 16, he was apprenticed to a number of different watchmakers where he learned the “métier”. But the man was a creative genius and many of the watchmaking theories and skills he was able to acquire by his own reflections on the topics. At the age of 25 he perfected the anchor or lever escapement by introducing the concept of  “tirage” or draw to the pallet, which improved contacted between the pallet stone and the club tooth of the escape wheel to increase its efficiency and withstand shocks. It is of course still used today.  This redesign was a significant improvement over the English escapement. Leschot and Antoine Léchaud (same pronounciation) teamed up to mass produce these new escapements.

To be sure, in the first half of the 19th century many innovations were brought to fruition by Antoine Lecoultre, Louis Audemars and P.E. Jacottet to hasten the mass production. But in Europe mechanization of the industry was rare.

The firm of Vacheron Constantin was one of those rare firms. In fact it had been considering mechanization for some time and was not immune to developments around them. The family had built its reputation on unique watches, customized to the buyer. They also had a commitment to excellence. In their foresight, unlike many, they realized that standardization would bring them closer to their desired goal of perfection.  Patrizzi in the 1994 Aniquorum catalogue characterized the Vacheron and Constantin thusly: “These men besides being ingenious mechanics, clever businessmen and refined vendors, had artistic minds and eclectic culture.”

In 1827, Jacques Bartélémi Vacheron had written:

“We are busy setting up a system of  watchmaking production on an entirely different basis. To achieve the goal we have set ourselves, we need to make the blank (ébauche) ourselves in order to attain the perfect regularity that will ensure ease and economy of operations in every detail of the establishment.” (NB. I have seen other translations of this which are somewhat different but the sentiment is the same).

However, more than a decade would pass before concept was realized.  In 1839, Leschot contracted with Vacheron Costantin for the improved production of watch parts. Leschot was able to produce, in a relatively short time, machine tools to produce these parts with very close tolerances. In 1841 he provided the company with a series of machines to produce components for a full range of anchor and cylinder movements of the same calibre but in different sizes.  The most famous of these machines was the pantograph which allowed duplication of watch components on different scales. The watches had the Lépine caliber with bridges rather than a plate which facilitated their production by machine. The techniques devised by Leschot were so successful, compared to other manufacturers that Vacheron soon had more ébauches than they needed and they were able to offer them to other manufacturers.

But Leschot’s machines were not without limitations. They were light-weight and small and could only handle soft steel. Tempering was required which altered shape and size enough to warrant hand finishing. In addition, the parts’ manufacturing required hand-feeding and adjustment. So while Vacheron was able to acquire substantial economies over the older manufacturing, true interchangeability, though close was not yet achieved. But it did give Vacheron Constantin a huge advantage for many years. Leschot himself became a loyal partner and continued to contribute for many years, refusing repeated inducements, monetary and otherwise to leave the firm and join other companies. Only his failing health in the last years of his life interfered with work at Vacheron.
Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
Leschot's pantograph machine and a Vacheronet Constantin movement produced with its help, around 1842.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
A reproduction of the Pantograph in 1857.

I understand that Vacheron Constantin still has the original Leschot pantographs and was going to rstore them to working order. But I do not know whether they have done so.

However, Leschot's involvement with Vacheron Constantin was not the end of the story for Leschot.

Leschot was blessed with a scientist’s keen observer’s eye and an ability to draw conclusions from observations. And to act upon those conclusions. In 1833 he was examining an piece of ancient Egyptian porphyric rock with equal parallel furrows and he realized that an iron or steel device could not have made them. He concluded that they must have been made by diamond tool. He filed this information away for many years and in 1861, his son, Rudolph, who was working for the Italian company, Vitali Picard et Cie, in railway work, contacted his father for help. In short order, Leschot devised the diamond perforator, initially using the black Brazilian diamonds “los carbonados”. Its use in the drilling of tunnels, mines and roadways revolutionary. The design of this punch rotary drill with a auger crown of black diamonds and hydraulic drive was a major achievement in mining science as it and its inspired off-shoots have been used ever since.

Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
The great-grandchild of the Leschot design. The principles are basically unchanged.

Here is a link, in French, of this device and its development. Even if you don’t read French, the illustrations and photos are very interesting.

This is a link to an article which appeared after his death in the Journal Suisse D’Horlogerie. It illustrates what  a considerate, modest yet ingenious man Leschot  was. It is in French but it is a very touching tribute to a great man, a brilliant mind and a humble servant of science.

Note:  One other individual, Pierre-Fréderic Ingold, appeared about that time but for many different reasons failed to have an impact on European watch making and left for America where his influence was very significant. His story is an engrossing one and includes political, social as well as technical aspects. He is a fascinating character who likely would have revolutionized the Swiss industry had he succeeded. I will soon be posting an article about his life with respect to the watchmaking industry. Stay tuned!
Fascinating History Joseph
11/18/2013 - 00:28
I think one or more of those machines are digging the 2nd Avenue subway a few blocks away from me! Thanks!
Many thanks, Michael
11/19/2013 - 13:25
I hope the version of that machine is a quiet one! Joseph
Great story Joseph ! Facinating history of a great man.
11/18/2013 - 12:46
Thanks kk!
11/19/2013 - 13:26
I am very pleased that you enjoyed it. Joseph
fantastic reaearch and an excellent read. Thanks Joseph
11/18/2013 - 15:23
Thanks Joseph for an excellent article.
11/18/2013 - 15:30
It has been a pleasure to read and I have enjoyed the pictures. It is a good idea that you included the Japy story. I have been looking for a Vacheron Constantin pocketwatch with a Leschot movement for my collection. However I have a problem that I do not find the Leschot  movement especially beautiful and besides that I don't like the style of the pocketwatches from 1840-1870. However one day I will buy one to have in my collection since it is such a vital part of of the Vacheron Constantin history.   Best wishes Kent
Re: Thank you, Kent
11/19/2013 - 13:29
As always, it's good to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. Good luck in your quest! Joseph
Merci, Alex
11/19/2013 - 13:28
Il était un homme tres formidable! Joseph
An overview that's worth a few minutes of your time...
11/18/2013 - 16:50
Joseph, prior to reading your post I returned to the previous submissions provided by by Alex and Dean, both of which provided an insight into the wonderful work of Georges-Auguste Lescot. I recall quite clearly that Doc described the gentleman as "one of his few heroes". Your article adds a further interesting dimension with some beautiful photographs to support the journey. I really enjoyed learning more about this very remarkable man and his achievements. I do wonder if VC have restored the Leschot Pantographs? I now need to be patient before reading about Pierre-Frederic Ingold. Hopefully, Joseph, your pencil has been duly sharpened in readinesswink. I do appreciate all the work that goes into these submissions and thank you sincerely for your time and commitment in doing so. Best wishes Tony
Thanks Tony!
11/19/2013 - 13:31
It's gratifying to know tzt one's efforts are rewarded by the kind comments of people like yourself. More to come! :-) Joseph
Joseph, you ar teaching me at least one new thing a day!
11/19/2013 - 13:26
And it is greatly appreciated, keep it up.  I am most definitely staying tuned.  BR, Dan
Thanks Dan
11/19/2013 - 13:35
Watchmaking history is full of unique brilliant people. We are immersed in a world full of fascinating people. As Isaac Newton said (I think it was him) "We stand on the shoulders of giants" Joseph
Re: Thanks Dan
11/23/2013 - 18:46
 I agree, it's always nice to read how many centuries ago a few man did so much with so little. Today i think we've lost that sort of pioneeristic view, there is mostly  an improvement of what these great men did.
Re: Georges Leschot, a man of for and after his time!
12/22/2013 - 06:07
An interesting read. Thank you for posting!