Musical and singing bird double-dialed urn timepiece with chronometer escapement
by Pierre-Frédéric Ingold (1787–1878) and bird mechanism attributed to Frères Rochat (
active 1810–1835), Paris, 1834. Ormolu, brass, silver, wood. H. approx. 3 ft. Image
courtesy of Sotheby's New York, the Masterpieces from the Time Museum sale,
Part II, lot 215, June 19, 2002. This impressive timepiece is similar to the one Rasch
imported from Paris in 1831. The small birds begin singing and moving after the music has stopped.
The Ingold Affair, England, the United States and Switzerland
Ingold still had a great deal of support including financial support for another undertaking this time in London. This was to be an even larger undertaking than the French one and much better thought out. He and his supporters would form a limited-liability company selling shares to the public, under the name of the British Watchmaking Company in 1842 to produce “cheap watches manufactured by machinery and to win foreign markets for the watch trade”. It would reside under one roof and be able to produce 200-300 watches per day, which would amount over a year to more than half the annual output of watches in all of England. The watches would be based on the Swiss model rather than the English one, slim design, with a lever escapement rather than a fusée. They had also arranged for agencies in England and Europe to handle and market the watches.
Although Ingold’s machines were not perfect at the time, they would allow a significantly improved productivity. Their usage would have spawned improvements as in any industry and it likely would have been very successful, catapulting British watchmaking to the fore.
All was set… but alas, it was not to be. The one thing Ingold did not plan on was the Luddite attitude of the British workers. At the time and for many years after, the watchmaking and associated professions were concentrated in the London suburb of Clerkenwell, an area notorious for criminality, radical politics and poverty. Craftsmen in that borough could operate outside the restrictive regulations of the city guilds. The attitudes of these workers was in their own superiority and that of British watches. They refused to grasp the idea that excellent watches could be made by machine-human interaction, nor did they comprehend significance of lower priced decent watches and the rapidly rising market for them.
When they got wind of Ingold’s project they reacted swiftly by trying to blacken Ingold’s name, his reputation and to physically attack the proposed factory. In fact, their vociferous complaints reached all the way to the House of Commons. The prospectus for Ingold’s undertaking, given its limited-liability structure, required ascent by Parliament. Here the Members supported the status quo and the prospectus was rejected, 77 votes-yea, 154 votes-nay. It was a crushing defeat for Ingold and left him bankrupt.
This episode was the nadir for British horology. They effectively squandered the lead they had built up for centuries and they never recovered it. Machine tools were not used in the British watch industry until almost the beginning of the 20th century!
Ingold returned to Switzerland briefly and then went back to Paris in 1844, for him not the City of Light but full of gold and misery. His time there was also relatively short. New adventures and new opportunities awaited him in the New World. In 1845 at the age of 58, he immigrated to the United States. There he was initially received with open arms and in fact became a citizen.
Although he spent time in New York State, his influence was greatest in the watch factories of the Boston area which began using his machines, or ones based on them, and his techniques around 1852.
Details of his stay in America are quite murky since few records, memoirs or diaries exist of this period. But the parting from the U.S. was less than amicable. It was if his ideas were taken and he was given the boot! Jurgensen commented that he was driven out of America like an eagle stripped of its plumage (“comme un aigle on ravit ses plumes”).
Ingold returned to Paris where for a number of years he continued to experiment and create. He developed a new kind of detent escapement which was presented in Paris at the Société des Horologers de Paris in 1857. He continue to acquire patents on various designs and tools. He just never stopped working. Fortunately from time to time he was aided morally and financially by the Jurgensen family with whom he was quite close.
One invention of Ingold’s which did have a lasting effect and for which he received a patent in 1856 was his “fraises”. No he didn’t invent strawberries! These was a small milling cutters of different sizes “a machine suitable to retouch gear wheels, to form the epicycloidal curve and to give them the required shape”. The smoothing and shaping of wheels by these cutters rendered them close to perfection and resulted in a significant improvement in accuracy of the movement. Nowadays, of course, with the use of CNC machines, the wheels are cut with perfect teeth precluding the need for the fraises.
Here is a link showing how the fraises were used:
Ingold returned to La Chaux de Fonds in 1858 and lived there for the next 20 years until his death in 1878 at the age of 91. In his last years he lived in the home of Ferdinand and Emilie (Strub) Baschmid whom he had trained in the watchmaking crafts before she was married.
He was a brilliant individual so focused on his work that he often neglected his own welfare and the surrounding social climate which eventually led to his commercial failure. A year before his death, he was visited by the Jurgensens, one of whom remarked: “Until the end, Ingold worked with his mind and his fingers, with a dexterity of hand marvelously united with a perfect lucidity of spirit. We visited him last June, a short time before his death, and we found him at his bench finishing a new machine to cut out wheels, and he talked at length of his past and present work and his plans for the future.”
He said: “ Yes, I have left several of my machines and many plans in the United States, but the mechanics over there, my fellow citizens, would be astonished at the sight of what still remains in my portfolio.”
NB. Alex has informed me after consulting with the Heritage Department that Ingold never had any dealings with Vacheron Constantin. But it is interesting to speculate what a powerhouse Vacheron would have been had the had both Leschot and Ingold!