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Thomas Tompion Clocks and Biography

One famous name dominates the great period of English clocks in the 17th century, that of Thomas Tompion, who gave to the clockmaking craft the skill and genius of a wonderful artist, for artist he was most emphatically, and was recognised as such at the court of Charles II.

Tompion introduced some important innovations, including some of the first watches with balance springs and also complex repeating mechanisms for clocks. All his clocks and watches are of outstanding quality. A contemporary recorded that Tompion could get as much as £10 for his clocks, whereas other clockmakers could only earn £4 to £6. Tompion was born in 1638 and died in 1713, and the clocks and watches he made created a reputation for English work even in those lands of accomplished craftsmanship, France and Germany.

Biography

Thomas Tompion, according to the records of the Clockmakers' Company was born in North-hill, Bedfordshire, and is said to have been originally a blacksmith. That he should ultimately have become a clock-maker is not odd, since clocks were made by blacksmiths and the clockmaking industry was developed from that trade. Prior to the time of Queen Elizabeth, the craft of the horologer did not exist as distinct from that of the blacksmith, nor were there enough of them to form a separate guild.

It was in 1627 that the Free Clockmakers of the City, most of whom belonged to the Blacksmiths' Company, petitioned against allowing French clock-makers to pursue their craft in London. Not till 1631 was their own charter granted them, so Tompion's becoming a clockmaker was a natural evolution. After coming to London, he was found at Water Lane, Blackfriars. The portion where he lived, at No. 67 Fleet Street, at the Sign of the Dial and Three Crowns, became known as Whitefriars. Born in 1638, he was made free of the company in 1671, was one of the Court of Assistants, 1691, Warden, 1700-03, and Master 1704.

Among some of his notable achievements was the invention of the cylinder escapement, with horizontal wheel, in 1695; his improvements in striking clocks, for which he obtained a patent; and his introduction of the balance-spring for watches.

Antique Tompion Clock
Antique Tompion Clock, 1690.
This bracket clock is signed by Thomas Tompion on the back plate and numbered "35" at the top left inside a scroll. Tompion numbered most of his clocks and a date sequence has been worked out by specialists using these numbers. This number is consistent with a date of manufacture around 1690.
The movement has a gong train with a large spring, barrel fusee and pendulum. It is also fitted with a complex repeating mechanism. If the cords attached to two short arms at the back of the clock are pulled, the hour and quarter hour are struck on two bells of different pitch. The case is of oak and a measure of the quality of Tompion's workmanship is the use of an ebony veneer of unusual thickness.

In 1675 he made a watch for Charles II, with a spiral balance or pendulum spring. One end of the spring was attached to the arbor of the balance wheel, while the other was secured to the plate, the elastic force of the spring rendering the oscillations regular.

Tompion died November 20, 1713, leaving his business in Fleet Street to his pupil and friend George Graham. Friends and associates for many years, death did not divide them, for master and apprentice were laid in the same grave and the same stone covers them both in the nave of Westminster Abbey. This is the inscription:

 Here lies the Body

of Mr. Thomas Tompion

who departed This

Life the 20th of November 1713 in the 75th Year of his Age

Also the body of

George Graham of London

Watchmaker and F.R.S.

Whose curious inventions

Do Honour to ye British Genius

Whose Accurate Performances

Are ye Standard of Mechanical Skill.

He died ye XVI of November MDCCLI

In the LXXVIII year of his Age.

This stone was removed from the nave by the authorities of the Abbey about 1838. Mr. George Atkins, who was clerk of the Clockmakers' Company in 1842, called attention of the public to this act of desecration, through the newspapers. The large stone had been replaced by a small bit of marble on which was merely this:

Mr. T. Tompion 1713
Mr. G. Graham 1751

So much protest arose all over the kingdom that Dean Stanley had a search made for the stone, some time after 1869, when he wrote his "Historical Memorials" and it was fortunately found unbroken, and restored to its old position.









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