German Chronometers - 2 books by Oestmann and Dittrich/Altmeppen (Review)

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001
Finally, the History of the German Marine Chronometers is Being Told

(as published in the March 2013 issue of 'Antiquarian Horology", the magazine of the Antiquarian Horological Society)

The path to the ‚German Chronometer’ – The Introduction of Precision Timekeepers in the German Merchant Marine and Navy up to World War 1.
(Text is in German: Auf dem Weg zum “Deutschen Chronometer” – Die Einführung von Präzisionszeitmessern bei der Deutschen Handels- und Kriegsmarine bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg), by Günther Oestmann. Text in German. Published 2012 by Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum, Bremerhaven (as Volume 21 of ‚ Deutsche Maritime Studien/German Maritime Studies’). ISBN978-3-89757-522-6, ISSN 1860-9899. Hardcover, 500 pages: 120 pages of narrative (with 498 footnotes), and 300 pages of reprinted primary source documents, plus a very detailed bibliography (ca. 450 manuscript sources and ca. 280 published sources are listed). 22 cm high by 18 cm, extensive black and white illustrations. Available from Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum, Bremerhaven ( ) for Euro 58.- (plus shipping).

The German Standard Chronometer, Chronometers for Navy and Airforce by Wempe, A. Lange & Söhne, Poljot. (Text is in German: Das Deutsche Einheits-Chronometer, Chronometer für Marine und Luftwaffe von Wempe, A.Lange & Söhne, Poljot). By Johannes Altmeppen and Herbert Dittrich. ISBN 978-3-86852-597-7. Published 2012 by Heel Verlag, Königswinter (Germany). 208 pages, hardcover, dust jacket. Bibliography (151 entries), illustration index (161 entries), index of reproduced documents (80 entries); four appendices [Appendix 1: Wempe, production records (dates and serial numbers), Appendix 2: A. Lange, production records (dates and serial numbers), Appendix 3: Wempe, register of production blueprints, Appendix 4: Wempe drawings re. Einheitschronometer, concordance of part-number vs. blueprint date]. Available from for Euro 69 plus postage.

Horological enthusiasts and collectors of marine chronometers produced for the armed forces of major naval powers have long enjoyed access to several in-depth publications: These include texts of global scope, primarily Rupert Gould’s: “Marine Chronometer” (1923, republished 1960), and such classics as Hans von Bartle’s 1991: “Marine Chronometer – Its History and Development “ (originally in German), or Tony Mercer’s 1991: “Chronometer Makers of the World”, or Marvin Whitney’s, “Ship Chronometer”, as well as monographs on the role of various countries, including France (books by Bot, 1983 and Parvoulesco, 2010) or Great Britain (various books by Mercer), or Switzerland (Nardin/Fallet, 1994). Until recently, there was not much available documenting the significant history of marine chronometers produced in Germany.

Now two major scholarly books on the subject have been published within months of each other, making it inviting to write a combined – and comparative – review. Fortunately, the two titles complement each other nicely with Oestmann covering the time up to World War I, and Altmeppen/Dittrich dealing with the rest of the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century.

(If one wants to get the full chronometric history of Germany one really needs to also include: Oestmann: Heinrich Johann Kessels – An important maker of chronometers and precision pendulum clocks (Heinrich Johann Kessels (1781-1849) – (Ein bedeutender Verfertiger von Chronometern und Präzisionspendeluhren) – the 2011 publication of 274 pages, ISBN 978 3 8171 1884 7, reviewed in this publication in March 2012. Logically, the earlier Oestmann book really should have become a major section of Oestmann’s newest book, but separate funding grants from different sources for the underlying research prevented that from happening).

All three authors are good and thorough researchers, and their books share a basic approach of presenting the results of their research: Tthey all are ‘fact collectors’ who excel at unearthing and interpreting historic documents, but none of them are ‘storytellers’ at heart who excel in – or enjoy - spinning a captivating storyline. It is no coincidence that in all three books at least half of the available pages (and in “Auf dem Weg…” considerably more) are devoted to reproducing the full text of historic source material relevant to the subject, allowing the reader to do more research on his own and drawing new or additional insights from the presented material.

* * * *
Oestmann’s book begins by examining the first German efforts by a few lonely pioneering watchmakers in the second half of the 18[SUP]th[/SUP] and the first decades of the 19[SUP]th[/SUP] century to build seagoing clocks with a performance (steady rate and reliability) adequate to determine longitude at sea. The oldest surviving example, presumably inspired by Harrisons 1767 publication, dates from the 1770s in Bremen: A watchmaker named Johann Georg Thiele built two sea clocks (one of which survives) with a most innovative, but very complicated temperature compensation, and actually took it in 1778 to England in an attempt to win the Longitude prize. H.J. Kessels earliest clocks fall into the same chapter, but given the Kessels monograph mentioned above, which Oestmann published in 2011, the section on Kessels is but a two page synopsis. Other pioneers include J.C.Hanneke in Bremerhaven, F.A. Nobert (better known for his novel dividing engine) in Barth, and C.F Tiede, who eventually settled in Berlin.

The next chapter deals with the attitude among German marines – both merchant and military - up to 1871 toward chronometer based navigation. There was significant resistance, much of it based on the significant additional expense for instruments. It is also interesting to note that by 1850 the German Navy had but 6 chronometers on a sample of 11 ships. Germany was clearly lagging significantly behind the UK and France.

Only after Germany gradually became a more unified empire in the 1860s, with its own Imperial Navy, was there an effort to create some local capabilities to build, certify and maintain marine chronometers. The ‘Deutsche Seewarte’ (founded 1867) became a government institution and took over the testing and certification of nautical instruments including chronometers, and its function and procedures are chronicled nicely in the first parts of section V. of the book, which also documents in some detail the trial submissions of early makers (like Petersen, Eppner, Kutter) and their successors (like Schlesicky, Ehrlich, Diedrich, Broecking, Mager, and the earliest A. Lange chronometers); as well as makers of the early 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century (like Lidecke, Wiegard, Kurtz, Jensen, Union Glashütte and Denker). Some names appear throughout the era, such as Knoblich and Kittel.

Oestmann also describes the various compensating balances developed by several of these individuals, and the systematic efforts of weaning German makers from procuring some critical components from abroad, especially from the UK. The effort to have marine chronometers built without the use of imported British components became a national security – and sovereignty- issue for Germany, and is a recurring theme throughout this book. Several scientific conferences of the late 19[SUP]th[/SUP] century dealing with chronometers are also chronicled. Section V.8 deals with Denkers first (but failed) effort to turn chronometer making from an individual craft into an industry, while V.9 describes the early efforts to organize an industry wide trade association (the ‘Vereinigung für Chronometrie’).

This historic narrative takes only about 120 pages of this 500 page book. An astonishing section of about 350 pages is devoted to “Source Materials”. Oestmann does not just give us the conclusions of his research, but shares the full text of his evidence with the reader. This reviewer found browsing through that source material just as enjoyable (and as informative) as reading the narrative.

The ‘Sources’ section starts with reproducing the full text (including illustrations) of entries dealing with ‘Chronometer’ in two major German turn-of the-century reference books: A seven page article by Ambronn from the 1904 edition of Luegers ‘Lexikon der … Technik’, and a 40-page, 1896 entry on ‘The Chronometer’ by Stechert in ‘Handwörterbuch der Astronomie’. This is followed by a 20 page section with ‘Statistical Source Material’, an amalgam of regional sources shedding light on how often (or how rarely) chronometers were used on oceangoing German vessels (both steam and sail, merchant and naval) in the second half of the 1800s. A 55- page section reproduces the 38 annual lists of all chronometers submitted (from 1877 to 1914) to the ‘Deutsche Seewarte’ for trial and certification as a marine chronometer (by makers name and serial number). Excerpts from the order or shipping records of London makers (Kullberg and Mercer) concerning deliveries to Germany take another 40 pages. A miscellany of chronometric documents [including the minutes of the three times (1878, 1887, 1898) a ‘Chronometer Konfernz’ was convened by German authorities] takes another 40 pages. The bibliography of 450 manuscripts sources and 280 published sources concludes these documentary appendices.

* * * * * * * *

The history of the German marine chronometer took a break of about 10 years as Germany dealt with the aftermath of loosing World War I in 1918. But after that hiatus Germany soon became the global leader and pioneer of producing these navigation instruments on an industrial scale, rather than based on the efforts of individual craftsmen working in small workshops. That story is told in the second book under review here, by the authors Altmeppen and Dittrich. They key was standardization; the famous ‘Deutscher Einheitschronometer’ ultimately became the marine timekeeper produced in the highest volume ever. The Hamilton Model 21, the chronometric backbone of the Allied Navies during World War II, of which - according to Whitney – 13’072 units were made, is but a distant ‘runner-up’ to the ‘Deutscher Einheits Chronometer’, of which about 58’000 units produced over some 70 years.

This astonishing number was achieved mainly thanks to two factors: 1[SUP]st[/SUP]: During the third Reich it was decided early on to standardize chronometer production on one major model, originally known as the “Drei-Pfeiler Chronometer” (the three pillar chronometer), which was then produced by both major chronometer factories in Germany. Beginning in 1942 Wempe in Hamburg started making them, and A. Lange in Glashütte joined about one year later. Together they produced about 2 750 chronometers before the end of World War II. 2[SUP]nd[/SUP]: After the war, production of this model continued in significant numbers at three different locations: Initially Lange was forced to produce in Glashütte about 275 Chronometers for the Soviet occupying force. In addition, the Russian authorities confiscated - as “war spoils” - a complete set of construction drawings from the Lange factory in Glashütte, and in 1949 set up a production line at the Poljot factory in Moscow, which in the following 50 years produced about 50’000 chronometers based on the German design. Furthermore, the Wempe workshops in Hamburg, between 1948 and the present, have built an additional 4’700 marine chronometers of that design for the West German military and other customers, bringing the grand total to about 58’000 units.

The book under review is the first thorough effort to assemble records, images and documentary evidence relating to these timekeepers. The authors have not only followed the extensive paper and documentary trails in Hamburg, Berlin, Glashütte and Moscow, but have carefully examined over 50 surviving chronometers, documenting minute variances over time in the physical artifacts as the serial numbers increase. The interests and personal expertise of the two co-authors complement each other, as Dittrich is an eminent historian of horological history in Glashütte, while Altmeppens focus is the post World War II horological output of the Soviet Union.

One of the lesser known facts described in the book concerns the impact of the ‘Russian German Non-aggression Treaty’ of August 1939 on German chronometer production in 1940 and (up to June 2[SUP]nd[/SUP]) 1941. The promise of Germany to sell marine chronometers to the Soviets, which was part of the treaty, absorbed a significant part of the German chronometer production capacity during the time that the standard chronometer was developed.

Pages 79 to 90 provide a very detailed, richly illustrated description of the ‘standard’ chronometer and all its components and parts, and the next 15 pages describe variations and special purpose instruments.

The production records for the war years survive nearly complete, for both Lange and Wempe, as do the detailed ’regelage’ notes, i.e. the testing, adjustment and performance records of individual timekeepers (and some of those documents are excerpted in the Appendix). The role of component suppliers (dials, cases, etc) is also discussed, as are modifications that became necessary when raw materials became scarce (no more gilding of plates for corrosion protection). In another chapter, the more improvised production from 1943 on to the end of the war is described, which utilized also forced labor from territories occupied by Germany, and a decentralized setting spread over numerous buildings, including a contemporary description noting “Assembly: in the former Café of the railroad station, 14 workers, incl. 4 women and 2 Russians [i.e. prisoners of war forced to produce German war materials]”.

The last chapter describes how the design and knowhow moved from Glashütte to Moscow in the postwar years (although Glashütte continued some production locally for the East German military until the collapse of the East German state) and the further product development by the Soviets.

While this book (all text is only in German) provides a narrative of the history of the ‘German Einheitschronometer’, some of that story may be difficult to follow for those not fluent in that language. But the main value for the non-German reader are probably the 61 very sharp photographic images, and the 80 original historic documents reproduced in this book, plus the four documentary appendices.

* * *.

Reviewing books published in German for a periodical addressing an English speaking audience presumably has some benefit even for readers who will never buy a foreign language book. Just reading the content synopsis will provide a quick overview over a hereto unfamiliar corner of horological scholarship. But some readers may actually be considering acquiring the book, which raises the question to what extent such publications can be somewhat accessible – and useful – to readers not all that familiar with the German language. Of course richly illustrated books (like Altmeppen/Dittrich) present less of a hurdle than those focusing primarily on text (like Oestmann). But even books relying mainly on words can be useful if much of the information is in the form of lists or tables. Other elements to consider are: Are you a specialist in the subject matter? If yes, deciphering a text is a lot easier than if you are entering a new field, and if you have access to internet based translation software, that at times may be helpful as well.

Marine Chronometers (together with precision pendulum clocks for observatories) are the technological holy grail of horology. The absence of a serious scholarly history of that sector for one of the great horological countries was a disgrace that has now been remedied. For that I am most thankful. But I am painfully aware that this did not happen automatically. Publishing this type of carefully researched, well produced important books on a relatively specialized subject is not a moneymaker, and it happens only if all elements line up just right: a dedicated and knowledgeable author, a publisher willing to assume some risk, and a fund granting agency partially underwriting the effort. Hopefully, enough enthusiast of horological history will purchase the book to assure more books like these will bet written and published in the future.

Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ USA
5 December 2012



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