Partial Review: “Philadelphia 1876, Le défi américain en horlogerie”

Discussion in 'Horological Books' started by Richard Watkins, Apr 7, 2012.

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  1. Richard Watkins

    Richard Watkins Registered User
    NAWCC Member

    “Philadelphia 1876, Le défi américain en horlogerie; De l’unique à la série, l’interchangeabilité”
    352 pages, copious illustrations, published by the Musée International d’Horlogerie, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2011.

    The nature of this book makes it very difficult to review concisely. In addition, my knowledge of clocks can be described as pathetic. Consequently, I will just make a few important points about it.

    From May to October 2011, the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, held an exhibition titled “Philadelphia 1876, Le défi américain en horlogerie” (the challenge of America in horology). This was preceded in November 2010 by a conference on “De l’unique à la série, l’interchangeabilité” (from the unique to the series, interchangeability) at which 17 papers were presented.

    This book is, in fact, two books in one.

    First, there is the catalogue of the exhibition with significant text in English and French. But unfortunately the text is confused and lacks depth, and so adds little to our understanding.

    Second, the papers based on presentations given at the conference. To get value from these presentations the reader must be trilingual (French, German and English in that order of importance). And, although held at the MIH and, if we are to believe the title, strictly concerned with horology, there are several irrelevant papers (on china and drapery, violins, cars, and one which I found incomprehensible!)

    In total, including introductory texts, there are: 13 articles in French (1 introductory, 4 on watchmaking, 2 on social aspects of watchmaking, 1 on watch advertising, and 5 which are irrelevant); 4 articles in German (2 on clockmaking, 1 on watchmaking and 1 which is irrelevant); and 2 papers in English (1 on clockmaking and 1 on watchmaking).

    As the only English article on watchmaking (by Donald Hoke) is just a recapitulation of information more readily available in his books, there is little point in the English speaker buying this book for the single article on Eli Terry clocks by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki.

    In contrast, German and French readers will find several substantial and interesting contributions which are worth reading, including papers on IWC, Seiko and standards.
  2. Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki Director (Mod)
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    Aug 25, 2000
    Horological Bibliographer
    Sussex New Jersey USA
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    #2 Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Apr 8, 2012
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2012
    The following bookreview on this book will be in the current (March 2011) issue of ANTIQUARIAN HOROLOGY:


    The Philadelphia 1876 World’s Fair as the Turning Point of Horological Manufacturing

    Philadelphia 1876 - Le défi americain en horlogerie - Catalogue d'exposition / De l'unique à la série - L'interchangeabilité - Actes du colloque. [Philadelphia 1876 – The American Challenge in Watchmaking – Exhibit Catalog / From ‘one-of’ watchmaking to mass manufacturing – Proceedings of the Colloquium]. By Laurence Bodenmann and Ludwig Oechslin [Project coordinators], with contributions from Switzerland (H.-R.Hoesli, Nadège Sougy, Tony Simonin, Patrik Linder, David Seyffer, Yves Cohen, Claude Laesser, L.Marti, F.Garufo, C.A.Kunzi, F.Girardet), the USA (Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Donald Hoke), Germany (Giseala Lixfeld, H.-H.Schmid,), Japan (P.Y.Donze) and France (Philippe Mairot). Trilingual edition: French-English-German. Published 2011 by Institut l’Homme et le Temps, La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland). ISBN 978-3-89896-463-0. 352 pages, 28cm x 19 cm, hardcover, numerous illustrations, many in color. Bibliography. Available from for Euro 60 (plus shipping).

    Publications reflecting serious, multifaceted and collaborative scholarship on horological subjects are rare indeed. All the more reason to rejoice over this recent significant volume released by “L’Institut l’Homme et le Temps”, the research arm of what this reviewer considers the broadest themed, specialized horological museum of the world, the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH), in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

    The collection of that museum includes an artifact that has significantly shaped the world of horological manufacturing as we know it today. It is a bound copy of a 120-page manuscript trip report which was written in 1876 by Jacques David, a 31-year-old Swiss engineer, upon his return from a four-month trip to the United States, where he had visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, as well as several American watch factories. The report, written for the Association of Swiss Watch Factories, outlined in much technical detail how the American producers, primarily Waltham, had developed a system of mass producing, on purpose-built machinery, highly standardized components, which then could be assembled into watches by semiskilled labor. The blunt conclusion of the David report[1] was that the Swiss watch industry would cease to exist unless they emulated the American way of making timekeepers. As we know in retrospective the Swiss watchmakers (and the German clockmakers, but not the British horological trade) took the warning to heart.

    The La Chaux-de-Fonds museum decided to dedicate its biggest temporary exhibit in recent memory to this “American Challenge” theme, resulting in a major, May through October 2011 exhibit. In August 2011 preparation for the exhibit the Director of the Museum (Dr. Ludwig Oechslin) and the Project Coordinator (Laurence Bodenmann) toured for two weeks the major horological institutions in the USA, securing the cooperation of such key players as The National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, the American Clock Museum in Bristol CT, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the Connecticut Historical Society, who all willingly agreed to lend them numerous, unique and historically very significant pieces from their collections.
    Furthermore in November 2010, MIH organized an international scholarly colloquium on “Interchangeability – from ‘One-of’ to ‘mass production’ ”, inviting 17 experts from five different countries to present scholarly papers on various aspects of interchangeability. The full text (including illustrations) of these 17 papers (in whatever language they were originally presented , 12 in French, 4 in German and 2 English, followed by abstracts in the two other languages) make up the second half of the book under review. A fascinating array of topics related to interchangeability are covered, ranging from the story of Connecticut clockmaker Eli Terry, who, in 1809 was the first in the world to achieve interchangeable parts in any mechanical product when he produced a series of 3000 identical longcase clock movements made from wood, to the impact of interchangeability on the labor movement from 1870 to 1930. The Waltham revolutionary production methods of the 1860s are covered, as is the change to mass production in the black forest clock industry, as well as the hybrid manufacturing methods of the Japanese watch industry in the early 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century. Seventeen new horological history subjects in one book!

    The first half of the book is devoted to a detailed catalog documenting the over 220 objects that were on temporary exhibit at the MIH in the summer of 2011. While some were American made watches and clocks that are part of the MIH collection, but which are not usually on display, many of the objects had been flown over the Atlantic for the first time, including such rarities as a Porter contract wooden clock movement by Eli Terry, the original dimensional gauges and templates from the Seth Thomas clock factory in Connecticut from the 1840s, and a most impressive, wooden-works American tower clock from 1832 by Samuel Terry. One of the highlights was a large stash of unused pinions, gears and fan-flys from the 1830s, which were found when a long abandoned clock factory in USA was demolished in the mid 20[SUP]th[/SUP] century. A private USA collector specializing in Waltham manufacturing technology provided technical drawings of the first automatic screw machines (Charles Vander Woerd, 1871) built for Waltham, and let MIH make a video of the only such 1870s machine which still produces screws today. (One of these Vander Woerd machines was the highlight of the watch section in the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition,) He also lent some original tools for stamping – rather than machining – spoked blanks for watch wheels. Of course, there were countless models –both common and rare- of American made watches and clocks on display which are seldom or never seen in Europe. As one of the key objectives of the exhibit was to show how America influenced Switzerland numerous objects (both timekeepers and tools/machines) reflecting the Swiss emulation of American ideas were also on exhibit.

    It is the policy of the Museé International d’Horlogerie to always provide multilingual explanations, and all the text panels, as well as all object labels, during the exhibit were presented in both French and English. Thus the catalog portion of the book is fully bilingual as well. All objects shown in the exhibition were photographed in color, and the images are all reproduced in the book. Unfortunately budget constraints kept the size of the illustrations in the book in dimensions that makes it hard to clearly see all the technical details of the tools and timekeepers exhibited. The catalog-half of the book will expose most readers to a large number of historic items not documented anywhere else in the horological literature to date.

    Taken together, the exhibit catalog and colloquium proceedings represent a treasure trove of previously unpublished historical horological information. And while not every word is translated into English all key texts are, and the pictures are informative. This is not the kind of book anybody will read cover to cover, but a publication that most serious scholars of horological history will want to consult repeatedly on a variety of subjects. There are plenty of horological coffee table books providing primarily pretty eye candy, but there a precious few horological publications that treat a broad subject – in this case interchangeability – in the kind of depth that Ludwig Oechslin and Laurence Bodenmann did in creating this exhibit and this publication.

    [1] The 1876 report by Jacques David is one of the more interesting texts of horological history, and is available in print, both as a facsimile edition (Jacques David: Rapport a la societe intercantonale des Industrie du Jura, sur la fabrication de l'horlogeries aux Etats-Unis 1876, published 1992, limited facsimile edition, by Longines SA, available at and in a English translation by Richard Watkins (American and Swiss Watchmaking in 1876 - Reports to the Intercantonal Committee of Jura Industries on the manufacturer of watches in the USA; published 2003, for availability see

    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ 07461, December 2011


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