REVIEW: Barrow “The verge pocket watch"

Richard Watkins

NAWCC Fellow
May 2, 2004
Christopher Barrow “The verge pocket watch, its history, development and maintenance”, 171 pp, 99 ill, 7 figs, 22.5 x 14.5 cm, London: NAG Press, 2011

Quality: Mediocre

Contents: Early horological developments (4 pages); Development of the verge clock (9 pages); Development of the verge pocket watch (35 pages); Maintenance of the verge pocket watch (43 pages); Fixing a broken verge watch (28 pages); The case (4 pages); Watch dating (4 pages); and Forgeries and fakes (2 pages).
There are four appendices: Sources of information and suppliers on the internet (2 pages); Further reading (3 pages); Some useful terms (4 pages); and John Harrison and the measurement of longitude (7 pages).

Review: The first three sections of 48 pages provide background reading that is only just adequate, and can be absorbed in a few minutes. Ignoring the totally irrelevant start, covering sundials, clepsydrae and sand-glasses, the rest is primarily a summary of historical facts with a few, often inadequate explanations. Most obvious is the lack of an intelligible explanation of the verge escapement, some mention of styles even though there is no useful discussion of them, and an explanation of fusee maintaining power which is far too obscure to make sense. What disturbed me most is that Barrow confuses the terms top plate and bottom plate, reversing them. If he does not know such basic, well established terms, can we have confidence in him?
Coupled with this part there is an appendix “Some useful terms”. It begins with “Balance cock - The upper pivot of the balance ...”! The other definitions, although better, are uninspiring and many simply repeat what is in the text. I hate such glossaries. If a word is important it should be included in the text. If it is not, it should be omitted.
In contrast to these elementary parts for novices, the fourth section on maintenance begins: “I have assumed that the reader has a basic understanding and some experience of watch repair and a suitable range of tools.” In which case the first three sections and the glossary should have been omitted as anyone who can do basic repairs should know it all and much more. This section describes how to disassemble, clean and assemble a verge watch. It appears that Barrow has learnt since writing his previous book “The pocket watch” and metal polish is no longer used; instead he refers to an unnamed solvent and unnamed oil, which is too vague, but better. The explanations are detailed and quite good, but there are annoying errors, such as calling pivot holes pivots throughout (“this pivot is blind”) and not using the correct terms potence and counter-potence. It is also strange that he describes winding mainsprings into the barrel by hand; later we are expected to have a Jacot tool and, if so, surely we would have a mainspring winder? (Actually, if we have and can use a Jacot tool, then we must be able to clean watches and this 43-page section is unnecessary!)
The fifth section on repair is completely different because it is descriptive, not practical; that is, Barrow explains what is done but not how to do it. For example, the first “repair” is to top and file the escape wheel teeth, explained in 5 lines, but there is simply not enough detail for this to be practical advice. Similarly, when bushing holes there is no information on how to ensure the holes are upright. (Later the depthing tool is mentioned, but its use is not explained!) In one case the wrong tool is used (a counter-sinking tool to adjust end shake) and some methods are not only superficial but incorrect.
The impression I have is that, with the exception of broken fusee chains, Barrow has never repaired a watch, and his experience is limited to cleaning. Certainly the repair section could have been written by simply summarising a few bits out of proper repair books without any understanding, and I am reminded of the similar book “Watches, adjustment and repair” by Camm, which is equally bad for the same reasons.
The book proper finishes with three small sections on cases (OK), and dating and forgeries (both largely irrelevant and hopelessly inadequate). These are followed by four appendices. The first provides some internet addresses, the second is a bibliography listing 17 books, the third is the glossary, and the fourth is on John Harrison. Why Harrison and longitude are included is a mystery, both being utterly irrelevant. It seems there is an unwritten law that every book by an Englishman must contain a section on Harrison, and the bibliography reflects this; there are three books are on Harrison and a fourth (Clutton & Quill “Pioneers of precision timekeeping”) which is related and equally irrelevant. (The bibliography lists only one repair book, by Whiten. Perhaps it is the only book Barrow has read, or he thinks only his book is needed?)
Although this book is better than Barrow’s previous attempt, it is barely mediocre. The only part which is satisfactory is the section on cleaning, the rest being superficial and riddled with errors. Certainly it is not worth buying.
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